Bye bye olives... hello olive oil

The Italian countryside in autumn is a picturesque scene of rolling hillsides dotted with olive trees, their branches full of ripe olives shining in the Mediterranean sun. Imagining this vista, who isn’t tempted to pluck one of these enticing little olives off the tree and give it a taste? After all, they look so much like the cured olives that make such delectable antipasti here in Italy. However, anyone who has given in to this temptation knows how the extreme bitterness of raw olives runs up and down the spine, making one’s face form unrepeatable contortions. (Much to the amusement of any Italians who might be watching!) That is when you realize just how much of a marvel it is that, with only some hard work and know-how, these bitter little fruits can be turned into the rich, golden oil so important to La Cucina Italiana.

Last week we learned about La RaccoltaThe Olive Harvest in Italy – and we left off as the olives were being rushed to the oleificio or frantoio, the two words you’ll see used in Italian to describe the many olive pressing mills scattered throughout the countryside. Once harvested, olives must be pressed as soon as possible – generally within 36 hours at most. That means that during this time of year olives mills from north to south run almost around the clock as one truck or ape (the small three-wheeled vehicle driven by many farmers and beloved by camera-wielding tourists) after another pulls up with their precious cargo.

Much like the different harvesting methods used across Italy, there are just as many different ways to press oil. From the ancient method of using millstones to today’s high tech machines that – from cleaning to pressing the olives – automatically complete every step, each process has its advocates for why it is the best. While there are several variations on the process, let’s walk through the traditional methods first.

The initial step is to prepare the olives for pressing by separating any stems and leaves and washing them. Once clean, the next step, called the frangitura, is where the olives – pits and all – are crushed until they form a brown paste. During the crushing, this paste is kneaded and generally heated ever so slightly so the oils will be released. The exact temperature of heating is a topic of great debate and often varies from one olive grower to the next, but the heat will never rise over 80ºF (27ºC)—the maximum temperature allowed during extraction to still consider the oil “cold pressed.” In the traditional stone ground method, large granite wheels slowly crush the olives as they rotate. In modern methods they are sometimes sliced with sharp blades instead of being crushed, but in many modern mills wheels are still often used—only now they are powered by a powerful engine instead of donkeys and oxen! The aromatic fragrance that arises as these fresh olives are crushed is the first taste an onlooker has of the fine olive oil to come.

Watching the freshly pressed oil drip out of the centrifuge in vivid shades of greens and golds is the moment of truth as this year’s labor and harvest can finally be tasted.

Once crushed, the next step is called the gramolatura, where the olive paste is spread out onto many circular mats made of a woven material, which are then stacked on top of one another and placed in a hydraulic press. As the olive paste is very slowly pressed, a reddish brown mixture of oil and water emerges from the press. This liquid produced from the estrazione (extraction) still doesn’t look like the luscious green and gold olive oils you would expect. To make the final product, this liquid is put in a centrifuge that separates the oil from the water. Watching the freshly pressed oil drip out of the centrifuge in vivid shades of greens and golds is the moment of truth as this year’s labor and harvest can finally be tasted. As you can imagine, to be in the frantoio and taste the “prima spremitura” – the first pressing – is a true delight!

Today modern mills often use an entirely mechanical method, which can combine some – if not all – of these steps into one continual cycle from washing to the final product. While not as romantic an image as the stone mills, the modern continuous cycle mechanical pressing offers many advantages. Each step takes place in a temperature controlled environment, and the stainless steel machines allow for easy sterilization and cleaning. This flexibility and control, as well as the fine olive oils produced, has made the continuous cycle process more and more popular over recent years.

Italians love their olive oil and take great pride in it as well. This is what makes the annual harvest and pressing of olives such a labor of love for so many. The job isn’t done just yet, though! Stop by next Friday for our final post in this series celebrating the olive as we talk about the finished product and the many ways this “liquid gold” is used in La Cucina Italiana.

Photo Courtesy of “Chris P.” at Flickr