Have you ever had a crazy dream to do something totally different from the life you currently lead? Something that your accountant and bank manager would disapprove of, but that would lay down roots for your long term future? A few weeks ago I was privileged to meet Taiwanese/Australian entrepreneur Mr Jung Tang Lien. And I was as inspired as I was confounded by his wild plans.
For some time, I have had a lust to visit an olive grove. Actually, for many years I wanted to own my own olive grove. I imagined a rambling Romanesque style garden, and my children running through the trees and playing hide and seek. And now I realise that perhaps my dream is not unique with some farmers setting up sprawling olive grove estates not just in Mediterranean countries but also in Australia. Even an olive grove owned and operated by Taiwanese.
I had never met Mr Lien before, but when I learnt that someone from Taiwan owned an olive grove I sort of invited myself. Literally. I contacted my friend, who contacted her friend, who organised for us to go there. Finding a suitable date was not so easy, as Mr and Mrs Lien alternate their time between Taipei (where they have a busy electronics business that manufactures components), visiting their restaurateur son in Sydney, and maintaining and harvesting their olives.
But one Sunday, we were all set for a drive out to the country. We met our friends in the Queanbeyan Hungry Jacks car park at 9.30am on a sunny, wintry morning. We drove out of town, and turned right towards Captains Flat.
We drove on further for a bit, enjoying the idyllic sense of a Sunday drive. “We must be there soon,” I thought and kept scanning the horizon for olive groves. But all we saw was the magnificent view of farms, sheep and rolling green pastures and eventually an old railway track.
We ambled into Captains Flat. “Surely it must be close now,” I pondered, scanning my eyes for olive groves. But no, the farm was around 12km out of town, bordering onto the Tallaganda State Forest along a remote non-bitumen lane that got few visitors. And so far out of Queanbeyan that the farm was actually within Cooma Shire Council — alpine territory.
“I can’t believe that Taiwanese people live out here in the country,” I said. It was a long way from a supermarket, let alone an Asian grocery store.
The view as we drove through the gate of the olive grove was spectacular. (Well, I perhaps might have enjoyed it more had Little A not suddenly thrown up all over the car seat at that very moment.) But still, it was majestic gazing out on the hill-covered olive groves.
My friend told me that the Liens had a lot of olive trees. “They have at least a thousand trees,” she said. I scanned my eyes over the hills and tried to take it all in. I could see that there were lot of trees. (I later learnt there were actually 10,000 trees, and that Mr Lien originally planted 15,000 and that his financial advisers all thought he was totally mad).
We drove down the hill, and paused at a shed. “Li ho,” we yelled out in the Taiwanese welcome to a man working there. “See you up at the farmhouse,” he replied back in Taiwanese.
We drove further, and further still and eventually a house came into view. It reminded me of a typical rural house, kind of like the place that my grandparents used to live on their retirement hobby farm. Except that when you entered there were Taiwanese touches, such as Hakka-tung flower print draped over their sofa.
Mr Lien was wearing a large cowboy style had and dry-as-a-bone style coat. He looked like a bushranger – and indeed there probably were once Chinese bushrangers roaming this area, with nearby Captains Flat once the site of a prosperous gold outbreak. But these days, Capitains Flat is almost a ghost town — the Liens have to drive nearly an hour to get to a supermarket, so they bring their food in with them in bulk, fish in their dam and grow vegetables.
The harvest had just concluded, but Mr Lien took me on a short tour of some of his olive oil grove. There was an evident pride as he identified good quality trees. What makes a good tree? Well, primarily the width of the trunk. While he grows olives now for their oil as well as olive leaf extract and olive leaf tea, his original plan was to grow the olives for their wood.
In his living room is a beautiful ornate cabinet and dining table made from the glossy wood of olive trees. This inspired him to decide to grow olive trees to harvest their wood. “I probably won’t live to see such beautiful wood from my trees in my generation,” he tells me. “But I am growing this for my children, and for their children.”
But in the mean time, he is producing high-grade, pure, extra-virgin olive oil under his award-winning Oli Mia label, which has picked up awards in the Royal Queensland Show, Royal Canberra Show, and National Extra Virgin Olive Oil Show. Although produced in Australia, it is primarily exported to Asia (China and Taiwan), and also strangely enough back to Europe. In Taiwan, the olive oil is sold at high-end department stores such as Shin Kong Mitsukoshi.
“Are there really health benefits to consuming olive oil,” I ask him. He beams. Turns out his elder sister (jie jie) suffered from high cholesterol but it went down to normal after she started including Oli Mia olive oil in her diet.
We sit back on the sofa and drink small cups of tea, Taiwan style, while we wait for lunch to be ready. But this is no ordinary tea, but rather olive leaf tea. It tastes healthy: not quite like chamomile tea, not as bitter as green tea but somewhere in-between.
Mr Lien also shows me details about his olive leaf extract. In Australia, it is mostly sold in liquid form but, through research at a a university in Taiwan, he has developed a system of putting the olive leaf extract into capsule form.
Lunch is Taiwan home style cooking in an Australian context: home-caught fried fish, dried daikon omelette fried in olive oil, thick niancai vegetables, a stew made with fish belly, cabbage and shiitake mushrooms, baked chicken wings, and bakuteh soup.
After lunch we tour the processing shed. All the equipment is Italian. Having missed the harvest, we did not get to see the car-like vehicle that harvest the olives by spreading an umbrella-like fabric around the tree and shaking it vigorously. But we did see videos, which gave us an idea. The kids had fun playing in the tractor and pretending they were driving.
The olives were already harvested, processed and packaged. But there were rows and rows of olive leaves waiting to dry. It was a process that reminded me so much of the way in which Taiwanese green tea leaves are painstakingly picked and dried.
What a day trip and what an inspiration.
Taiwanxifu visited Oli Mia as a guest, at her own persistence. The views expressed here are her own.