Tag Archives: olive oil

From tree to table: Olive oil

18 Nov

Last week we had the lovely opportunity to see the process of making olive oil from tree to table, literally.

The net spread around the base of the tree to catch the olives

Olive picking happens late in the harvest season, after most other crops are done. Here in mid-Italy most people harvest early November. It’s hard to believe, but the majority of olives are still harvested by hand. For this reason you want to choose a dry day, preferably one that it hasn’t rained for a few days. In most cases, only the largest of olive farms harvest mechanically because of the permanent damage that is done to the tree. We also waited for the dew to burn off before we began. You’re under the tree so if the tree is wet, so are you. The first thing we did was spread the net under the tree. The net catches the olives as you knock them from the tree. We used our hands and these small, plastic rake-type tools to pull the olives off the trees. You simply run your hand or the tool down the branch pulling off as many olives and as few leaves as possible. The goal is to get all the olives off the tree, which is actually a bit of a challenge and quite time consuming. This was a very dry, hot year and yields were nothing of what they normally are, same for the grapes 😦 After all the olives fall onto the net you gather them into a compact pile and dump them into crates.

Gathering the olives

Olives are a tricky business, one should never wonder why olive oil is so expensive. You gather hundreds of lbs of olives and you get very little oil, typically only 10-16% of the original olive weight. We only have about 35 trees on the property, but during a good year it provides enough oil to last the family all year. I can’t imagine the families and farms that harvest thousands of trees by hand! Once all the olives are picked you take them straight to the olive mill. It’s crazy, they’re everywhere! Many, many Italians press their own oil and each have their favorite “frantoio”. You dump all the olives in the hopper where the leaves are removed and the olives are washed. The olives are then crushed, heated and the oil is extracted. The remaining, dried pulp is then sold to other companies that use chemistry to extract the last remaining bit of oil.* The pulp is also a perfect compost fertilizer to replenish the trees with the nutrients they lost in producing the olives. The whole process of pressing took about an hour. Fresh oil is a brilliant green, almost artificial looking and spicy with a very unique flavor.

Fresh-pressed olive oil! Look at that color!

Once you taste fresh olive oil you’ll recognize it forever. Claudia, our host mom/boss, enjoys fresh-pressed olive oil with the traditional Tuscan/Umbrian saltless bread. The traditional bread is done saltless as it has been since the middle ages when a salt tax made it too expensive for the average baker and has since stuck. In most instances I don’t enjoy the bread (who would have though that pinch of salt would make such a difference?!) but the strong flavor in the fresh oil compliments the bland bread well.  So that’s the story of how we picked and pressed the olives during the day and were able to enjoy it with fresh bread that night!

Getting crushed and heated!

*This oil is specifically labeled in Italy as it is not olive oil in it’s truest form, not Extra Virgin.

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