A LOVE of ancient Greek results in a piece of paradise, writes EMMA FIELD
The Tongio valley in East Gippsland's high country is like a little slice of Greece.
That's what olive producer Annie Paterson envisaged when she bought a block of land that is now home to more than 3000 olive trees.
Annie's olive grove, Nullamunjie, on the slopes of Mt Stawell between Swifts Creek and Omeo, produces oil that is grown, pressed and served on site.
Growing up in nearby Ensay, the daughter of cattle farmers, the late Jim and Norma Commins, Annie had an infatuation with Greece.
"I was always passionate about ancient Greek history and when I left university and went overseas I went to Greece," she said. "I was struck by the dry hills full of olive trees."
Annie said she fell in love with olive trees and on her return to Australia suggested to her father he should plant them.
As a mountain cattleman, he was not impressed. It took more than 20 years for Annie to bring her dream to fruition.
In 1988, she and her husband John bought a block her father had used to graze cattle on the river flats.
"I always thought it was the best spot in the district to grow olives, being the hottest," she said.
Olives also thrive in the cold winters and rocky soils that define the Tongio valley.
Just as it does in vineyards, the soil - le terroir - defines the character of a wine, and in this case the olive oil.
The farm includes Mt Stawell and is on the Tambo River, which is fed by melting snow and gives the Paterson's an annual seven-megalitre water allocation.
Annie planted Tuscan olive varieties due to the similarity in climate to the Italian region.
Her first planting was 600 correggiola trees in 1998, with further groves of correggiola, frantoio and leccino planted in subsequent years.
But it wasn't easy during the decade-long drought.
"We had terrible trouble planting the trees during the drought," Annie said.
She said the name of the property reflected the tough times.
Annie's son suggested they combine Nullabore, or treeless plain, with Munji, a local indigenous place name, hence Nullamunjie.
While the property has irrigation water, there is storage in two turkey nest dams for only six megalitres, which makes establishing the trees a major challenge.
"We really haven't got enough water and no room to get any more so I needed to drought-proof the trees as much as possible," she said.
Annie planted the trees 5m apart in rows 7m apart to give them enough room to establish a good root system given the relatively dry climate with its 655mm annual rainfall.
At first she installed a mini spray irrigation system, but she has switched to in-line drippers. "The drippers are best as you don't lose water to wind and evaporation so much."
Olive trees tend to grow in lime soil in the Mediterranean, so Annie spread lime and dolomite before each of her four plantings.
Apart from lifting the soil pH, no artificial fertiliser, pesticides or herbicides are used to follow organic methods, though the property is not certified organic.
Annie uses a seaweed foliar spray to fertilise the trees and compost from Bairnsdale's livestock sale yards.
Her trees require regular pruning, which she does with the help of two full- time staff.
"The canopies get incredibly thick, so we thin them out and let the light in. They will only produce fruit when there is light," she said.
Another challenge is keeping the birds away from the ripening fruit. Annie uses a loud speaker to put out loud bird calls to scare away the pest birds.
"They do help but, in the end, you just have to grow enough olives to feed the birds," Annie said.
Next month's harvest will start at Nullamunjie and, as this is the most important time for the operation, casual staff are hired to get the olives picked and into the pressing shed.
"Quality in olive oil is determined by how quickly you can get the fruit off the tree and into a press."
This year, Annie upgraded her centrifugal press, which used to process about 350kg an hour to one that will handle five times that amount.
She also will have access to a bigger and better quality shaker to shake the fruit from the trees.
In addition to producing olive oil, Annie has established a cafe in the new pressing shed for selling extra virgin olive oil and serving coffee and light lunches.
Visitors can also view the pressing process during harvest usually from mid-May to mid-June. She said: "People are interested in the food they eat. I try to talk to them as much as I can."
The fresher the better when it comes to olive oil. Annie said most of the oils found in supermarkets were from overseas and were often old.
"Labelling requirements have to state when the oil was packaged, but it's more important to know which year the olives were harvested," she said.
"Over time, the fatty acid proteins required in the oil to be categorised as extra virgin will break down. Labels should include harvest date and most reputable operators do that."
Annie describes her extra virgin olive oil as robustly fruity with excellent complexity of flavours and length of pepper and a beautiful herbaceous aroma.
Olive oils classified as extra virgin have acidity levels less than 0.8 per cent. Nullamunjie extra virgin olive oil has never exceeded 0.2 per cent, she said.
Weather is a constant worry for the Patersons, especially during fruit formation. A hail storm in January wiped off the fruit on 1800 trees, though other fruit was ripening on track for this year's harvest.
But, as Annie says, the trees are hardy and could stay in the Tongio landscape for the next 100 years. Much like the hills she saw on her first trip to Greece.