Last week I visited a local olive oil producer for a tour, tasting, and lunch. This farm not only grows its own olives, but also processes olives bought from local farmers. They will also process olives for local farmers and send the finished product back to the original farms.
We began the tour by checking out an olive tree that is between 120-130 years old. Many varieties of tree are planted on this farm and in the surrounding area, several of which are specific to this region.
The first step in making olive oil is the harvest the olives. Traditionally, this process involves placing a net under the tree and then using a rake to shake out the olives. Then one must separate the olives from the leaves before process can continue. This can be accomplished by hand, but today this involves a metal mill. The leaves are aspirated out of the mix. The olives are washed, and then smashed with a bunch of tiny hammers to create olive paste.
Olives have three parts- pulp, skin, and pit. Oil is about 15-20% max of the actual olive. Ideally, oil is made within 4-8 hours after harvesting (before oxidation of the olives can occur). At this farm, harvest season involves between 60-80 days of around the clock harvesting and processing in order to facilitate this timeline. The olive paste is kept moving in the vat for about half an hour, which is an important step before the paste is allowed to settle.
Perhaps you have heard of cold pressed olive oil? The next step is to either hot or cold press the oil. Technically this step is talking about separation of solids and liquids in the paste. Lower than 27 degrees Celsius (81 F) is cold pressed, which will hold more flavor than hot press, which allows some of the more delicate characteristics to disappear. Press is a somewhat obsolete term, since now separation of solid and liquid is done by centrifuge. The solid residue is put back on the fields as fertilizer, as is most of the water.
The process in the “olden days” involved giant stone wheels that crushed the olives into rope baskets that acted as filters. These baskets were stacked into a pile and then pressed down to squeeze the oil out. Separated oil was placed into a large urn for a time to separate even more oil from the water. Then the oil was scooped off and placed into a barrel.
The acidity of the oil is what enables oil to be labeled “extra virgin” or otherwise. Up to 0.8% acidity can be called EVOO, and up to 2% is called Virgin. If you ever see “light” olive oil on the shelf in the US, it is likely a marketing tool that is actually referring to the color of the oil as opposed to any health benefits.
Storage of the oil is important as it can oxidize and change flavor. It is usually good up to 2 years before it begins to lose fragrance and freshness. The label dates on olive oil can be tricky- in the US there is no expiration date required, and in Europe it is labeled for use up to 18 months after date of packaging. Keep a close eye on labels and look for the harvest date- if you see this you will know exactly how fresh your oil is!
Last summer was a bad one for olives, as it was very wet and cold. Production was down almost 30%. This company usually produces 250,000 bottles a year.
Tasting the oil is sort of weird- you take just a drop or two on your tongue and then inhale sharply through your teeth. The air is important to get the flavors out. If you do this wrong, be warned that olive oil will actually feel like it is burning your tonsils and esophagus. Not awesome. My preferred tasting method involves a vehicle such as bread.
So there ya have it. If you come visit me we can go tasting! They have all sorts of varieties, including an awesome hot pepper one and a lemon one that is apparently really good on salads.