Green Gold

  Having spent the largest portion of my adult life in the high-pressure, high-dollar world of commercial real estate, the idea of actually making something was just some romantic escape from my self-created reality.  Growing, picking and pressing our olives and watching the viscous, sweet-smelling liquid run slowly from the end of the centrifugal press gave me a sense of accomplishment that I had never experienced in such a primitive way. It was, at once, earthy and ethereal.

Within hours of the olives’ separation from their trees, Francesco and I delivered them to the frantoio, the olive mill.  The one we selected, Frantoio Oleario, was founded in 1947 by Donato Ancona and is strictly a family operation.  Frantoio Oleario offered us both the “old” stone mill process and the more modern centrifugal continuous-feed process.  We opted for the latter for two reasons: first, because the stone mill was booked for several days and it would mean that our olives would sit for days before they were pressed.  The longer the olives sit before they are pressed, the more the acid in the now-deteriorating fruit increases.  The designation “extra virgin” requires that the oil have an acid content of less than .08% so this aspect of the oil is very important.  The second reason is that the centrifugal process is a bit more efficient and, without affecting the quality of the oil, produces a little more oil from the same quantity of olives.

Frantoii are open only during the months during which the olive harvest takes place, typically, November through February.  During this period, the pressing starts early in the morning and ends late in the evening.  There is a finite time for the harvest and therefore for the pressing so it was so very kind and generous for the people at Frantoio Oleario, especially Rossella and her mother, Caterina, to spend so much time with us, showing us how the process worked, telling us why things were done as they were, and allowing us to roam freely through the facility as they furiously transformed olives into olive oil.  They were also busy trying to figure out what an Italian (Francesco) was doing hanging out with an Irish lass (Colleen), a young American woman (Jessica) and an older American guy.  That confounded them.

Although we chose not to use the stone mill, I confess that I spent hours watching the giant granite wheels going ’round and ’round the stainless steel tub turning purple, green and black olives into a reddish-brown mash.  The mash was then slowly warmed to room temperature and stirred with screw-shaped mixers.  A machine dispensed the mash onto a nylon disk and it was spread over the surface until it looked like an over-sized vinyl record.  These disks were stacked on a spindle and, when there were 100 or so on the stack, it was placed under a hydraulic press.  After a few moments, the oil could be seen dripping down the side of the disks as the press squeezed the oil from the mash.  It was captivating to watch this process.

Three huge granite wheels crush the olives into paste

Three huge granite wheels crush the olives into paste

The olives being poured into the crusher

The olives being poured into the crusher

 

The olive mash is forced into the warming tank

The olive mash is forced into the warming tank

 

There it is warmed and made homogenous

There it is warmed and made homogenous

 

Oronzo takes a permeable nylon disk...

Oronzo takes a permeable nylon disk…

 

Spreads olive paste between each one...

Spreads olive paste between each one…

 

Stacks the disks and places them under the hydraulic press

Stacks the disks and places them under the hydraulic press

 

When the pressure is applied, the oil starts to flow

When the pressure is applied, the oil starts to flow

 

Caterina collects the freshly-pressed oil

Caterina collects the freshly-pressed oil

Our olives were treated a bit differently.  Massimo picked up the large plastic container that held about 600 kilos (about 1,300 lbs.) of olives with the forklift and poured them onto a conveyor that would carry the olives through a cleaning system.  The first step in the process separated the fruit from the many leaves and stems that became an inadvertent part of the harvest.  Then the olives were washed just before introducing them to the crusher, the machine that would transform the fruit (including the pits) into a thick paste.  The mash is then pumped into a mixer that warms it to a temperature of 26 celsius (78 fahrenheit) by gently stirring the paste for about a half-hour.  In order to call an olive oil “cold pressed” or “cold extracted,” the paste cannot be heated to a temperature above 28 celsius (82 fahrenheit) but it is necessary to warm the paste a bit since the outdoor temperatures in late-November can chill the olives to the point that the oil is difficult to extract.

Massimo delivers our olives into the conveyor system

Massimo delivers our olives into the conveyor system

 

The olives ride the conveyor to the cleaning process

The olives ride the conveyor to the cleaning process

 

 

The leaves and stems are separated out and the olives are washed

The leaves and stems are separated out and the olives are washed

 

After the olives are crushed into paste, the mash is stirred and warmed

After the olives are crushed into paste, the mash is stirred and warmed

 

 

The final step in the process is the extraction of the oil from the paste.  This is achieved by pumping the mash into a centrifuge that “spins” the liquids from the mash, pouring the heavier water content into one container and the lighter olive oil into another.  The oil then goes into a collection vat where the bidoni await it for transport.

A centrifuge extracts the liquids from the paste

A centrifuge extracts the liquids from the paste

 

Water-based liquid comes out one spout and olive oil from the other

Water-based liquid comes out one spout and olive oil from the other

 

 

The oil is then filtered and pumped into a stainless steel vat

The oil is then filtered and pumped into a stainless steel vat

 

And put into bidone for the trip home

And put into bidone for the trip home

Oronzo, one of Donato Ancona’s sons, tested the oil for its acidity.

“Zero quattro,” he announced.  At .04%, the acidity was well under the .08% limit for extra virgin oil.  Not unexpected, but certainly a relief.

We are calling the end result of our efforts “Olio d’Itria,” oil of Itria, the name of the valley in which the olives were grown.  It has a wonderful, piquant flavor, full of freshly-mown grass and black pepper on the finish.  The color (which really doesn’t mean much to the quality of the oil) is a bright, almost luminescent green.  It speaks of fresh which, by the way, is the best olive oil since it begins to lose its characteristics once it’s bottled.

I have accomplished some things in my professional life but, I must confess that the satisfaction I experienced from those achievements never quite got to the level that I feel when I hold a bottle of Olio d’Itria.  After a year of trimming the trees, watching the olives turn from flowery buds to little knobs of fruit, seeing them warm and ripen, picking them at exactly the right moment and watching the plump fruit be converted into the thick green liquid, I really feel that we did something special.  Really.

Next:  Thanksgiving – Italiano Style

No Comments

Leave a Comment

Please be polite. We appreciate that.
Your email address will not be published and required fields are marked.

I'd love to hear from you. Please leave a comment or email me at scottjb8907@yahoo.com.