Lou and Matt Cheevers are the proud new owners of Rathlogan Grove, which is nestled in the foothills of Mount Maroon, only five minutes from the tiny township of Rathdowney. The olive grove was planted in 2002 and now has 1200 fully matured olive trees. The olives are picked by hand and processed on site, and placed in brine vats within hours of picking. The entrance driveway leads visitors through the olive grove, up the hill, to the rustic Shed Café at the top, where they are enthusiastically welcomed by Koda, the family’s dog. Every weekend the Shed Café opens its doors between nine and four, serving homemade breakfasts and lunches, and great coffee. Inside, you’ll also find an eclectic range of homewares and treasures for sale, as well as their own olives, olive oils, dukkah and tapenade. In the short time they have been there, Lou has earned an enviable reputation for her delicious baked goods. (www.rathlogangrove.com.au)
LOU & MATT CHEEVERS
When did you move to the Scenic Rim?
LOU: About eight years ago Matt and I decided …
I grew up two hours north-west of Dubbo, but I went to boarding school in Sydney. Matt had also grown up on farms, and he used to run away to his uncle’s place on the holidays to go to the pheasant farm. He’d get his little pushbike, pack his bag and run to the bush. So, we always knew, especially having three boys, that we would end up in the bush. We’re not city-bound. We were really struggling on the Gold Coast, to be honest, so, we decided: ‘Yeah, let’s go.’ Matt was working in Beaudesert at the time — he’s full-time in civil construction. So, we started in Beaudesert and found a little fifty-acre property — a lot smaller than ours now. The house was a lot smaller. It wasn’t gorgeous when we arrived there but it was divine when we left. The agent who was our mate rang us to tell us about this place, knowing we already had a catering company, and he said, ‘This is right up your alley. You’ve got to do this.’ So, that’s what we did.
MATT: He rang up late one night, actually. We looked at a couple of photos and went up there the next day.
How long ago was that?
LOU: We moved this time last year, but we’d taken over the café a week before Easter. Because the owner said, ‘Come in and have a crack.’ And we thought, ‘Hey, we’d probably better. We’re spending a phenomenal amount of money; we’d better make sure this is actually going to work.’
MATT: They’d had it shut for a fair while. He still kept a little bit going with the olives. They used to get backpackers in to do the work down there, so a lot of the trees had been trimmed and cut back really well. We harvested a lot of table olives last year, but not a huge amount of oil olives, because they’d been cut back. But I’m noticing over the last couple of days all of the oil trees are throwing flowers like mad. We should get a good oil crop this year.
Do olive trees require a lot of attention?
MATT: They say with olives, they don’t like being touched. They like being left alone, and every now and again giving them a bit of water. And that’s true if you want to keep them alive, but, really, if you want to get that extra bit of fruit, you need to put extra time into them. With me working at the moment, that’s not easy. Weeds are a big thing, under the trees, only because of the water and nutrients in the soil. Weeds will just take everything they can and not leave a lot for the tree.
The trees look healthy.
MATT: They are. There’s probably only two things that bother olives in Queensland: an olive lace bug and a monkey face on the actual olives — it is a fungus. So, one insect and one fungus. We did have one little patch in the middle of the table olives.
When do you harvest?
MATT: Generally, it should be around Easter, but last year it was February. It was early because of the hot weather. What we harvested last year, we’re only just getting into bottles now. We do it the old Sicilian way. There are no chemicals. There’s nothing added to it. All it is is a specific mixture of brine — of salt water with the correct pH and the correct salt content — and just leaving them alone. Then, because they will start to ferment in the barrel, every couple of weeks you go in and clean them off and seal them off again, and just check the pH or the salt in there.
How did you learn to manage an olive grove?
MATT: I am a bit of a Google nut, and Colin, the original owner, left me a lot of books and things like that. I was a horticulturalist, anyway. We used to have a wholesale nursery, so I knew the basics of it. When you find something down there [in the olive grove], you just ask, ‘How can I do this a bit better?’
Are you pressing on site?
MATT: No. They used to. We will be using Scenic Rim Olives to process our oil at the moment. If we did get a big crop, we’d look at buying a smaller machine. The press Colin had in here was miles too big for the amount of olives. We’ve got 1200 trees, and he had a press that would do 250 kilo an hour, which is a monstrous big commercial press. We didn’t need something of that scale. So, we said to him, ‘Look, if you sell that, it is going to make it a lot easier for us to purchase the property.’ It took the price down a bit.
LOU: For us, it was all about how we could get it. We wanted to be here. We needed to be here.
MATT: They knew we were the people to take it over, so it was just a case of the two of us getting together and trying to make it work. It is not easy buying rural properties these days. We got there in the end, though. The main thing was to start getting it to produce an income, which it has.
Can you tell us about your product?
LOU: We have our table olives. We generally only do one variety at a time, so at the moment we’re on the sevillanos. Then we have our Australian plate extra virgin olive oil and that comes in a 250 or 500 ml. Then we do our infused extra virgin olive oil, which comes in nine flavours. Chilli and garlic is our biggest one because people taste it in the olives, they can see it is marinated, and they ask, ‘How do I get that?’ Then you have rosemary, oregano and basil, rosemary sprig and garlic, lemon pepper, cracked pepper … I introduced a sun-dried tomato and garlic, which is a pearler. And an Italian blend, which is good on your hot pasta and that sort of stuff, or add it to vinegar and, bang, you have your own homemade salad dressing. We had the balsamic vinegar made for us. Then, we also have dukkahs, and I make a tapenade with the olives that are a little bit soft — you can’t bin them. I just stand there taking the pits out, then I mix that with sun-dried tomatoes, and then fresh thyme and herbs, and I infuse it overnight and then I mush it. So, generally, if I do twelve bottles on a Friday, they’ll be sold out by the Sunday because people taste it, they buy the bread, the foccacia, everything. Bang, it sells out.
Do you enjoy running a cafe?
LOU: Everyday when I am in here, Matt has to say to me, ‘Honey, you need to be home by nine-thirty.’ I will just stay here and play in the café. I love it. I absolutely cannot get enough. I love food, I love people, and I just love … I get so amped when people buy stuff that I bought, that is in my shop, that they are buying cause they want it, cause they love it, cause I bought it. You know what I mean?
We’re lucky. We have the product aspect, we have the café aspect and we have my catering aspect. I’ve always said, ‘This café does not have to make any particular amount of money. Every single dollar it earns is fantastic.’ And I think if there’s no pressure and it is not about the money, then it all comes together. I’m a big believer in that.
What are the best things about the lifestyle?
LOU: The kids love it. They all have motorbikes. It is bloody brilliant — just look around. We have koalas in the trees! Oldies get off the bus and I say, ‘Look, there’s a koala in the tree.’ And they love it. What’s not to love?
MATT: I love that early time in the morning, when you get up on the weekend. I come over here, turn the coffee machine on … You’ve got Mount Maroon and Mount Barney, the sun coming up over the top of them, and it is absolutely magnificent.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
MATT: We just want to get our trees as good as we possibly can.
LOU: The olives are not all uniform in colour or shape or size or form. There’s going to be spots and bits and pieces. But straight off the tree and into brine, out of the brine and into bottles, rebrined, reprocessed … Bang, straight!
MATT: Everyone knows you can go to some supermarkets and buy your olives and olive oil for bloody $1.50 a litre. But that’s why I think if people come up here and drive up through the olive trees, and they see that’s where the olives … They’re growing there. They’re not being imported from somewhere else.
LOU: I love, for instance, our hands pick the olives, we take them to the shed, we process the olives — they get pressed or they go into the vats of brine. Our hands. We bottle, we label, everything. It is us. We do it. They come off the trees, then we are the ones selling them at the end. From on the tree to in the bottle — nobody has done it but us. I love that.
MATT: I love the idea of going down there and you just see all of the flowers on the tree. There’s one section that doesn’t have flowers because the trees need to be cut back. It is nice knowing that when we do cut them back and look after them … We’re just lucky with these. We’ve got to keep on rolling and give the trees everything we can.