Over the hill for olive oil

BEARDED BARD: Jared Gulian peppers Martinborough's harvest festival with readings from his fresh collection of stories.
BEARDED BARD: Jared Gulian peppers Martinborough's harvest festival with readings from his fresh collection of stories.

We're in the middle of a gorgeous weekend over the hill in Martinborough and we’re feeling a little, well, overdressed. Our tonsils are coated with oil. Olive oil soup, olive mash, olive-infused dessert. We’re facing an avalanche of artisan breads dipped in the appley green, mown-grass peppery deliciousness of a river of Wairarapa-grown extra virgin first press oil.

At the Peppers Parehua lunch that opens the inaugural Martinborough Olive Harvest Festival – a fortnight after winter solstice when the olives are black and plump with oil – Moon over Martinborough is strutting its stuff on the menu.

But it is Jared Gulian who holds the floor. He’s the proud creator of Moon over Martinborough – the olive grove, the oil, the blog and now the book. The bearded American hipster has walked a long path in a short time – from Michigan to Martinborough via university English.

RAKE'S PROGRESS: A powered olive rake helps Colin Hadley tickle  his fruit into the waiting Olinet.
RAKE'S PROGRESS: A powered olive rake helps Colin Hadley tickle his fruit into the waiting Olinet.

So what use is an academic career in letters for making olive oil? ‘‘Not a lot, but I get to write about it,’’ says Jared, who has documented the physical and emotional journey he and his partner C J have enjoyed for the past five years – ‘‘since we conquered the Rimutaka Hill road’’.

Jared peppers the harvest festival with readings from his fresh collection of stories, Moon over Martinborough, published by Random House and running at No 4 on the national bestseller list. The stories are charmingly fresh, their descriptive explanations offering an outsider’s fond observations of the national character, and insights into the slog of a zero-to-hero olivangelist.

Like the pinot pioneers who made Martinborough’s terroir the equal of Burgundy, most of the olive growers seem to have an academic, scientific or professional background.

International olive oil judge Margaret Edwards is a food scientist and grows olives on Waiheke Island in the temperate Mediterranean climate of the Hauraki Gulf. She runs an ‘‘Olives 101’’ class and a masterclass for growers and blenders. These events at Parehua shed light on a burgeoning industry that many reckon is where boutique wine production was 30 years ago.

This is where we find out that ‘‘olive oil is, at its essence, fruit juice’’; that it takes about 7 kilograms of olives to make a litre of extra virgin olive oil; that flavours can range from green bananas and tomato stalks to floral vanilla and pungent pepper. And that the fruit has beauty and health benefits that are the base of several successful businesses.

Olivo’s Helen Meehan has become an industry leader after a complete career change from IT. ‘‘It’s a rewarding lifestyle, but it really helps if you sleep with your accountant,’’ says Helen with a nod to her husband John, a former partner at PriceWaterhouse Coopers. She bought Martinborough’s most established grove of barnea trees that were planted 22 years ago and produce up to 20kg of fruit each.

Ruth and Peter Graham left successful Wellington careers in drama and arts management and telco infrastructure to become ‘‘peasant farmers’’. Ruth’s green and gold Atutahi frantoio oil is delivered on warm foccacia from Peter’s wood-fired oven.

Next door, Di and Colin Hadley’s operation at Left Field is similarly technical; Colin happily demonstrates the powered handheld harvesting rakes that stroke the fruit from the trees and the unique Olinet – a foldable inverted umbrella that catches falling fruit.

Peppers Parehua resort is equidistant from the half-dozen olive groves involved in the festival, and a gentle stroll or bike ride from the village square’s night market, restaurants, wine centre and cafes. It’s about an hour’s drive from Wellington and has a collection of luxury cottages that sit on the edge of the Martinborough’s escarpment.

The backing of Martinborough’s burghers and growers should see the Olive Harvest Festival become an annual midwinter highlight. All you’ll need is receptive tastebuds and an appetite for oil.


The Winemakers Cottage at Peppers Parehua Martinborough is a secluded winter getaway treat.  Starting from $180 a night for two people staying in the Winemakers Cottage, the deal includes cooked breakfast daily. The deal is available until October 10. Find out more and book online at peppers.co.nz or phone 0800 275 373.

The Dominion Post