I may not have been to an olive harvest before but I have been to an olive press, including the ancient ones in Volubilis near Meknes, Morocco. However, the one Tonino and Mary use near their farm has nothing ancient about it. In fact, it is very modern with the process completely automated from when the olives are poured into an underground chamber (through a grill to catch the last of the branches) to when they are sucked onto a conveyor belt ferrying them to a washing chamber then onto another conveyor belt which carries them to the press. The process is fascinating to watch even if not very aesthetic, at least not at Sole che Sorge whose lovely owner in the picture below doesn’t seem to have much concern for a photographer’s worry about nice backgrounds to her pictures!
It was also great fun to be at the press because of the wonderful tradition of having a table laid with bread (excellent in this case), freshly pressed olive oil and salt so that those waiting for their olives to be pressed can have a wholesome snack and taste both their oil and the press owner’s oil — they also do flavoured versions but I prefer my oil plain. On the morning I went with Tonino and Mary, there were some wonderful characters gathered around the table tucking heartily into the pane giallo with some soaking theirs with olive oil while Tonino simply drizzled ours with enough to taste both the bread and the oil.
Then Tonino turned his attention to the olives. They plant three varieties on the farm, biancolilla, nociellara del belice and cerasuolo, and blend them to produce a truly exceptional oil. Tonino brings them in small crates or large plastic baskets which he then dumps into a very large crate that the press owner operates with a pallet jack to lift it and dump the olives through a grille into the underground chamber from where they go onto the first conveyor belt.
The conveyor belt has shallow steps so that the olives don’t roll back as they are moved up and then down into their bath to be washed before they are conveyed to the press.
Each press has the olives’ owner’s name on it and here are Mary and Tonino watching their olives being crushed — because they had a lot that day, they were assigned two presses. There were six presses I think with an electronic board that controls them all. Unfortunately for reasons of hygiene and possibly more, there was no way I could have had the glass cover opened to take a picture or a video clip of the blades crushing the olives. Shame as it was quite mesmerising to watch.
We were at the frantoio for a couple of hours — the pressing takes some time — before Tonino was finally able to fill his cans. But this was not a problem. I was given a tour of the press where I saw what looked like a pile of gravel at the back which was in fact the residue olive pulp that is dried and used for fuel.
I also loved watching the other customers filling their cans with their own freshly pressed olive oil, and in particular a very old, friendly man who must have had only a few trees because he left with two small jerry cans.
I was quite fascinated by his looks and his eyes in particular which were really glauque, French for glaucous but the word sounds nicer in French. Anyway, I couldn’t resist asking him if he would let me photograph him. He didn’t mind but wanted to remove his cap. I made him put it back on. He looked more interesting and more elegant with it on! In fact, he was quite dapper as you can see from the full length picture.
Finally it was time for Tonino to bring in his cans to fill them with his oil and there again it was interesting to watch as he filled a plastic cup to look at the oil first, I guess to check the colour and consistency, then he smelled and tasted it. I am not sure what he would have done if he hadn’t liked the taste or look of the oil. It does vary slightly from year to year depending on weather conditions. Last year’s crop produced an even better oil than the previous one and I am hoping that this year’s is just as good. It promises to be from what I have tasted.
Tonino was happy with the oil and proceeded to fill his cans.
Back on the farm, they will pour the oil into a large metal vat and from there bottle it into 5 litre tins. This is how I get it in London but on Mary’s advice, I now immediately decant it into glass bottles. I should really use dark glass but I hide the bottles away from the light and it remains good all year, and beyond that but once I get the new season oil, I use the old one for cooking. Mind you, I now use Mary’s oil for everything. Just like my mother did with my uncle’s oil!
Tagged : alcamo, biancollila, bosco falconeria, cerasuolo, frantoio, mary taylor simeti, meknes, modern olive presses, nociellara del belice, olive oil pressing, sole che sorge, tonino simeti, volubilis 3