I was pretty lucky that this year the Australian Olive Association (AOA) conference was held in the Hunter Valley region of New South Wales, less than a 2 hour drive from Sydney. And since we still mostly live in Sydney (boo!) instead of Tasmania, it was really easy to get to (hooray!) It was the first time I’d been, and I loved every minute. It was awesome to meet so many passionate olive growers, and reassuring that a fair number of them had leapt into the business with as little experience as we have. And now they’re producing amazing award winning Extra Virgin Olive Oils 🙂

Cherry blossoms around the pool in the spring sunshine.

Cherry blossoms around the pool in the spring sunshine.

It was held at the Mercure Resort Hunter Valley Gardens in Pokolbin, which is a beautiful setting. The cherry blossoms were out in force and the clouds of pink flowers looked amazing. I’d decided to splash out and stay there, and now I want to go back just for a little holiday. It’s the only place I’ve stayed with a sunken bath! And lovely private terraces outside the rooms. And walking distance to five wineries!! Not sure how much walking I’d be doing after tastings at five wineries, but I’d give it a go… Actually I suppose you wouldn’t have to do them all in one day!

The conference was held over three days, with the first and last indoors at the conference venue, and the middle day out at Adina Vineyard and Olive Grove for workshops and practical demonstrations. The organisers had hired an external facilitator (Ian Plowman) and he did a great job of making the sessions interactive and keeping to time. There were a few puzzled murmurs at the start when he offered guidelines for sessions, but it all worked really well. (There were a few fun props too- do you see the fuzzy rubber ball, the timer, and the pipe cleaners on the table in the photo below?) We sat at tables instead of in rows, and had time for table discussions before questions being opened up to the floor again. Everyone moved seats at the change of every session, and this was a brilliant way to meet other delegates. Especially for me, with sooo many people I didn’t know.

Dr Joanna McMillan, Keynote Speaker, Australian Olive Association Conference 2014.

Dr Joanna McMillan, Keynote Speaker, Australian Olive Association Conference 2014.

Dr Joanna McMillan was the keynote speaker and she spoke about Olive Oil and Health. She’s a passionate advocate for the role that EVOO can play in a healthy diet. (Did any of you see the advert that she did with the AOA to promote fresh Australian Extra Virgin Olive Oil at the start of the year? I’ve added it below.) It was great to hear her discussing various research studies providing evidence for the health benefits of EVOO, which cross so many different diseases. It’s been shown to have a positive benefit in cardiovascular disease, play a protective role in some cancers (specifically colon and breast), and also reduces symptoms in some inflammatory disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis. I don’t think any other fats have so much positive research to support their inclusion in our diet. Take home message for me – Eat (even) More Extra Virgin Olive Oil!

Talking of food, the first night was the AOA Gala Awards Dinner. The awards were presented in sections between courses, so we didn’t get hungry and restless! I’d happily have eaten anything on this menu, but I was pretty happy with the way the food was dropped (tuna, steak, chocolate). I found the alternate serve thing a bit odd the first time I came across it but it seems common in Australia, and I’m getting used to it. The Best Oil in Show went to Red Island, and Tasmanian awards included Cradle Coast Olives (Best in Class – Ultra Boutique), and Ashbolt Farm (Top State – Tasmania). If you’d like to see a full list of the awards, then the results booklet can be downloaded from the AOA website here.

Day two was out in the fresh air, at Adina Vineyard and Olive Grove. The heavy rains we’ve had recently in NSW had thankfully stopped, and it was a glorious day, although still pretty chilly when the sun set. Adina are one of the Hunter Valley olive producers, and do a lot of contract pressing with their 2 ton per hour press (compare that to our puny 80kg/hr!) They were fabulous hosts, and organised a delicious BBQ lunch, with some of their EVOO and wine. What could be better? Several manufacturers had brought equipment to demonstrate, and although we’ve really got everything we need at the moment there’s lots of cool stuff I want! Various gizmos to make life in the grove easier, particularly at pruning and harvesting time. I got some great tips on pruning from some other growers, and tried out some lovely, light Felco loppers (I’ve got weedy arms!) We had very practical presentations on table olive production and pressing olives for extra virgin olive oil. So many things for me to put into practice… We got a tour of Adina’s amazing press too. And in the evening The Olive Centre put on another BBQ and a glow in the dark spraying demonstration! (My iphone camera wasn’t really up to the job for this bit!)

This is a long post for me – I’m getting tired! If you’re still with me, then I’ll keep day three brief. We had talks and discussions on healthy trees, healthy soils, and keeping pests and diseases at bay. Then a very fun exercise in blending EVOO. This was run by Richard Gawal, a very experienced Australian EVOO judge, taster, and blender. We had samples A, B, and C, and had to work out what proportion of each was in the test blend “T”.  My table got pretty close on our first attempt, but then further efforts sadly took us further away from the correct percentages, so we didn’t win the bottle of wine on offer 🙁

The last sessions were a fascinating presentation on the world of pickled vegetable sales (I know that sounds unlikely, but trust me!) by Mimmo Lubrano from Sandhurst Fine Foods , then the AOA AGM, and finally a discussion of healthy industry associations and leadership. I was sad to leave and drive back to Sydney, not least because I never got a chance to try out that sunken bath!