The Olive Harvest 2013 – Quality not Quantity

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.

the tomb of the leopards, Necropoli Tarquinia

The tomb of the leopards, Necropoli Tarquinia

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.

Ripe olives on the tree they need to be partly ripe ideally 60% black and 40% green

Ripe olives on the tree they need to be partly ripe ideally 60% black and 40% green

The olives collected up in the net to remove the leaves before pouring into trays

The olives collected up in the net to remove the leaves before pouring into trays

Four of the trays in the back of the car

Four of the trays in the back of the car, we only had 8 trays this year

Only one large crate this year, two years ago there was twice this amount

Only one large crate this year, two years ago there was twice this amount

Our olives being weighed

Our olives being weighed

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.

Excess leaves are removed and end up in a separate tank to be used as mulch

Excess leaves are removed and end up in a separate tank to be used as mulch

Olives after they have haad the leaves removed

Olives after they have had their leaves removed

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.

The stone wheels crushing the olives to form a paste there is a mirror above so you can see the olives being crushed (sorry about the quality of the image)

The stone wheels crushing the olives to form a paste there is a mirror above so you can see the olives being crushed (sorry about the quality of the image)

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 machinery used to weave the new mats

The machinery used to weave the new mats

The machinery used to weave the new mats

The machinery used to weave the new mats

The mill now makes the plastic mats onto which the olive ‘paste’ is spread

The mill now makes the plastic mats onto which the olive ‘paste’ is spread

The old style basket into which the olives used to be put is so much more beautiful than the modern equivalent, but I imagine these hemp baskets would have retained a huge amount of oil and needed more pressure to release the oil

The old style basket into which the olives used to be put is so much more beautiful than the modern equivalent, but I imagine these hemp baskets would have retained a huge amount of oil and needed more pressure to release the oil

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.

A poster showing the process of pressing the olives in 1856

A poster showing the process of pressing the olives in 1856

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.

In the museum the implements used for pressing the olives in the past (about one hundred years ago)

In the museum the implements used for pressing the olives in the past (about one hundred years ago)

In the museum the stone wheel crushing the olives in the past animals would have been the power source, but now it is mechanised

In the museum the stone wheel crushing the olives in the past animals would have been the power source, but now it is mechanised

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Our stack of mats just before being pressed

Our stack of mats just before being pressed

Pressing the oil

Pressing the oil

Before pressing, you can see the spaces between the groups of 3 mats

Before pressing, you can see the spaces between the groups of 3 mats

The stack of mats have been pressed

The stack of mats have been pressed

The pressure gage shows the pressure being exerted to extract the oil from the paste of olives

The pressure guage shows the pressure being exerted to extract the oil from the paste of olives 400 BAR

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.

Just look at that colour!

Just look at that colour!

End of the process, the oil is poured into a large white container

End of the process, the oil is poured into a large white container

The oil being pumped into out container to bring home, it then goes into a stainless steel container and kept in a cool dark place

The oil being pumped into out container to bring home, it then goes into a stainless steel container and kept in a cool dark place

the most beautiful sight of the oil at the end of the process

the most beautiful sight of the oil at the end of the process

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.

43 thoughts on “The Olive Harvest 2013 – Quality not Quantity

  1. we are doing our harvest at the end of the week… a different mill, different pressing method, but the product is the same…delicious extra virgin olive oil.
    Did you have students helping this year?

    • No students this year; Richard’s brother and sister in law came to help. The job was done in a day and a half. How are your olives this years, I’ve been hearing such terrible stories about how few olives there are this year.

  2. Hi Christina, this is a fascinating and thorough post, well explained. Farmers across the world struggle so much, but how lovely to have your own olives, once again I am more than a little envious of your garden.

  3. hello Christina, thanks it’s very interesting seeing/hearing the process, I’ve never seen bright green olive oil, the hemp baskets being pressed explained to me what I had seen in a remote village in the Atlas mountains of Morocco years ago, I looked at the wheel making the mats and not sure, thanks anyway, Frances

  4. Very interesting to see the pressing process. It looks so good – I only had fresh olive oil once and you’re right – it is quite different to the shop-bought variety. Enjoy your harvest Christina!

    • We have some Frantoio too; they are a bit of a mix but I suppose that makes the oil different each year as one variety is happier with the conditions that growing season.

  5. Fascinating, I really enjoyed this post. I can almost taste the bread and oil. The baskets of black and green olives are beautiful. This must give you the greatest satisfaction.

  6. Must be an exciting time Christina. I’m not sure I’ve even seen olive trees growing in person. I like the time-honored traditions of this harvest and process. Enjoy!

    • Even the modern presses still process the olives cold but they don’t use stones and the oil is warm when it comes out so obviously a higher pressure is used to extract the oil from the paste.

  7. A really nice post and a great look at the pressing. I’ll post about our harvest and new oil later this week, it’s hard to fit in blogging at harvest time! Glad your oil is good, enjoy it! The fly has been a big problem in our area this year, it’s been such a humid autumn. We’re not badly affected but some farmers have been hit hard, even though they spray their trees, it’s very sad for them.

    • I never spray or use any chemicals, it would rather defeat the object of having our own organic oil, but I do understand that for farmers it may be necessary. The mills will be closing early here because no-one has many olives and they’re all harvesting quickly to avoid the effect of the hail and the fly. I hope you oil is good too.

      • We don’t spray either, although certain things (like copper) are permitted under orgnanic rules. We escaped the hail here, that can be devastating. We’ve tasted our oil and it’s delicious (we had it analysed too and the acidity levels are fine, but not everyone has been so lucky.) Farmers are truly at the mercy of nature!

  8. It was fascinating to learn how the oil is pressed. I still think it is amazing to get all that oil out of a little fruit that grows on trees. The fresh pressed oil looks truly amazing.

  9. Un bellissimo reportage per chi non ha mai visto un mulino… ma l’odore dell’olio nuovo quando si entra… è qualcosa che mi riporta direttamente alla mia infanzia! Mi piace tanto rinnovare questa tradizione!

  10. i want old procedure of making olive oil at home from where i can buy machinery like hand press and rope disk ??? plz help me …

      • thanx for ur rply ,i request u , can u give any adress or website in italy where olive oil chapel press machine exist . thanx….

        • I’m sorry I have no idea, I just take my olives to the local mill. Try contacting a museum of olive oil, there are several around and I’m sure you will find them by searching with google.

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