Today is our last harvesting day. It seems as if it was only yesterday when we started the bone breaking job. Have I already mentioned that on none of these Sundays did I ever have the privilege to climb an olive tree? This frustrating reality has considerably strengthened my will to change matters. I have, in fact, promised myself not to end this adventure without having been up there, between the branches, listening to the wind blowing and tousling my hair. I weigh up carefully the different possibilities to reach my aim. “Today is the last harvest day, and therefore I am entitled to climb an olive tree.” ”Do you really think that I believe in the story of the gentlemen who wants to protect the gentle sex from falling off?”
Finally, I decide on a sentence which has an effect equal to a small wonder. “Gentlemen, I won’t turn up for next year’s olive crop, if you don’t let me climb an olive tree right now”. The wind didn’t tousle my hair. It was cold and I was wearing a hat, but I have been up there in the tree-top. And do you know what I think about the experience? Next year, this and no other, is going to be my workplace!
There are only few trees left which are waiting to be harvested. A member of our group looks after the olives which “I” gather from the tree and drop onto the nets. Another worker is busy clearing the nets still lying under the empty trees from leaves and little twigs, in order to roll them up. Crates and boxes, as well as the utensils which we no longer need are being gathered by him, too. The old man stows all these things away in a small shed, where everything is kept safely until the following year. We must hurry up, because at the oil mill they are waiting for the olives. It is the owner’s last appointment, and surprisingly he asks me if I want to join him.
I am diffident. Having shortly earlier gained a sweet victory, I don’t know whether or not I must expect retaliatory measures. However, I accept, even though I am a little disappointed. Everybody had told me about the ancient oil mills and the traditional working process, which I cannot watch, because the owner of the olive grove takes his olives – which, at least for me, are also a little “my” olives – to a new oil mill. Here the conventional equipment has been replaced by modern ones. The whole working process is fully automatic. We merely see how the olives are swallowed up by a voracious machine, which, later, produces the finished oil. This, I must admit, is a little exaggerated. Actually, you can see something, but not very much, compared to the traditional method of pressing. I have been a little hasty and for a better understanding we have to take a step back.
All those who have participated in the harvest have picked the small drupes in the best possible way. Experience has taught them that the duration of the transport from the olive grove to the mill is of crucial importance. The olives, in fact, should be processed within twenty-four hours after harvesting; eight hours would be ideal. The workers have also tried not to heap up too many olives. This to avoid being crushed by their own weight, the consequence being the formation of mould. Furthermore, the lack of sufficient ventilation would favour fermentation and jeopardise the fragrance of the future oil.
As soon as the olives arrive at the mill they are separated from twigs, pieces of wood, stones or other foreign bodies. For us this is definitely superfluous, because ours are spick and span. Once the small drupes are rinsed in fresh, flowing water they can be pressed. Pulp and stones are torn into pieces and crushed by an energetic method. This happens either with a stone wheel or the hammer/disk in case of a modern mill. In this way a mass consisting in pulp and fragments of stones with a draining function is obtained. The latter favors the division of the liquid from the solid part. Mixing machines move the half-solid mass slowly and continuously. This operation facilitates the splitting of the water-oil emulsion which forms during the grinding. The oil drops grow bigger and bigger and can be more easily separated from the water. For centuries, this part of the working process has been the same. What has changed are the tools once in granite and wood, today of stainless steel.
When the oily mass is separated from the water, the real pressing takes place. This leads to the final separation in draff, water and oil and is reached either through a continuous or a not continuous processing. During the non continuous processingthe extraction takes place by mechanical pressing. The mass is spread on mats, formerly made of coconut fibre, today almost exclusively made of synthetic material like nylon. Then they are piled up one on top of the other, which slowly also increases the pressure. After about an hour, an oily liquid seeps out. The solid part, whichis left sticking to the disks, is the dregs.
In the continuous method, the division of the oil from the mass is reached by practically applying physical laws. The mill, which is processing our olives works with a centrifuge principle. It means that it utilizes the different, specific weights of the single compounds. At first, this leads to the separation of the dregs from the liquid part, and then to the separation of the oily components from the water.
Freshly pressed olive oil, independently from the working process, is turbid. It contains, in fact, water, press residues, tiny air bubbles, floating particles and sediments. For this reason, it is being stored for several days in a cool, dark place allowing the residues to deposit. Now the result, i.e. a highly flavoured extra virgin olive oil can be bottled. It is rich in chlorophyll and polyphenols, preserving it from aging and oxidizing,
Olive oil can also be refined giving it a beautiful, transparent brilliance. Formerly people used cotton, today mainly special cardboard filters. The fatty compounds remain unaltered, transforming it into almost odourless, unflavoured olive oil, more heat-resistant compared to the untreated oil. Chemicals are confined to industry and only regard pomace or simple olive oil, not the extra virgin quality.
“Expert oil tasters”, explains the owner of the mill, “are able to distinguish olive oil obtained through the modern, continuous process from the one worked in the discontinuous, classic way”. This reminds me of our oil tasting day and I feel quite, but not completely, stupid and ignorant.
The production of an average Tuscan olive tree is between five and seven kilos, a quantity which makes about one litre. This low yield is due to the specific varieties grown in Tuscany (Frantoio, Leccino, Moraiolo) making the oil quite expensive.
When the whole working process is over and the extra virgin olive oil finally flows out, it is time to rate the quality. For this, slices of toasted bread are already waiting to be covered with the result of our work. We are not impartial; how could we be? What pleases our eyes, comes up through our nose and spoils our delicate palate, is a mixture of authentic Mediterranean history, human interaction, and the hard work and struggles of different cultures and generations. A strong consciousness of belonging to the same world is present. Could all this not be the real gift Athena made to mankind?
Months have gone by since gathering the olives, and every day I have the pleasure of appreciating the oil from our harvested olives. Salads seem richer, dishes tastier, my skin shinier, my whole body healthier and more agile. When I have guests, I never forget to draw their attention to the first class, unique olive oil which they have been served, and that I am willing to share this treasure only with a few hand-picked people. While writing these words I realize that I have become as passionate, as warlike, proud, stubborn and patriotic as all my harvesting companions.