Monday 30 November 2015

A visit to the olive oil mill

Following my recent post about the olive harvest, this one is about a visit to our local oil mill. After helping our neighbour pick his olives, we headed to the mill, just a few kilometres away. Ideally, olives should be pressed within 24 hours after harvest. For this reason, the oil mills often work around the clock at this time of year (and are closed for the rest of the year!). There are about 30 olive oil mills in operation across Istria.

After being weighed the olives are loaded into the press machine

When we arrived, there were no customers ahead of us – but several showed up just a few minutes after we did. First the bags of olives were stacked onto a palette and a forklift was used to move the whole lot onto a large scale. The weight came to 245 kg. This was the weight of olives that had been picked over the previous two days, but there were many other trees still waiting to be picked.

Washing in progress

Next the bags were moved into the room where the huge Italian press machine was waiting. The bags were opened one by one, and the olives emptied into the machine. There are several stages to the pressing process. The first step is to wash the olives and separate the leaves and any debris. Next, the olives move into another compartment of the machine where they’re crushed into a paste. The third stage is centrifugation where the oil is extracted from the paste. The temperature at this and all stages of the process cannot be higher than 27 degrees Celsius. Sure enough, there was a temperature gauge on the machine and it indicated 27 degrees. If the temperature climbs higher than this, then the oil would not be considered to be ‘extra virgin. This is why extra virgin olive oil is sometimes described as ‘cold pressed’ or ‘cold extracted’.

This machine could process three different batches at the same time and had three different compartments for washing, crushing and centrifugation. This ensures that one client’s olives are not mixed with another’s, and that each client takes home his or her own oil. The cost of pressing is charged per kg. At this mill the cost was 1.5 HRK (0.20EUR / 0.21USD / 0.28CAD / 14INR) per kg.

Our neighbour wanted to be in a photo -- here he is waiting for his olives to be processed

The whole pressing process took about an hour in total. When the first drops of oil finally appeared, it had the colour of pea soup. We each took a small cup and tasted this freshly pressed olive juice. It smelled of freshly cut grass and the taste was very fruity and peppery at the same time. When we tasted it again later at home (our neighbour had given us a few litres of this precious juice in exchange for our hard work!) after it had had time to settle, it was even more delightfully fruity in taste.

Liquid gold...

From 245 kg of olives, our neighbour got 37 litres of olive oil. This should be more than enough for a family’s consumption for the whole year. The price for a litre of locally pressed olive oil starts at 80 HRK (10EUR / 11USD / 15 CAD/ 740INR) and can be twice as much for an organic variety. The stuff you get at the supermarket is of course much cheaper, often half this price, but inferior in quality and often not real extra virgin olive oil at all

But there’s nothing like the real stuff. I feel so lucky to live in a place where I can get pure, extra virgin olive oil produced locally and know it’s the real thing.

Sunday 29 November 2015

Olive oil season in Istria

In Istria, olive-picking season starts in October and continues until late November. This is usually the time when olives are ripe and ready to be picked. Of course some varieties ripen faster than others, so those are the ones that have to be picked first. And in the south of the peninsula, picking usually starts earlier than in central or northern Istria.

This year was a very good year for olives because of the long, hot and dry summer we had. Last year, however, was terrible because of a very wet summer, conditions that were favourable for the destructive olive fly.

Some olive growers prefer to pick their olives before they’re fully ripe, and just as their colour starts to change from green to purple, because this increases the polyphenol (a type of micronutrient and anti-oxidant) content of the oil, and preserves its nutritional properties. Others prefer to wait until their olives are completely ripe and have fully purple skins because this will result in a larger quantity of oil. It’s a matter of taste, and quality over quantity.

We have a small olive tree in our courtyard and this year it produced its first olive! Of course we are far from having enough fruit to make even a thimble of oil… But this year we had the chance to experience an olive harvest when we helped a neighbour pick his olives.

His olive grove is not far from the village, situated on the side of a hill which has been terraced so that each tree gets maximum sun exposure. His trees are less than ten years old and he keeps pruning the branches so that they grow outwards rather than upwards. As a result the trees are not very tall and it was easy to hand pick the olives.

We spread a net on the ground around the tree so that it would catch all the falling olives. The olives are plucked off the branches by hand, or by using a small hand rake. I preferred to simply pluck them by hand off the branches, working one branch at a time. Those using the rakes just let them drop on the net below, and once all the olives had been removed from the tree, they’re picked up off the net. Inevitably leaves and twigs get mixed up with the olives and these have to be separated. We were a group of six working on each tree and I was surprised at how quickly we could finish one tree. Of course some trees had more olives than others, and the fruit varied according to the variety: some were fat and juicy, while others were much smaller. I enjoyed this work better than grape picking, even though grape picking is less tedious.

In Istria, food is an important part of any activity. So once we had finished picking for the day, it was time to eat. We had an improvised picnic on the hilltop and enjoyed the last warm days of Autumn.

Olives should be pressed within 24 hours of picking so that their nutritional value is preserved as much as possible. So that evening we headed to the local oil mill… the subject of my next blog post!
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