Olive oils abound on the grocery market shelves, and they hail from all over the world, from Italy to Morocco. Some producers use very modern, mechanized methods. Others follow centuries-old traditions and use ancient methods, like having donkeys turn the olive mill, while others still use ancient tools but with a contemporary twist (for more of an explanation on that, check back on our Facebook page later this week).
The first step? Getting the olives off the trees! Once the olives are ripe enough to be harvested, generally between September through November, they can be picked in two ways: by hand, or by machine. When picked by hand, the harvesters often “comb” the olives off the trees with a handheld tool (pictured below). And once the olives are harvested, it’s time to make some olive oil.
Before the olives are turned into oil, they need to be cleaned. This includes removing any leaves, stems, or any other debris, and then washed. They’re then sorted based on the olive’s age, quality, and where they came from (either the trees or ground).
The olives are then turned into a paste, or mash, and the method of this varies depending on the country and producer. This step takes place at the mill and may involve a “cold press,” or a “first press.” But this phrase can be misleading.
According to Maki of our Andalusia cooking vacation, “In Spain, PRESSING of olive fruits to obtain Extra Virgin Olive Oil is not permitted under the Health and Hygiene Regulations, so the method used here is EXTRACTION.” Extraction involves “crashing” the olives together; put another way, they’re thrown into a machine that is similar to a large blender, skins, stones, and all.
The paste is then put in a centrifuge that spins them around like a washing machine and separates the solids from the liquid. This part of the process often happens twice to ensure the solids and liquids have separated as much as possible. The extra virgin olive oil (evoo) is then extracted and stored in a stainless steel tank, typically at 65 degrees Fahrenheit, so that any excess vegetable water sinks to the bottom. Some olive oil producers also filter the oil to get rid of any impurities. Lastly, the oil is bottled, and it’s shipped out — or sold locally!
I have had actual “pressed” olive oil made in Italy, at an ancient press in the Marches region. They used a type of straw mat and put the paste between them, then pressed them with a huge stone that looked like it went back to the times of the Romans. The owner explained that “first press” and “cold press” meant that it was literally the first time they pressed the olives through. If they did a second press to expel more oil, or if they heated the olive mash to expel more oil, it would no longer count as first pressed, cold pressed olive oil. I am not sure if the process was done according to the health regulations, but frankly, having been done that way for centuries, I was OK with that.
This blog is, of course, a very quick explanation of the olive oil making process. For a more in-depth explanation — and to see how it’s done first hand — visit an olive mill during our cooking vacation Cooking in Andalusian Olive Country; there, you’ll discover how passionate the people are about their products, heritage, customs, culture, and tradition. As Maki says, “It is not just the work, it is a part of life and their root. Their knowledge and skills are passed down from generation to generation, and their love towards their sacred land is something that we could all learn from. Simple life that they lead can teach us so much.”
During the Fall, you can also see how olive oil is made in Italy with a trip to our culinary vacation Roman Countryside Discovery during the olive harvest weeks.
By Peg Kern
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An original version of this post appeared October 27, 2014.