Making olive oil - from Muricciaglia to Melbourne
By Tricia Brown
At an altitude of 500 to 600 metres in the Chianti hills of Tuscany in Italy, Muricciaglia is located in the heart of an area long esteemed for the quality of its grapevines and olive oil.
An invitation from Italian friends at Muricciaglia to pick olives and to see how olive oil is made was therefore too good to pass up. How do you pick olives? Do we need gloves? Any special equipment? We've never picked olives before, we explain.
After arriving (the harvest is around mid November) we meet up with the other olive pickers - an eclectic bunch of future friends, many who return year after year - from Belgium, France, America, Russia and Italy.
Nets are carefully staked out below the trees and the olives are picked or stripped by hand, falling into the nets to be collected later. All the olives on the tree are picked, large and small, green and black; not a single olive is left. At Muricciaglia the olive trees are kept trimmed so our "work" is easy to manage without ladders or machinery.
Olives throughout Italy are harvested by a variety of methods: shaking the trunk of the tree, picking with a mechanical hand or beating the tree with a stick.
Conversations flow in a variety of languages and the work is extremely pleasant in the warm sunshine. We teach Franco the value of the Aussie "smoko" and it becomes the mid-morning call for a break.
In a matter of days it is all over much to our dismay as we were just getting into the rhythm of picking olives in the morning, a long lunch in Mimma's huge and beautiful country kitchen (Mimma has her own cooking school and so the food is to die for) and a short afternoon picking olives before an early finish.
The enjoyable outdoor work, delightful company of our fellow olive pickers and the memorable long lunches (with wine) are enough to make us want to stay forever.
The olives are transported to the local "frantoio" (extraction plant) as soon as the harvest is over and the procedure of extracting the oil from the olives begins as soon as they are weighed and washed. Storage triggers fermentation in the fruit and is harmful to the quality of the oil.
The extraction plant is small but a veritable beehive of activity with trucks coming and going non-stop depositing their precious cargo. At this time of year the plant is open night and day and remains so for the month it takes to press everyone's oil. The other 11 months are for cleaning and maintaining the equipment.
The extraction process is:
- Crushing to break down the olives and release the oil (this particular plant uses a metallic toothed disc crusher)
- Extraction by a horizontal two phase centrifuge (though this may vary from plant to plant)
- Separation of the oil and water by a vertical centrifuge
The process is fascinating particularly as we watch our olives going through the different stages. Fastidious attention is paid to keeping one person's olives and oil separate from another's as machinery is shut off and turned on. Everyone follows the processing of their olives with intense concentration. This is serious business for these small producers.
In the process nothing is wasted. The olive waste is reprocessed and an inferior oil is extracted for industrial use with the final dry waste used as a fertiliser.
The oldest method of extracting olive oil is where the olives are ground to a paste with huge stone wheels, many of which can be seen lying on the side of the road throughout Chianti. The paste is smeared on round mats which are stacked and pressure is applied by a hydraulic press.
Our olives, though, get the modern treatment. This centrifugation which operates on the principle of separating the solids and the liquid by centrifugal force produces, in Muricciaglia's opinion, a far superior oil.
Nothing prepares us for the end result: an olive oil so green that it resembles dishwashing liquid. The colour comes from the large amount of chlorophyll in the ripening olives and fades with heat and time so store your oil in a cool, dark spot (a wine cellar is excellent).
The taste is nothing like we've ever tasted before either and is a shock. It is strong and peppery with a slight burn to the throat. It strikes us that we have never tasted "real" olive oil before. Fruity, bitter and pungent sensations are considered positive attributes while sensations like acid, sour, vinegary and metallic are negative.
This is the oil that Italians use for salads or to drizzle over bread or over food at the end of cooking. It is the good oil and not used for cooking. This is "our" oil and surely the best of any produced in Italy. We are as proud as new parents.
Muricciaglia olive groves count around 700 trees and the oil produced from these olives is classic Tuscan oil, spicy with a slight peppery taste typical of the region. Based on its low acidity, well below the limit of 0.8 percent, the oil is classified as "extra virgin".
Muricciaglia olive oil is currenty sold in Australia through Oliveria in Prahran, Melbourne
- Italy - all (IT)
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