Until 1994 South Africa had 1000 hectares of olive trees, 100 being used for oil production mainly of the Mission variety, and 900 for table olives featuring predominantly Kalamata, Manzanilla and Mission varieties.
By 2014 South Africa had about 6000 hectares of olive trees, about 5000 hectares of which are for oil production with 80-90% of the trees being of Italian cultivars. There was a small increase to around 1000 hectares of table olives. Varieties were generally the same as before 1994 with the addition of some new Italian varieties.
The significant change from 100 to 5000 hectares in the South African olive oil industry in only 20 years was triggered by the intervention of one man, Giulio Bertrand, who in 1992 bought Morgenster Estate outside Somerset West and decided to plant 50 hectares of olive trees in addition to 40 hectares of vineyards.
At that time there was limited local consumption of table olives and no culture of consuming olive oil. Locally produced olive oil was mainly available from pharmacies and was almost entirely produced by Costa from Mission and other table olives not used in the table process.
There was a very small local market for olive oil, only a few consumers who imported oil from their home countries. Bertrand remembers bringing in good Italian olive oil for his daily salad in his hand luggage.
In 1993 Bertrand went to Italy to the CNR Institute in Perugia to meet with its Director, Prof. Fontanazza. There a plan was drawn up to make an Italian styled olive oil in South Africa at Morgenster from Italian cultivars.
To start, Bertrand imported 17 olive varieties selected from regions stretching from Liguria to Tuscany, Lazio, Puglia, Sicily and Sardinia, totaling 2000 bare root plants. These he put into quarantine (under the guidance of the Department of Agriculture) in his nursery for propagation, then began planting. This process was continued over the following years until Morgenster had 50 hectares of olive groves, as it does today.
Bertrand marketed his first oil in 1998 after thoroughly briefing the local media. Morgenster extra virgin olive oil was a resounding success. As a result he received approaches from people working in other agricultural sectors who wished to acquire olive plants and oil extraction technology. This presented an opportunity to expand the nursery and market a limited range of his Italian varieties which would not compete with the Morgenster Extra Virgin Olive Oil which is blended from over 14 varieties. Some 4.3 million of the 5 million trees planted in SA since 1994 originated from the 2,000 trees he imported.
At the same time Bertrand became an agent importer of Pieralisi extraction technology in order to create a healthy local olive oil industry that could produce well-made honest oils. For 10 years Bertrand was the only supplier of Italian cultivars into the South African market then other producers began selling their own mostly Italian varieties which they bought originally from Morgenster.
In August 2012 the SA Olive Association honored Giulio Bertrand with its Life Time Achiever Award in recognition of his contribution to the building of South Africa’s new olive industry. He effectively transformed an archaic system into a vibrant, modern industry so that South Africa is internationally becoming recognized as an olive oil producing country. All the South African olive oils which were awarded by the Flos Olei Guide to the World’s best olive oils, 2015 edition, were produced from plants propagated at Morgenster from Italian varieties which did not exist in South Africa prior to Bertrand importing and making them available to the nascent industry.