November 09, 2011

Traditional Olive Oil Press in the Val D'Orcia

I set out recently to explore a traditional stone olive mill with the final pressing on fiber discs. This ancient style of olive production is a dying breed. Most modern mills utilize mechanized presses in stainless steel foregoing the stone mill and fiber discs completely. The mill I wanted to check out was at Belladonna farms, and I was shown around by Ilaria at her family’s mill in the Orcia Valley. The farm and mill have been in her family for nearly 300 years, and she mills both her and her neighbors’ olives. Ilaria emphasizes that she will only press olives of growers she knows personally; reminding me that Tuscan olive oil needs to come from Tuscan olives. Too often growers from other regions press their olives in Tuscany to trick the consumer. Tuscan olive oil still draws the highest price, and unfortunately there some producers who cheat. 

Her family’s main reason for maintaining the traditional method of pressing, she stated, was “it’s the only true way to get a 100% cold pressed olive oil.” She explained that the modern presses today don’t need to heat up the olive paste to create heat. The steel mechanisms, she insisted, inside the modern presses create heat on their own as they move. This small increase in heat is enough, she figures, to change the chemical structure of the olive oil for the worse, creating a slightly less quality product.

The traditional milling process starts much as the modern methods with the harvest in late October or early November depending on the season. The pre-ripe olives must be hand harvested and will go from the field to the mill ideally within 24-48 hours max. The olives are then cleaned of any remaining leaves and sent to the mill (pits and all). The traditional stone press requires a keen eye to understand the right consistency of the paste. Once the right consistency is reached, the paste is sent to the dosage machine which spreads the paste on the fiber discs. These are stacked up roughly 2 meters high and then slowly pressed. The almost syrupy liquid which comes out is a mix of water, oil and pulp. This thick juice is then sent to a centrifuge which separates the oil from the water and remaining solid materials. Utilizing this process, Ilaria is able to press about 250 pounds of olive paste every 2 and a half hours. This is significantly more labor intensive than the modern presses, which can press roughly 1000 pounds in roughly an hour.

It’s fantastic to see Ilaria’s family continuing to use a traditional mill and her olive oil is definitely up there with some of the finest I’ve tasted. I won’t completely write off using modern presses as I have tasted many a great oil coming from these as well. And, just to remind readers, there are several factors which determine the quality of extra virgin olive oil. Some of the main factors are the species of olive (there are nearly 500 in Italy), where you grow them (north facing slopes in temperate climate zones), at what point you harvest (olives should be harvested prior to fully ripening for higher quality oil), and finally how fast you get them to the press (ideally less than 24 hours within the harvest). These higher quality oils are typically used raw as condiments, and not for cooking. Cooking destroys some of the health benefits as well as ruins the flavor, so I suggest using a grocery store extra virgin oil for your cooking. It’s high time I go make a fett’unta (or Tuscan Bruschetta). Happy Eating!

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