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.
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.
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.
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