Making Olive Oil the Traditional Way in Tuscany

  • 01 of 10

    Making Olive Oil the Traditional Way: Into the Hopper

    A Traditional Olive Press: Into the Hopper
    A Traditional Olive Press: Into the Hopper. © Kyle Phillips, Licensed to About.Com

    In Tuscany, quality olive oil all starts the same way: The olive grower spreads a silken parachute around the base of the olive tree, rests a ladder against the branches, and then climbs up into the tree and picks the olives, by hand. What's next? The press, ideally as quickly as possible, because the olives start to deteriorate the moment they're picked.

    Regardless of the kind of press, the first step is to put the olives in a hopper that will start them on their journey through the system. The paths are quite different, however, for olives that go through modern industrial presses, and those that go through traditional presses. 

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  • 02 of 10

    Making Olive Oil the Traditional Way: Into the Grinder

    A Traditional Olive Press: Into the Grinder
    A Traditional Olive Press: Into the Grinder. © Kyle Phillips, Licensed to About.Com

    Traditional olive presses employ grindstones to grind the olives, reducing them to a paste from which the oil can be extracted. Unlike the grindstones of a mill, which are horizontally mounted, with one turning atop the other, the grindstones of an olive press are vertically mounted and rotate in a tub, crushing the olives against the floor of the tub.

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  • 03 of 10

    Making Olive Oil the Traditional Way: Rotating Grindstones

    A Traditional Olive Press: The Grindstones Spin
    A Traditional Olive Press: The Grindstones Spin. © Kyle Phillips, Licensed to About.Com

    The grindstones of this press are made of granite, about 4 feet in diameter, and a bit more than a foot thick. They weigh about 1.5 metric tons each and are turned by an electric motor. The paste is ready for the next step when it becomes oily. It takes about a half hour of grinding to reach this stage.

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  • 04 of 10

    Making Olive Oil the Traditional Way: Gramolatrice and onto Fiscoli, Round Mats

    A Traditional Olive Press: Gramolatrice and onto Fiscoli, Round Mats
    A Traditional Olive Press: Gramolatrice and onto Fiscoli, Round Mats. © Kyle Phillips, Licensed to About.Com

    The paste goes into a second tub called a gramolatrice, where it is stirred by several rotating paddles. The stirring breaks up the water-oil emulsion derived from the grinding process, and thus forms droplets of oil that can be more easily extracted from the paste during the subsequent pressing. Again, the stirring phase -- simple mechanical action with no heat or addition of water -- takes about a half hour.

    When it's done, an assistant puts the paste onto round pads called Fiscoli, which he stacks in the press. About a kilo (2 1/4) pounds of paste per pad, and Francesco's assistant stacks the pads in sets of five, separating each 5-pad stack with a steel plate.

    It's impossible to get all of the olive oil residue out of the fiscoli, and since the residues in them would become rancid from one year to the next they're repurchased every year, from an outfit in Perugia. In the past the fiscoli would have been produced on the farm, probably from hemp.

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  • 05 of 10

    Making Olive Oil the Traditional Way: Stacking the Press

    A Traditional Olive Press: Stacking the Press
    A Traditional Olive Press: Stacking the Press. © Kyle Phillips, Licensed to About.Com

    The fiscoli, with their layers of olive paste, are stacked in the press, in five-pad stacks separated by steel plates.

    Loading the press takes 45 minutes to an hour, and by the time the press is half loaded, the weight of the stack is already pressing oil from the lowermost disks.

    And this brings up an important point: One of the things one often hears now from olive oil producers is how important it is to keep the oil from oxidizing. In fact, some modern presses are pressurized with nitrogen (an inert gas) to keep oxygen from reaching the olives as they are ground and the resultant paste is stirred. No oxidation, they say, makes for better oil.

    However, Sandro Bosticco, an expert olive oil taster, says that the situation isn't quite that simple. While it's true that exposure to oxygen leads to deterioration, exposure to oxygen during the grinding and gramolatura phases appears to promote the development of the compounds that give olive oil its distinctive (and captivating) aromas.

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  • 06 of 10

    Making Olive Oil the Traditional Way: The Press, Loaded

    A Traditional Olive Press: Fully Loaded
    A Traditional Olive Press: Fully Loaded. © Kyle Phillips, Licensed to About.Com

    Therefore, what one wants is to strike a balance -- some exposure to oxygen during the pressing, but not too much. And as little exposure as possible subsequently.

    With the press loaded -- this volume of olive paste will yield 25-30 kilos, or a bit more than 30 liters (30 quarts) of oil -- the operator turns on the hydraulics, and the floor of the press begins to rise, pressing the pads against the top of the press.

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  • 07 of 10

    Making Olive Oil the Traditional Way: The Oil Begins To Drip

    A Traditional Olive Press: The Oil, Dripping
    A Traditional Olive Press: The Oil, Dripping. © Kyle Phillips, Licensed to About.Com
    Olive oil begins to drip down the sides of the stack, collecting in a trough at the base of the press, from whence it drains into a holding tank.
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  • 08 of 10

    Making Olive Oil the Traditional Way: The Pressure Gauge

    A Traditional Olive Press: The Pressure Gauge
    A Traditional Olive Press: The Pressure Gauge. © Kyle Phillips, Licensed to About.Com

    Olive presses squeeze hard. This isn't wine making, where one hears about soft pressing and people wince at the idea of more than two atmospheres. Rather, the press cranks up to 400 atmospheres (400 k/square cm, close to 900 pounds) and maintains that pressure by continuing to lift the floor of the press as the oil seeps out. It takes about a half hour to press the stack, after which the assistant releases the pressure, removes the pressed paste (it goes back to the olive groves) and starts the cycle anew.

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  • 09 of 10

    Making Olive Oil the Traditional Way: Into the Centrifuge

    A Traditional Olive Press: Into the Centrifuge
    A Traditional Olive Press: Into the Centrifuge. © Kyle Phillips, Licensed to About.Com

    The oil that emerges from the press is anything but pure -- there's still quite a bit of solid matter in it, and also a fair amount of water. So the operator pumps it though two settling tanks, where some of the solid material settles out, and them into a centrifuge that separates the water from the oil.

    Like the rest of his equipment, the centrifuge dates to the 30s and as such was one of the first generation of centrifuges used to separate the oil from the water. Before then they used a longer succession of settling tanks to remove solid matter, and then a special terracotta urn with a siphon rising up from its base -- since water is heavier than oil it settles, and then the weight of the oil forced it up and out through the siphon.

    Using a centrifuge is, of course, both easier and much faster, and since we are by now at the stage when it is important to limit exposure to oxygen, the introduction of the centrifuge resulted in a dramatic increase in the quality of the oil.

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  • 10 of 10

    Making Olive Oil the Traditional Way: And Here We Have It!

    A Traditional Olive Press: Freshly Pressed Extravirgin Olive Oil!
    A Traditional Olive Press: Freshly Pressed Extravirgin Olive Oil!. © Kyle Phillips, Licensed to About.Com

    Here we have traditionally pressed extra-virgin olive oil!