Although olive trees were introduced to Australia in around 1800, it wasn’t until the 1840s that experiments in commercial olive oil production began. A commercial oil press operated briefly in South Australia from 1864, but the first commercially successful operation began in 1870. It was based at Adelaide Gaol, where prisoners were employed in planting, tending, harvesting and processing olives.
The South Australian Register reported in October 1870 that “First class olive oil is being made by the prisoners at the Adelaide Gaol under the direction of the Sheriff and the Keeper of the Gaol.” The Sheriff was William Boothby, who originally encouraged the planting of olive trees as a way to keep prisoners occupied. After five or six years he acquired a press and began extracting oil, which was sold for between ten and twelve shillings a gallon.
Boothby became a promoter of olive oil, touring Europe to learn more, writing a treatise on the subject and importing new cuttings of European varieties. Other growers in South Australia followed his example. The first large-scale commercial olive enterprise was established by Stonyfell at Magill in 1873. By 1882, they had 100 acres under cultivation.
Boothby at first pressed olives for other, private growers. This caused controversy in the colony and eventually curtailed his activities. The presses at the gaol fell into disrepair.
Olive oil in cooking
Despite the suitability of the climate for olive growing and the vast numbers of olive trees planted in South Australia, the use of olive oil in cooking remained limited. The local taste ran to very mild oils. An experimental batch exhibited in 1851 was praised for being “pure, and altogether free from rancidity and from the peculiar flavour of some of the Greek and Italian oils”.
Olive oil’s chief uses were in salad dressings and for frying fish. In dressings, Australian cooks seemed to have a heavy hand with the vinegar in order to mask the taste of the oil. For frying, oil’s relatively high cost led many cookbook authors to recommend dripping or lard as a more economical and satisfactory alternative.
Although South Australia was the main producer of olive oil, there were also plantations in other states – for example, at Mildura and at Dookie Agricultural College in Victoria. However, during the depression of the 1890s, local demand for olive oil fell and export efforts were unsuccessful.
In the early part of the 20th century, locally-produced oils could not compete in price with imported oils. Despite the influx of Southern European migrants after WWII, the revival of Australian olive oil production did not begin until the 1980s.