The Great British Olive - Can We Really Grow Olives in the UK?

The Great British Olive - Can We Really Grow Olives in the UK?

P Thompson

It’s cold, wet and grey outside, so why, I hear you ask, am I writing about Olives? Well firstly, I’ve just spent a week of October half term with the kids picking Olives in Sicily. Not only did it double up as child-care with added lizards and snakes for entertainment, it was (honest!) a work trip.

I was out there learning as much as possible about harvesting Olives, as well as milling, pressing, preserving and picking up some useful pruning tips. This is because we have a long-term Olive growing project here on the farm. After a few years of research, 5 years ago we planted our first grove of a couple of hundred trees, followed by another 1200 trees a few years later. In answer to a challenge by the Belazu Food Company (the largest importer of Olives in the UK), we are proving that Olives can be grown in the UK.

Not only can we can grow them, but we can ripen, harvest and process them to create our very own English table olives and Essex Extra Virgin Olive Oil. We have actually been able to pick Olives every year since our first planting, preserving them for table olives and in more recent years, experimenting with the milling and pressing process. That’s what took me to a particularly hot and dry Sicilian ‘entroterra’ or ‘interior’ last week. As my Sicilian friends pointed out, growing the Olives is the easy part; turning them into delicious Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the hard part! So, I packed my bags and headed off to learn the hard way – and the food was pretty amazing too!

Whilst we have seen vines, figs and apricots successfully take to the English climate, Olives are less familiar. You may have seen ornamental trees in pots in doorways, on terraces and in courtyards, but viable fruiting trees are less common. Nearly all the ornamental trees are selected for shape or looks, but less for the ability to develop and ripen their drupes (as the fruit are known). You will have probably spotted hard little green olives on garden trees, but they rarely reach veraison (the phase when they start to ripen), let alone full ripeness when green gives way to a beautiful deep purple.

The changing UK climate means we now have a longer growing season. As for vines and even citrus, this gives trees such as Olives that little bit more time to flower, set and mature fruit. We don’t think they will work in every part of the UK as they will need all the help they can from a south facing aspect and the warmth of the more benign climatic regions of the country. Unfortunately, a north facing slope in the north-east probably wouldn’t hold the greatest potential. But, the trees are reassuringly hardy and our groves came through the bitter cold of last November without any losses.

We have also chosen varieties which give you the best possible chance of getting some fruit from these silver beauties. Why don’t you give them a try - choosing from the olive trees available to order from our website? And if you are going to process the fruit, can we suggest you try table olives first? And there’s always the excuse to pop over to the Med for some research…..