20 March 2023

Hillston olive farm helps transform Australian cuisine over its two decades of production

| Oliver Jacques
Start the conversation
Dr Ruffolo in front of olive trees

Dr Mauro Ruffolo at his olive farm in Hillston. Photo: Supplied.

Italian-born agronomist Dr Mauro Ruffolo says the expansive olive groves he manages in Hillston have helped transform Australian cooking styles for the better over the 20 years they’ve been in production.

“I remember when I first visited Australian in 2006,” Dr Ruffolo said. “I was invited to a barbecue … they gave me a salad and it had no dressing. That was a shock to me … very few people were using olive oil for anything. But now 17 years later, it’s so common, everyone has it.”

It was in 2003 that Italian multinational Monini Olive Groves created headlines by buying 750 hectares of land at Hillston, near Griffith, where they planted 110,000 olive trees using mother stock imported from the Umbria region in Italy. In expanding the diversity of the Riverina’s irrigated agriculture, the company had the goal of producing the finest grade of extra virgin olive oil Australia had ever seen.

READ ALSO Channel 9 true-crime show to focus on Mackay murder and dark side of Al Grassby

“Monini is like the Ferrari of olive oil production … it’s one of the biggest in the world and very famous for their quality,” Dr Ruffolo said.

The Italian giants sold their farm to Australian winery Hunters Dream Estate in 2019, who retained Dr Ruffolo as their field operations manager. The new owners now have plans to branch out to produce infused truffle and garlic flavoured olive oil.

“As far as I know, we are the biggest extra virgin olive oil producers in NSW,” he said.

An empty olive oil bottle

Hunters Dream olive oil bottle. Photo: Supplied.

Dr Ruffolo was born in the Calabrian town of Cosenza. He moved to Perugia to study agricultural sciences and then completed a PhD in olive tree cultivation. In 2006, he secured a position as agronomist for Monini, but the boss of the company quickly decided they wanted to send him to the other side of the world.

“He sent me to Australia for a holiday to see the farm they owned in Hillston, in 2006. He wanted me to manage their operations here, but I returned home for the next four years to complete my PhD. In the meantime, he sent me here for one month each year to supervise the farm and train the people.”

He eventually did move to Australia, where he settled with his wife in 2010. The couple, who now have two children, have been living in Griffith ever since, which he says reminds him of home.

“There are so many Italians here, I think I know them all by now.”

He’s proud of the way the locals are appreciating his product more and more.

“In Australia, there is a strong culture in grapes and wine. But olives are a new culture … extra virgin olive oil is the highest quality type because it’s unrefined, it is not heated or processed with chemicals … people now realise the health benefits, there is no cholesterol. Butter has a lot. The only time I use butter is on my bread, you should never cook with it.”

READ ALSO English migrant’s mission to preserve and celebrate Griffith history

His says his work is rewarding but challenging.

“There are very few people here who have skills in olive cultivation, it’s difficult … our farm is a very complex system, and I have to learn how to do everything myself. We try and do everything by ourselves. At harvest time, you have to do everything perfectly. If you make one mistake you can drop the price substantially.”

Dr Ruffolo hopes to see his products in local shops one day. But for now, the Hillston-produced extra virgin olive oil can only be purchased online via the Hunters Dream website.

Start the conversation

Daily Digest

Want the best Riverina news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Riverina stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.