An image keeps creeping into my head as I write this…it’s one that Omeros Demetriou, co-owner of Olive Branch Deli planted of his father’s Cape Town watchmaking shop, whose shelves and counters were once occupied by equal parts timepieces, olives and feta. While there are no watches on the shelves of the deli that Omeros and his sister Hélène opened in 2015, it has the same lovely feeling as the watch shop in my imagination. It’s what happens when people love what they do and what they sell.
The watch shop olive experiment was a way to gauge the market when the siblings were considering opening a shop specialising in olives and olive oil. In fact, their father did more than push these products from his shop. Every Saturday, he’d put a table outside his shop (which was in a shopping centre) and sell. “It was like a farmer’s market,” said Hélène. “My Dad is a genius. He knows how to create atmosphere.”
Omeros and Hélène are first generation South Africans; their parents immigrated from Cyprus in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The kids grew up with olives, home-cured by their dad, who owned and operated restaurants in Johannesburg and later Cape Town. It seems olives were meant to be Omeros’s calling. But rather than simply carrying on a Cypriot tradition, he threw himself into researching them, looking at everything from the health benefits of olive oil to the South African olive oil industry. The industry was started some 80 years ago by the Costa family, and was struggling to compete with European imports.
While researching the self-regulatory nature of the South African market compared to the government-monitored-and-funded European ones, Omeros began writing about the local industry for the Olive Oil Times, an international publication based in New York. This led to an association with Rio Largo Olive Estate, in the Scherpenheuvel Valley between Robertson and Worcester, a farm which ultimately employed him. It was an education for Omeros in many aspects of the industry; in return, he brought his marketing and sales skills to the table.
The Olive Branch Deli has the vintage look of an old-fashioned general store, even though it’s in a windowless corner of the Lifestyles on Kloof shopping centre. Warmth emanates from Hélène and Omeros, who can tell you anything you want to know about the dozens of products they sell and their producers; in fact, they see themselves as community grocers. They can also make you an espresso or Marocchino, a coffee with a sweet bite: espresso, dark chocolate, ground pink peppercorns, steamed milk and raw cacao on top.
This is a sweet shop for olive oil lovers. There’s a wall stocked with an eye-catching assortment of local extra virgin olive oils — the industry has grown in the several years since Omeros first became interested. “There are now 200 producers in the Western Cape alone, and we stock about 40 of them; of these four are organic.”
There’s much that Omeros would like consumers to understand about South African olive oil. Here are a few key points:
- Most olive oil produced in South Africa is extra-virgin. Based on the industry’s relatively young nature, local producers have yet to see much potential value in producing lesser grades of olive oil such as virgin, pure, pomace and lite oil.
- The majority of South African olives are hand-picked. In Europe, they are mainly harvested by machine.
- While there is no external regulatory body, the South African Olive Association is a self-regulatory organisation that helps consumers navigate their way to good quality. Members of the association use SA Olive stickers on their bottles, which state the year of harvest and their commitment to high quality standards.
- While most imported olive oil is regulated in its country of origin, its long journey to South Africa can result in damage and unwanted oxidation to the product. This is why, says Omeros, it is probable that any extra-virgin olive oil you buy in South Africa will taste better than an imported oil. This is not to say that good quality imported olive oils don’t exist (they most certainly do!), but rather that the consumer has a better chance of maximising the health and flavour benefits of their purchase decision by choosing to buy local.
- Most South African olive cultivars were originally imported from Italy.
- Olive oils can be either multi-varietals or single varietals; the majority of South African oils are the former. Furthermore, olive oils can be classified as delicate, medium or intense in terms of their flavour profile intensity.
- The three official characteristics of a good, fresh olive oil are bitterness (olives occur naturally as bitter fruits), pungency (a tingling sensation in the back of the throat) and fruitiness (associated with a grassy aroma). South Africans who are more accustomed to “sweeter” or more delicate, European oils, will find these characteristics more pronounced in local oils.
- Colour is no indicator of the quality of an olive oil. As colour should not influence opinion, professional olive oil tasters use special conical shaped cobalt blue glasses with a thick base. The oil is poured in the glass, which is swirled and then warmed between the hands, to activate its flavour and aroma.
- Unlike European olive oils, South African olive oil is not government subsidized. This is why it is more expensive, although with the exchange rate as it is, it is becoming much more affordable.
- Just like what is happening in the wine industry, there are many new and young olive oil producers, who are bringing style and energy to a rapidly expanding market.
- Many of the oils at Olive Branch Deli have limited distribution; available only on the farms where they are produced and/or at farmers’ markets.
Besides the oils, Olive Branch sells a variety of olives home-cured by the Demetrious, with recipes they create to highlight the characteristics of different olives. My favourites are the Tsakistes: a traditional Cypriot preparation of crushed green olives with oregano, olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and zest. I watch Hélène prepare these. “The crushing allows the olives to better absorb all the flavours,” she says.
Omeros also smokes his own olives with gear that looks illegal: part bong, part polystyrene box. Technically, it’s a double chambered smoking gun that blows smoke created by burning olive leaves into a poly-styrene box filled with cured Colossus olives. It produces olives that are lightly smoky and delicious.
Omeros is such a proponent of ‘local is best’ that 95% of his products are local. In fact, much of that great stuff you see in Cape Town markets that you can only buy one day a week is available at Olive Branch: from artisanal breads to kefir to coffee and veggie boxes.
It’s been a natural progression in the life of this deli, with likeminded artisanal producers and Omeros finding each other. Omeros is hoping to bridge the gap for these producers and for his customers, who care about the quality and integrity of what they eat.
Olive Branch Deli is located in the Lifestyles on Kloof Centre, Cape Town.