The High Quality of Moroccan Olive Oil: a project

In early December 2016 Jane learnt about some new research on production of olive oils with exceptional levels of antioxidants in Cyprus.  Her interest to explore the parallels with Morocco was stimulated by discovering that the quality of olive oils can be assessed relatively cheaply using a new test kit produced by a team at the University of Athens.

Based on the research reported below and her own knowledge of the local products, Jane is almost sure that the olive oils produced in the Taroudant region have exceptional quality. Why?  The remarkably sunny & dry climate concentrates the active ingredients (this also applies to Moroccan rose petals, lavender and other herbs). The oils & olives certainly taste very much richer than those from other locations.

Olive Grove with alfalfa

Now we have the chance to prove that this is true! Also, by advising small farmers on how to cultivate & process olives to ensure higher levels of antioxidants, this would enable farmers to obtain higher prices for their artisan oils.

Just 3 weeks after learning about the test kit, we had already been able to take delivery of a kit through collaboration with an old friend of Jane’s who is a specialist in local agriculture, Professor Chérif Harrouni of the Institut Agronomique et Vétérinaire, near Agadir. Jane met with the professor, our guide/scientific advisor Said and Youssef of the Busy Bee Centre who’s involved with the Ministry in January 2017.

They discussed how to ensure better hygiene including using a better press and avoiding moulds.  Professor Harrouni has a colleague in Rabat who has developed a mobile oil mill which can process up to 8 tonnes olives per day.  The plan is that each group of farmers will be offered an appointment for a particular time and date, for which they’d need to pick olives immediately beforehand.  The time between picking of crops and processing is critical; they also need to be pressed by a slow method to conserve the antioxidants. Currently, olives are often left for up to 8 days before being processed, meaning that olives become mouldy and antioxidant levels fall.

Harvesting the olives when they have reached the correct level of ripeness is important: the highest levels of antioxidants are present when olives are green but just starting to soften. This stage remains stable for long enough to allow sufficient window of opportunity for pressing at the optimal time.

The government is currently giving productive, well adapted olive trees to farmers free of charge. These two principal Moroccan varieties: Menara and Housia, which are both low acidity and dual purpose – used either as table olives or for oil production, giving farmers the flexibility and security of alternative markets.

In 2020 Morocco supplied 19% of olive oils sold in the UK and this market is likely to increase in future as a result of Brexit.

Organic Production
People in the Moroccan mountains are too poor to afford pesticides and herbicides so organic production happens naturally by default. Olive fly can be a problem, but it is a not a significant pest due to the toughness of olive leaves.  Fortunately, there are enough natural predators in the mountains to have biological control free of charge. Provided olives and oils are collected, processed and packaged correctly, they can be certified by organisations such as Ecocert (who certify some of the local argan oils).

Education of Farmers
As well as explaining the need to collect and process the olives correctly, it is also important that farmers are aware that the traditional method of beating trees to get the olives to fall destroys the new shoots on which the crop of the following year will be borne.  Farmers are known to resort to destroying trees in the belief that they are no longer productive.  Therefore, it is vital that they begin to understand the long-term benefits of gently shaking the trees to encourage fruit to fall into a net or even leaving it to fall of its own accord.

Practicality of Collecting and Processing
This can be done by olive or argan oil cooperatives. There are some near the Busy Bee Centre at Ait Aizza and existing Women’s Argan Oil Cooperatives can be involved.

We are now fundraising to cover our costs (so far £150).

Given that it is now known that we buy a great deal of adulterated “extra virgin” olive oil*, to be able to offer to our clients and others genuine high quality oils with certified levels of antioxidants far in excess of those sold in Europe would be a real bonus for the income of olive oil producers in Taroudant province.

*It is difficult to find oils that are not labelled “extra virgin” despite the fact not all oils are as pure as this label should imply.  Recent research concluded that 70of oils imported into Australia are adulterated, mostly with cheaper, lower-grade oils, often not even olive oilThe blended oil is then chemically deodorised, coloured, and possibly even flavoured and sold as “extra-virgin” oil to a producer.

Below is a summary of the findings in Cyprus upon which some of our ideas are based.

How to make the best Olive oil – a Success Story with a Permaculture Approach

In an arid region south of Morphou in Cyprus, French environmental engineer Nicolas Netien manufactures the organic olive oil with the highest concentrations of phenolic compounds ever recorded.  And this award-winning oil has a whopping 3,760mg/kg of polyphenols, more than fifteen times the 250mg/kg stipulated by the EU labelling regulation. Phenolic compounds are great at battling diseases such as cancer and heart disease because they are antioxidants and radical scavengers. The quality of oil can be tested with an Aristoleo test kit which can test 10 olive oil samples.

A successful production depends on the climate and agricultural practices. It took Netien some time to figure out how to get the agricultural practices right, and much research and analysis.

Some water stress is good for the production, as the stress of the trees apparently makes for better aroma.

Already the system is quite efficient, using five times less water than the ministry recommends for growing olive trees in Cyprus. The plan is to eventually use no water at all from outside sources.  You can train the trees to expand their roots in the rocky soil and learn to live with ever less water by gradually moving the source of water, the drip, further away from the plant.

There are other agricultural practices. One of the known ones is that a relatively early harvest results in oils with higher polyphenolic values. Thus, at Netien’s groves harvesting is done in early September.

Another known fact is that the distance and time between harvest and milling should be short to avoid oxidisation. This is achieved by matching the number of pickers with the capacity of the mill and having the mill at close distance. At this year’s harvest eight people collected 200 kg of olives in an hour, exactly the amount the mill can process during the same time. The olives were transferred from trees to the mill in less than half an hour.

The soil is not tilled, existing plants such as prickly pears are left in place – they are great as windbreaks and firewalls. Aromatics like sage and lavender that guard against pests were the first things they planted. Other plants attract birds and bugs, fertilise the trees and ensure a minimum amount of insecticide is needed at the same time as allowing a maximum of organic matter to accumulate.  At the last count, the area had 350 species apart from the olive trees.

How does he see the future? “We want to win on every side. We want to restore the area, fight climate change and be profitable.” The olive oil can be purchased in Alpha Mega and Metro supermarket and Delicatessen Kantina in Nicosia, Cyprus for now. The company that produces this fantastic oil is Atsas Organic. 

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