Former Fighter Pilot Steers Loopline Olives to the World Stage

On New Zealand's North Island, Stephen Davies Howard has taken advantage of the Mediterranean climate to produce award-winning olive oils.

Loopline Olives
Mar. 2, 2022
By Paolo DeAndreis
Loopline Olives

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Trekkers and tourists descend­ing from the Tararua Range in the south of New Zealand’s North Island may arrive in the small vil­lage of Opaki.

Located in the fer­tile land of the Wairarapa’s Ruamāhanga River area, between Tararua Forest Park and the Pacific Ocean, the land has long been devoted to agri­cul­ture.

Being in New Zealand, one of the inter­est­ing facts about our mono­va­ri­etals is that their qual­ity and fla­vor pro­file com­pletely matches what you would expect from these cul­ti­vars of European ori­gin.- Stephen Davies Howard, owner, Loopline Olives

This scenic spot is also where the olive orchards of Loopline Olives thrive and where some of the world’s best extra vir­gin olive oils are made.

Characterized by long and dry sum­mers and pro­tected from strong west­ern winds by the gen­tle slopes of the 1,500-meter-tall peaks of the Tararua Range, Wairarapa has long been home to wine pro­duc­ers.

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A few years ago, a British olive oil som­me­lier set­tled in Wairarapa and acquired Loopline Olives. Applying his knowl­edge and expe­ri­ence, Stephen Davies Howard brought its olive oil pro­duc­tion to the world stage.

My father and grand­fa­ther back in the United Kingdom were cab­i­net mak­ers, and I grew up around wood, but I can say that my inter­est in olive oil, olive trees and olive grow­ing sprung up dur­ing my stay­ing in Puglia, dur­ing the war in Bosnia,” Davies Howard told Olive Oil Times, hint­ing at the charm and beauty of Apulian olive grow­ing land­scapes.

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My back­ground is as a fighter pilot with the Royal Air Force. I fell in love with New Zealand in more recent times whilst sail­ing around the world on my yacht,” he added. So I set­tled here and there I was, with a thou­sand olive trees, feel­ing the respon­si­bil­ity for their health, enjoy­ing their beauty.”

Olive pro­duc­tion in New Zealand began expand­ing in the late 1980s when cut­tings from Israel were imported to Blenheim, on the South Island.

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Loopline Olives

According to the New Zealand Olives NZ asso­ci­a­tion, olive orchard expan­sion spiked in the 1990s, with more than 200,000 new trees planted through the coun­try.

Local farm­ers found that olive trees, pri­mar­ily Italian and Spanish vari­eties, seemed to match the coun­try’s unique cli­mate per­fectly. Still, the first olive trees in the coun­try arrived well before that.

In 1835, Charles Darwin, observ­ing the Walmate area on the South Island, wrote about the farm­ing set­tle­ments there, where I may instance aspara­gus, kid­ney beans, cucum­bers, rhubarb, apples, pears, figs, peaches, apri­cots, grapes, olives, goose­ber­ries, cur­rants, hops, gorse for fences and English oaks; also many kinds of flow­ers.”

Given the exten­sion of our olive groves and the cur­rent state of olive oil cul­ture in the coun­try, we decided to do what we knew we could achieve: focus on qual­ity, not on vol­umes,” Davies Howard said.

Since 2019, Loopline Olive extra vir­gin olive oils have won awards at the NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition.

Loopline Olives earned two Gold Awards for a pair of Picholine and Picual mono­va­ri­etals in both the 2020 edi­tion and 2021 NYIOOC. The com­pany has also won awards with its Frantoio and Leccino mono­va­ri­etals.

Being in New Zealand, one of the inter­est­ing facts about our mono­va­ri­etals is that their qual­ity and fla­vor pro­file com­pletely matches what you would expect from these cul­ti­vars of European ori­gin,” Davies Howard said.

The NYIOOC panel of judges appre­ci­ated the Picholine for its tast­ing sen­sa­tions of anise, let­tuce, black pep­per, tomato leaf and arti­choke, accord­ing to the Official Guide to the World’s Best Olive Oils.

However, the Picual extra vir­gin olive oil is milder.

It presents fresh green leaves, freshly cut grass and a beau­ti­ful aroma on the nose, well trans­ferred to the palate with rocket, tomato leaf and arti­choke. It is mild, with well-bal­anced bit­ter­ness and pun­gency and a lin­ger­ing smooth fin­ish,” the judges wrote.

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Loopline Olives

We pro­duce about 3,000 to 3,500 liters a year,” Davies Howard said. They all are sold on the inter­nal mar­ket.”

Today, Olives NZ esti­mates that olive oil con­sump­tion is approx­i­mately four mil­lion liters per year, with local pro­duc­tion cov­er­ing less than 10 per­cent of the inter­nal demand.

Annual pro­duc­tion ranges from 200,000 liters to 400,000 liters per annum depend­ing on the year,” Olives NZ wrote. About 90 per­cent of the olive oil imports come from Spain.

For the coun­try’s high-qual­ity pro­duc­ers of extra vir­gin olive oils, the chal­lenge is to pro­mote olive oil cul­ture and some basic knowl­edge about their prod­ucts.

New Zealand con­sumers today are not used to high-qual­ity olive oil, as most of them buy what they find in food retail­ers shops, which are mostly imported olive oils which over time might have lost many of their qual­i­ties,” Davies Howard said.

There are even pro­duc­ers that rebrand as New Zealand olive oil prod­ucts which have been imported long before and could prob­a­bly not even qual­ify as extra vir­gin,” he added. Our efforts, of course, are aimed at let­ting peo­ple under­stand more about what an extra vir­gin olive oil is, what it means to trans­form the olives within six hours from har­vest, and when they lis­ten to that, I can see how inter­ested they become.”

Most Loopline Olives cus­tomers age range between their late 30s to late 40s, with mostly women at younger ages and men at older ages,” Davies Howard con­tin­ued. They are very focused on the health ben­e­fits of extra vir­gin olive oils.”

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Loopline Olives

Given the ben­e­fi­cial impact of antiox­i­dants found in extra vir­gin olive oil, the New Zealand grower noted how one of the most rel­e­vant sell­ing points for Loopline Olives is their high polyphe­nol counts.

Last year, we were in the 800 mil­ligrams per kilo­gram,” Davies Howard said, under­lin­ing how sea­sonal changes would not make those num­bers drop under 270 to 350 mil­ligrams per kilo­gram, which he said was still above many other extra vir­gin olive oils on the mar­ket.

Today in New Zealand, a slowly improv­ing under­stand­ing of extra vir­gin olive oil qual­ity has not yet trans­lated into olive grove expan­sion.

Since the 1990s, Olives NZ wrote, a num­ber of groves were removed (and unfor­tu­nately con­tinue to be removed), either in a move to a higher-yield­ing crop (e.g., grapes) or because the vari­eties planted were not suit­able.”

The asso­ci­a­tion esti­mates that today 400,000 olive trees are grow­ing in New Zealand. While there are more than 300 pro­duc­tive groves in the coun­try, at least 100 groves are not cur­rently man­aged.

These are typ­i­cally smaller groves where there is a lack of knowl­edge or per­ceived inad­e­quate return on invest­ment to war­rant the grove being farmed pro­duc­tively,” Olives NZ wrote. These dor­mant groves are a poor use of the land but poten­tially could con­tribute towards the solu­tion where demand for New Zealand extra vir­gin olive oil exceeds sup­ply.”

Olive oil cul­ture is cru­cial,” con­cluded Davies Howard. We are work­ing hard to pro­mote it using every pos­si­ble means such as social media, an envi­ron­ment where we can engage with peo­ple about the ben­e­fits and qual­i­ties of high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil.”



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