Bringing the good oil into the classroom

Anthony Colangelo
Stephanie Alexander and Altona Meadows Primary School students grade four students (L-R) Marcia Wilson, Connor Ebsworth ...
Stephanie Alexander and Altona Meadows Primary School students grade four students (L-R) Marcia Wilson, Connor Ebsworth and Lachlan Marshall pick olives at Rose Creek Estate in Keilor East.  Photo: Jason South

If you're looking for the good oil, you can find it in a classroom. 

That's not an idiom, there's actually olive oil in Victorian classrooms, all of it made by students. 

It's all thanks to Brendan Bolton, garden specialist at Werribee's Thomas Chirnside Primary School west of Melbourne, who five years ago made olive oil with his students and then decided to join forces with other primary schools in the area. 

Alexander says the lessons the kids learn from making their own olive oil are invaluable.
Alexander says the lessons the kids learn from making their own olive oil are invaluable.  Photo: Jason South

This year, with the help of Stephanie Alexander's Kitchen Garden Foundation, nine schools across Melbourne are making olive oil from trees planted in their schoolgrounds. 

They expect to surpass the 60 litres of oil they made from their 600kg harvest two years ago when six schools took part. 

"The children learn everything from looking after the trees – weeding, watering, pruning, observing progress – then the harvest and then having the oil bottled and labelled," Bolton says. 

The freshly-pressed olive oil from Altona Meadows Primary School.
The freshly-pressed olive oil from Altona Meadows Primary School.  Photo: Anthony Colangelo

"Olive trees are great for schools. They're tough, they're beautiful and they can be intertwined into the curriculum. They link to the whole history of man, basically, you send out the olive branch as a sign of peace. The fruit will hang on the tree, they won't make a mess. Birds don't bother them too much.

"[The students] have a real sense of satisfaction that they'd made something you could see in the shop.The children have had an experience of producing something real. Not just something to put on the fridge or file away, it's actually useful and it's tangible."

Altona Meadows Primary School grade four students Lachlan Marshall and Connor Ebsworth were at Keilor East's Rose Creek Estate on Thursday to help press the oil. 

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"It's pretty cool. It's really sludgy. It goes from gloopy stuff to green-ishy liquid," says Connor, referring to how the pressed olive slurry turns a brilliant green when separated with water. "It's really weird how something can change like that." 

Lachlan is curious too: "The olive oil is interesting. But I don't really know what it tastes like because I haven't had it on its own and at home when I have it I don't know that I am having it. We kind of hide it.

"Yes, definitely can't wait to taste it.

"We will probably have one bottle we save for a long time, and the other to use it as much as we can. Definitely it would be nice in salad and we will use it a lot in the kitchen and learn how we can use it on other food." 

Altona Meadows Primary School principal Bill Reid and the school's kitchen specialist Marilena Joannides said the olive-oil making program had been an invaluable addition to their extensive kitchen garden curriculum. 

"It's fork to fork. From when we fork the garden to when we eat, the kids see that process," Reid says. 

Stephanie Alexander says the children learn invaluable lessons from making the oil.

"It's the power of traditional knowledge," Alexander says. "Authenticity, you couldn't get much more authentic. One of the schools started picking trees in the street and then random members of the community came out and helped them.

"Re-enforcing all the time that there is a story behind the food we eat and we have to take care. We have to feed the soil, water the plants, pick things carefully and then give them the respect and enjoyment when we eat something that's been made or dressed with the oil."