To find the world’s best olive oil, Cypriots don’t have to look very far. It is produced right here in the buffer zone. And that is part of its success.
In an arid region south of Morphou, French environmental engineer Nicolas Netien manufactures the organic olive oil with the highest concentrations of oleocanthal and the highest total phenolic compounds ever recorded.
Phenolic compounds or polyphenolics are great at battling diseases such as cancer and heart disease because they are antioxidants and radical scavengers. 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.
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.
“We sent lots of samples to Prokopios Magiatis at the University of Athens to measure the phenolic content. We experimented with different milling settings until we found the right way. We are still researching other parameters like irrigation, types of composts etcetera,” Netien explained.
The area in the buffer zone is one which is farmed under an agreement reached between Greek and Turkish Cypriots in 2007. The farmers get permission to enter specific plots which have been demined. The area where the olive trees are grown is on the outskirts of the Troodos mountain range.
The volcanic rock of the region is what the farmer and engineer works with. To this one needs to add biology, to create soil. When “you add life to rock”, as he put it, the soil acquires an amazing unique profile.
The climate doesn’t exactly help. The area has the lowest rainfall in Cyprus, and this is getting worse over time. “We have a weather station near us that records the rainfall,” Netien said, “and during the past 20 years there has been a decrease of 17 per cent, sharply accelerating in the last five years.”
Before this week it only rained once in the past 13 months, and instead of having 350ml of rainfall per year, the average in Cyprus, the area where the olive trees are received a miniscule 3ml.
Some water stress is good for the production, as the stress of the trees apparently makes for better aroma, but with Netien expanding the plantation, more water than nature offers is needed.
The engineer and his wife Maria started out with two hectares and 600 trees which are now seven to eight years old. The land belonged to Maria’s uncle George who, as Netien explained, is the vision behind the whole project.
Seeing the success of the original investment, he proceeded to purchase more land with some other business partners, formed the organic ‘Atlas’ company and offered the land to the couple to plant on. They now have 42 hectares at their disposal and have planted 4,500 olive trees with the goal of planting an additional 1,500 next year, bringing the number to 6,000.
And that really does need water. A reservoir was built this year which collects water mainly from another reservoir in the mountains to which it is connected. 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. Netien is training the trees to expand their roots in the rocky soil and to 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 spent less than half an hour from the trees to the mill.
Most important of all, none of this should be seen in isolation, as what Netien, a specialist in permanent dry farming, creates is a diverse and resilient ecosystem. There is no tilling, and he leaves existing plants such as prickly pears in place, also adding to them as they are great as windbreaks and firewalls. Aromatics like sage and lavender that guard against pests were the first things he and Maria planted.
Other plants attract birds and bugs, needed to fertilise the trees and ensure a minimum amount of insecticides is needed and a maximum of organic matter accumulates. At the last count, the area had 350 species apart from the olive trees. The aim is not to use any insecticides ever in future when the system is more developed, not even organic ones.
“It is difficult in the beginning to establish diversity,” the engineer said. And here is the good part about the buffer zone. “On the plus side, the soil hasn’t been touched for 42 years. There has been no tilling, and no pesticides.”
This year the harvest was enough for 3,500 bottles of oil, but this is just from the original 600 trees that are currently old enough to produce. When the others mature, Netien expects a profit, especially as in the meantime he will experiment to improve production even more.
How does he see the future? “We want to win on every side. We want to restore the area, fight climate change and also be profitable.”
The olive oil can be purchased in Alpha Mega and Metro supermarket and Delicatessen Kantina in Nicosia for now. There are plans for a much bigger market next year.
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