It may seem strange knowing that I didn’t grow up in a place that grew olives that I feel such a sense of contentment when the olives have been picked and pressed and I know we have enough oil to last us for the year to come.
I wrote in 2011 about the olive harvest so I thought this year I would write more about the process of making oil and the history of olives in our area.
There are pictures of olive trees in the painted tombs of the Etruscans in Tarquinia. Olives have been part of the culture for at least two and a half thousand years. For the Etruscans olive oil would have been as fuel for lamps and as a means of carrying perfumes; dissolving essences in oil actually producing a more luxurious product than using alcohol as we do now.
Our olives were ripe earlier than in other years a combination of the early spring and plentiful rain this year. August was very hot but the olives were slightly larger than usual too. Ours suffered some damage from ‘fly’ that lay eggs into the olives and the grub eats the oil before breaking the skin to escape. But not too bad.
The production of oil around Viterbo has been low this year. Many places around us have no olives at all; there was a disastrous hail storm that lasted almost an hour in July that damaged the crop causing most of the olives to fall; quite how our olives escaped I’m not sure as we did have hail here, but maybe it just didn’t last so long, the farmers close to us should get good prices for their oil this year as there will be shortages.
We picked 2 ‘quintali’ 200 kg, two years ago we had 300 kg, but the taste and quality this year is good and we obtained about 28kg of oil which is a high yield from the small quantity of olives.
When we arrive at the mill (Frantoio) the olives are places in a large tray to be weighed.
The process begins with the olives being taken up a conveyor belt and any leaves are blown away. We are quite assiduous about removing excess leaves and twigs, some trays we saw seemed to be half leaves and twigs and the quality of the olives wasn’t good, with bruising and a lot of ‘fly’ present. We harvest our olives by hand using a small rake; most other people now use mechanical rakes which often bruise the olives; this is quite a new innovation (the last 10 years or so). But people do harvest earlier now wanting high quality oil rather than just a high yield, a very good sign especially as it means the presses open earlier now than in the past. At one time in many places the nets were laid on the ground all through the olive groves and all the olives that fell over a couple of months would be pressed producing very poor quality oil. Now the aim is to have the olives picked and pressed within 48 hours.
By coincidence I attended a lecture about the Abbey of San Martino (a nearby small town) last week and learned that there has been a Frantoio on the site where we take the olives to be pressed since the eighth century! It is in the middle of Viterbo not in the countryside as you might expect and still uses the antique method of cold pressing the olives using two large turning stones. It has been in the same family for several generations.
You may wonder what the mill is used for the during the other 10 months of the year; Viterbo was once the centre of growing hemp for making ropes and the baskets into which the olives were placed to be pressed, nowadays they make the plastic mats that serve the same purpose but aren’t nearly so beautiful; they export them to many other olive producing countries so are able to keep staff working throughout the year.
The old man who owns the mill is passionate about the oil they produce and has created a little museum where he takes anyone interested to see the old implements and explains the method of pressing which has actually changed very little. There is an old photograph of him as a toddler sitting on his father’s knee with all the family and workers of the mill around. His wife (who is still working at seventy organising the reception of the olives, giving receipts for the weight of olives received and taking payment for pressing) told us that they don’t actually have any olive trees of their own, but that they have to buy olives for their own use that are the first to be pressed so that it is their olive oil that fills the mats the first time and not the first client.
In the past as today the olives were crushed with a stone; animals were used to turn the stones but men did the work of pressing the oil out of the mats, this would have been very hard work.
Of course the very best part of bringing the new oil home is to taste it! So I made some bruschetta and sprinkled it with good salt then drizzled over the bright green liquid, ah! yes! Wonderful, the oil this year has a fruity note that ours often lacks but the peppery goodness is there too. From now until Christmas when it will begin to lose its initial richness many meals will begin with ‘pane olio’ bread and oil – one of life’s true pleasures. It’s pretty good drizzled over soup too, or grilled meats and of course used to dress salads and vegetables.
I use the oil remaining from last year to cook with or in very spicy sauces where the flavour of the new oil would be overpowered. I use olive oil for everything.
Have you ever tasted olive oil fresh from the press? It is nothing like the oil you can buy from a supermarket; don’t be tempted to buy cheap olive oil, it probably won’t be from olives at all or will be made from the waste product of pressing for the first time , what remains in the mats after pressing. The mill we go to uses this dry olive waste as fuel to heat their house but most mills sell it on to be treated with chemicals and heat to remove more oil. To have the health qualities that are attributed to Extra Virgin olive oil it should be bright green and taste peppery; it is the chemicals that produce the pepperiness that give the health benefits.
Funny, there’s no image of the bruschetta to show you, we were too impatient to taste the oil to remember to take a photograph.