• These engineers began picking olives and making oil and never looked back. (Supplied )Source: Supplied
How an Indian-American couple switched from engineering to olive oil production in Western Australia.
Dominic Ryan

9 Aug 2021 - 2:16 PM  UPDATED 9 Aug 2021 - 9:15 AM

--- Stream Australia's Food Bowl with Stefano de Pieri free on SBS On Demand here. Australian olive oil features in episodes 2 and 10.---


"It was just by accident!" Tanuja Sanders tells SBS Food from Bunbury, a port city south of Perth in Western Australia.

A very happy one at that, since it's how she and her American husband Keith Sanders ended up as multi-award-winning olive oil producers in Australia.

It all began when the two engineers, who were constructing a solar farm in southwest WA, purchased some acreage to build a house on in 2005.

"Some friends of ours, who are Italian, came for the housewarming and said, 'Oh, it'd be so pretty if you lined the driveway with olive trees," Tanuja Sanders reminisces. "So I ended up buying 2,500 olive trees and planting them, and that started the journey."

The Sanders have found their calling, producing olive oil in Australia.

A few years later, they began to bear fruit and the couple's Italian gardener showed Tanuja how to make table olives.

"I'm of Indian background and a friend of ours made a funny comment like, '...Indians, what do they know about olives?'," says Sanders. 

She offered him some of her Indian and Indo-Italian fusion table olives. No one doubted their ability again.

"They went wild, we started to win awards and everybody wanted them - and by 2013 we were producing 5,000 litres of oil."

Their brand, Sathya Olive Company, now cultivates around 30 tonnes of olives a year and they've become well-known for their infused products, including the uncommon yet popular garam masala and curry leaf blends.

"I can show my friends how to make a curry, but they don't have the concept of balancing the spices like I do, because I was brought up with it," Sanders explains. "So, I made an oil with the spices already balanced in it, so you just have to use the oil."

"They went wild, we started to win awards and everybody wanted them, and by 2013 we were producing 5,000 litres of oil."

The Sanders both firmly believe that Australian olive oil is the world's best.

"Here, the technology is to produce cold-pressed olive oil," Tanuja Sanders explains, which makes a higher-quality oil. "Other countries have methods of excreting the absolute last drop of oil, which gives second-grade and third-grade product and isn't extra-virgin."

Australia's blue skies and great climate also play a big part in the quality of its extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO).

Stefano di Pieri, host of SBS Food program Australia's Food Bowl, says it's the perfect climate here for olive trees to thrive and produce beautiful local oil. 

"They love silence, sun and solitude," the Italian-Australian chef says on a visit to the nation's largest producer of EVOO, Cobram Estate.

He has lots of appreciation for locally sourced, sustainable food. "Cooking with olive oil is just a pleasure for me, especially when you know where it's come from, the history, the effort you've put into it. It's a very beautiful experience."

"Cooking with olive oil is just a pleasure for me, especially when you know where it's come from, the history, the effort you've put into it."

To make this beautiful experience possible, timing is everything.

Sanders explains, "How quickly you crush the olives after picking is so important. And if you fill the bins too high, the ones at the bottom start to crush and go rancid. I never pick unless I know I have someone ready to crush, and we must make our oil within six hours of picking.

"I'm a project manager – if I can't bloody manage this much, I should be fired!"

Olive oil is undeniably a labour of love, and it seems that Down Under there's no shortage of that.

"How you look after your trees is what they will give back to you," Sanders says.

"We look after our trees, we care for them and we go and talk to them. You can tell I'm quite passionate about it."

Image of black olive tree by Gabriele Cantini.

No-churn olive oil ice-cream cake

I love this recipe because it’s a great way to showcase olive oil as an ingredient with a flavour profile in its own right rather than just a condiment for cooking.

Oven-baked chicken thighs with olive, tomato and lemon

A simple, quick dish of chicken with olives, cherry tomatoes and lemon. It takes just 5 minutes to prepare, then you set and forget in the oven.

Blistered tomato and olive bruschetta

The trick is using really good tomatoes - fresh, ripe ones that smell like heaven - and to cook them on a high heat to ensure they blister and don’t break down and become watery.

Olive oil, sobrassada and honey on toast

These simple and contrasting Spanish island flavours – local sweet, floral honey and the intensely strong-flavoured sobrassada – is an exquisite combination unique to the Balearics.

Grandma's smashed olives (olives trencades de l'avi)

This rough smashing of the olives allows the aromats to penetrate the olives faster, while at the same time releasing more oils and juice to make a cloudy marinade that’s very distinct.

Olive oil mashed potatoes

I particularly love the grassy notes that olive oil adds to mashed potatoes, and often use a pungent Tuscan-style extra-virgin olive oil for added flavour.

Yoghurt and olive oil cake

Yoghurt and olive oil make for a delectably moist cake. Top this one with a stunning swirl of mascarpone and a scattering of freshly roasted berries.