With November not yet finished, you’ve no idea how chuffed we are to have two olive pressings under our belts. The weather has been kind to us, plus we’ve had help from a couple of friends. So a really big thanks to Silv and Steve – it wouldn’t have been the same without you.
While my achy bones recover and I attempt to get some neglected housework out of the way, I thought I’d share our olive harvesting experience with you before we get back to it for, hopefully, another couple of pressings.
First off, here’s some information and observations about olive harvesting and pressing.
In Italy and the rest of Europe, the quality of olive oil is measured by the acidity. The lower the acidity, the better the quality of the oil. Levels of less than 0.8% denote Extra Vergine oil, with oil between 0.8% and 2% being Vergine. We only sell oil of less than 0.5% acidity, typically 0.3%. Acidification is caused by olives coming in to contact with the soil, delays between harvesting and pressing and bruising; so we pick our olives carefully by hand and take them for pressing within two days of starting harvesting.
The mill, or frantoio, that we use is a cold press between our local town of Ceglie Messapica and Martina Franca. Here, the olives are crushed into a paste by three huge granite millstones, before being spread onto special fibre disks in layers to form a spindle. The spindles are gradually compressed over a three-hour period to release the juice. The oil is separated from the juice by means of a centrifuge.
We use cold presses to ensure that heat and chemicals do not alter the taste of the olives. This traditional pressing method helps reduce the release of oil oxidation enzymes, as hot water and steam are not used. Furthermore, it minimises the washing away of beneficial polyphenols. The higher temperatures and additional water used in modern decanter centrifugation results in reduced antioxidants, polyphenols and vitamins, and lower quality oils.
We have 170 old olive trees, with some dating back over 1,000 years. Our oil is pressed from a mix of Nardò, Ogliarola, Fasola, Cerasola. Menella and Leccino olives.
Olive fact lesson out of way, let’s get back to harvesting. We picked up Silv and Steve on Sunday from Ostuni train station. Only over dinner, with wine in hand did we let on quite how much hard work is involved in harvesting olives. They both said they were up to the task and promised to be up by 7am the next day to begin harvesting.
With everyone raring to go at 7am the next day, our first job was to cut up a new roll of nets, which were then placed under a few trees. We then seemed to fit into different roles as we began tickling the olives off with little rakes or rastrallini. Silv took the lower ones, I took the next ones up, whilst Steve took care of the inside of the trees and Jeremy took care of the really high ones.
As most contadini generally leave olives on trees to fall and then sweep up, the height of trees is not a problem and the older trees are generally at least six metres high. As we’ve taken a decision to only harvest by hand onto nets height is more of an issue, even when we use telescopic poles and ladders. To get around this we’ve been pruning our trees into what is known as the Baresse shape, which encourages the branches to hang down rather than up and the few trees, which have been pruned this way were infinitely easier to harvest.
The constant looking up and the inability to reach big clumps of olives hanging just out of reach is frustrating though and Steve believes it’s about time someone invented a hover board as they’d be perfect for olive harvesting.
As each tree was harvested we collected the nets and poured the olives into buckets which were then poured into a machine, known locally as ticka tacka, as this is the sound it makes as you slide it back and fourth and the olives tumble though it’s grates and into a sack. The machine helps get rid of excess leaves and twigs, so that crates are then filled with relatively debris-free olives.
After two days we managed to harvest 303 kilos. We’re getting better at judging the amount we harvest, as we’ve been woefully short in the past and the ideal weight for a cold pressing is 300 kilos. You can press less, but you pay the same, so it makes sense to try and get at least 250 kilos for each pressing.
We took the olives to the frantoio, only to discover there was trouble at t’mill. Two of their presses were not working, which had caused a huge backlog during the day. With promises that they’d press our olives during the night we were sent home with a bottle of the owner’s freshly pressed oil, so we could enjoy some bruschetta that evening, as is the tradition round these parts.
The next day we were very pleasantly surprised to find out that our olives made 45 litres of oil, at 0.2% acidity. With our trusty helpers we managed to press a further 250 kilos of olives a couple of days later, which gave us a further 45 litres of oil, also at 0.2%.
We’d been warned by neighbours that olives being pressed at the moment were only producing around 10% of oil, so we were pretty chuffed to receive around 18% back, which is pretty good for this time of the year – 90 litres of oil in a week is also pretty good going.
Choosing the best time to harvest olives can make all the difference as far as yield, organoleptic characteristics, shelf life, and colour. Many contadini harvest their olives around Christmas time as the olives are more mature then and the olives contain more oil.
The best time to harvest them is when the olives turn from red to purple to produce robust fruity oil, retaining maximum goodness and a long shelf life. See the Olive source for a more detailed explanation.
We harvest our olives around this time but there will still be around 10% green olives and some black ones in the mix as olives mature at different rates. Oil produced now is a vibrant green colour, which will mellow over time. It will keep for a couple of years as opposed to just the one-year for oil made with matured olives and retains a good balance of anti-oxidants and flavour.