Billed as “A Gastronomic Affair,” New Zealand’s first olive-themed harvest festival has lived up to expectations if all the feedback from festival-goers is a guide.

Harvest time in New Zealand is early winter and here in southern North Island the annual struggle is to ripen and pick as much fruit as possible before the inevitable frosts end the weather game.

A small group of olive growers in this rural area, renowned for its wines (headlined by internationally-recognized Pinot Noirs) and local food produce like cheeses and orchard fruits, decided to showcase their local oil production.

Rather than hold an “olive fair” to just sell oils, they developed a range of harvest-related activities, from grove visits and hand-picking for pickling and pressing to olive-themed gourmet lunches, a night market and a range of workshops on oils and other olive products.

Two other regions of the country (Waiheke near Auckland and neighboring Hawke’s Bay) hold annual olive fairs, but the unique Martinborough event was deliberately planned to ensure fee-paying guests were involved in a tree-to-table experience.

At participating groves, growers set aside fruit-laden trees, put out harvest nets, provided picking crates and watched visitors dive head-long into their first-ever hands-on olive harvest activity.

Most emerged from the branches wielding 2 – 5 kg of olives, took up a pickling recipe and headed for the grove’s reception area where fresh-pressed new season extra virgin olives oil was set out for tasting, together with home-pickled olives, savories and local wines.

Individual groves had up to 45 visitors during a few hours set aside for on-farm activities over the festival weekend and were blessed by calm, fine, sunny weather.

Grove owners fielded scores of questions about the industry — from planting and pruning, irrigating and harvesting, pressing oils and pickling, health benefits of oils, selling against imported oils, even organic production. All expressed delight at the interest shown in “hands-on” participation.

The night market in the town square attracted hundreds to its marquee tents and fairy lights, with everything from mulled wine and olive breads to Spanish paella, Indian curries and cold-fighting frost pots used to ward off winter chills. Up to 50 stalls sold everything from craft clothes to jewelry.

Growers are already determined to expand this unique first olive harvest festival into a bigger event come mid-2014.

The wider Wairarapa region (of which Martinborough is part) has the biggest concentration of olive groves of any region in the country, with more than 60 growers producing from mainly Tuscan varieties.

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