Up the windy tracks past Crookwell, in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range, is Alto Olive Grove. Robert Armstrong’s passion for producing premium-quality olive oils and table olives began when he was given 300 olive trees that promptly died in the harsh climate of the estate, 850m above sea level. After lots of study, travel, failed crops and many years of hard work, the Alto grove is now home to more than 20,000 flourishing olive trees of more of 15 varietals.
A true family business, Robert now runs Alto with his daughter Westerly, with an unwavering commitment to quality, public education and connection to the land on which the grove lies. For Robert, it’s Alto’s elevated position that’s a factor in his ability to produce consistent quality. “We’re one of the highest groves in Australia. It’s the diurnal temperatures that make the difference. Here we can have 35 degrees during the day and 12 degrees at night. Once the temperature drops below 18 degrees the plants stop working, which means the olives ripen very slowly and produce fresh, fruity oils with very intense flavours.”
Quality at Alto is constantly monitored, resulting in premium oils and table olives that have won countless national and international awards. “Both in the groves and in processing, there’s enormous attention to detail,” explains Robert. “We measure and track everything. We have very strict quality control, working with local people and putting a lot of energy into training them. We put huge effort into ensuring everything is A-grade all the way.”
Robert’s daughter Westerly, a chef by trade, is Alto’s connection to the hospitality world, where their products are embraced by some of Australia’s leading chefs. For Westerly, it’s as much about educating the chefs and the public about healthy food culture as it is about getting the product on the shelves and into kitchens.
“We’ve got about 6 or 7 varieties of table olives using filtered rain water and sea salt, a fermentation process that makes them very good for our gut,” she explains. “A lot of what we do is based on education, in the hope that one day bars and pubs will serve olives instead of trans-fat filled bar snacks. We also do master classes and tastings for chefs; they are today’s leaders in setting food trends and we believe it’s important to start with them. Our food culture in Australia is relatively young, we are still learning more about food and we’re embracing food from different cultures. Healthy foods like olives that were only eaten by certain ethnic groups are now starting to be enjoyed by everyone.”
The family’s passion is embodied in the way Robert talks about his produce. “It’s a beautiful thing to be producing such a lovely, ancient and noble product. We feel very proud to be part of that, and we feel that we’re doing it the right way.”