Making Extra Virgin Olive oil is an art and a science. Everything has to go right in order for the liquid gold to be called Extra Virgin. It boggles the mind to think of how many things can go wrong, but year after year many quality conscious producers make an excellent quality extra virgin olive oil. My job is to find those producers and offer them to you.
Here is just an overview to give you an idea of how olive oil is made.
It all starts with the olive. The producer has to determine when the olives are picked; when the fruit is green, which produces a fruity intense oil but produces a smaller yield or when the olive ripens, which produces a greater yield and a milder more delicate oil.
The olives are collected by either mechanical means or by hand raking. Both methods create their own special qualities in the oil. The olives must not touch the ground, so nets are placed on the ground to help protect them.
Next is getting the olives quickly to the processing mill. To ensure freshness, the mills I spoke to (and I am selling their oil), bring their olives to the processing plant within 1 – 3 hours of harvesting.
Next step: Cleaning the olives. This happens in two steps: 1, the leaves and other small branches and stones are removed and 2, the olives are washed in water to make sure dust and soil are removed.
Now, the olives are ready for pitting and milling. What does that mean? It means that the olives are smashed into a paste. This paste contains all parts of the olive and the oil can then be freed from the olive.
Once the paste is formed, it goes through a process called malaxation. This is where all of the chemical and physical transformations occur. Temperature is critical at this step. The end result of the malaxation step is to make the separation of the pulp from the oil easier in the next step, centrifugation.
Centrifugation is where the paste is separated into solids, water, and the precious oil. The oil produced is approximately 10 – 20 % of the weight of the paste. That’s not very much! It takes many olives to make olive oil.
Once the oil is procured, it goes through a filtering process to ensure that there are no particles left that can be detrimental to the oil while in storage and in your bottle. But the oil, which is made before filtration, is a special treat.
In Italy when this first oil is produced, it is called the New Oil – Olio Nuovo. For a month after harvest between October and November, people flock to their favorite olive oil mill and purchase the oil before it is filtered. The shelf life for unfiltered oil is about 1 month. But it is a treat! Drizzle this oil on fresh bread with a dash of salt and you won’t believe how delicious it is. After school, the kids go to their local market and for 1 Euro, they get a piece of bread with Olio Nuovo and salt and they are so happy. This happens only once a year and it a special treat that both young and old enjoy.
I hope this summary was helpful to you. As you can see each step is critical to the process and if any of these steps get compromised, the oil does too.
If there is anything else you would like to learn about, please let me know.
Ciao for now,
Reference: The Extra Virgin Handbook, edited by Claudio Peri, 2014