I asked our host, Anna, “And, these are your olive trees?”
I reached up and picked a dark, purple olive from the branch just above our heads. I rolled it between my fingers and squeezed; the juices dripping down into my palm. The berry then slipped easily from my grasp, falling to the ground.
I rubbed my hands together.
“Wow! I had no idea there would be so much oil. I guess I never really thought about it much.”
“An olive contains anywhere from 10 to 20% pure olive oil. Taste it.”
I licked my fingertip and my face screwed up into a sour grimace.
She laughed, “The oil tastes wonderful but olive water is one of the bitterest things you’ll ever taste. That’s what the pressing is all about. Separating the oil from the water and the meat of the olive.”
“Elaine, Joe, come on, lets go for a ride.”
We walked out of Anna and Peter’s huge garden, past our “casa” for the next several days and climbed back into our car. I merged the small Fiat back onto the road in the direction Anna had indicated.
“Take a right at the next street. See the large building up on the hill? That’s where we’re going.”
I followed her directions and turned onto a narrow dirt road that led up to the building. There were several varieties of small farm trucks parked outside and the sound of machinery emanated from inside.
“Come on, let’s go in.”
We climbed out of the car and walked across the gravel parking lot, entering the dark interior of the building through a large overhead doorway. We were immediately enveloped in the scent of fresh olive oil.
There were several elderly farmers milling around or sitting on crates inside the cool interior of the olive processing facility. Another, younger man, was tending to the machinery while a third man was operating a forklift. He was picking up a huge palleted crate of freshly picked olives. As we watched, he maneuvered the crate towards a hopper and carefully tipped it, pouring the olives in. A pretty, dark-skinned women, dressed in bluejeans and a flannel shirt walked over to us and greeted Anna with a smile. They talked for a minute or two. Anna then introduced us to Arianna.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you. Would you like to see how we make olive oil?”
We nodded in anticipation and the four of us approached the machinery.
“This is a co-op. The cost of the machinery to extract olive oil is way too high for small, individual farmers to afford so we’ve all teamed together to build this facility. What we have here is the latest in olive oil extraction technology. Our production can now compete with the big producers.”
We approached the hopper where the olives were being fed into a large machine with water pouring into the top.
“It’s a four step process. First, the olives are cleaned and all debris such as leaves, twigs, rocks and the like are removed. It’s amazing what we find sometimes in the bins. We’ve had broken glass, rings, bracelets, and pieces of metal come tumbling out of the bottom. Whatever it is we carefully separate it out so that the processing machinery isn’t damaged. Nothing but olives are run through.”
We followed a conveyor belt to the next machine.
“The second step is crushing the olives into a paste. This grinder tears the flesh cells to release the oil from the vacuoles.”
We moved on to the third machine. It was a long horizontal trough with spiral auger-like mixing blades churning the green paste that was pouring out of the crusher.
“This is called the ‘malaxing machine”. It mixes the paste for 20 to 45 minutes allowing the small oil droplets to combine into bigger ones. It’s the first step is actually separating the oil from the vegetable water and solids.”
We then moved to the last machine, a huge cylinder emitting a high pitched whine.
“This is the centrifuge. It’s a three-phase process that separates the oil, the water, and the solids. The oil is the lightest component of the three. By spinning at a high speed the heavier solids move to the outer wall of the cylinder, the water to the middle part and the oil to the innermost. A syphon tube is then used to extract the oil from the center of the centrifuge.”
Arianna picked up a small plastic cup and placed it under a continuous flowing stream of green fluid pouring from the machine and into a large, 5-liter container.
She continued, “The term ‘cold press’ really doesn’t apply anymore to modern olive oil production. The centrifuge is much more efficient and economical but we still carefully control the temperature to ensure that it stays below 80 degrees F. This produces the best flavor.”
Arianna handed the cup to me. I brought it to my lips cautiously, the bitter taste of the raw olive still lingered in my mouth from 15 minutes ago.
The warm, smooth, creamy, oily green essence of Sicily itself poured down my throat and a smile gently spread across my face. I handed the cup to Elaine and she drank. She had the same reaction.
Anna and Arianna smiled back at us. We nodded our heads in acknowledgment. No further words needed to be spoken.
Arianna led us back to a small kitchen where a couple of the farmers were just coating warm, freshly baked slices of bread with a layer of olive oil and a light sprinkling of salt. They were preparing to sample their latest crop of olive oil. Arianna handed a slice of bread to each of us and then poured several small plastic cups of red wine.
Twenty minutes later we were walking out the large doorway carrying 5-liters of the freshest, most delicious olive oil we’d ever tasted.