Olive Oil Season

My favorite seasons to be in Italy are Spring and Fall. The weather is usually (but not always) wonderful and the countryside is (always!!) gorgeous.

Another important factor is that there’s enough daylight to see and do the things you’ve always dreamed of seeing and doing. That changes at the end of October when the clocks Fall back. 20+ years ago I was on a bike trip with a truly terrible touring company where daylight savings time ended in the middle of our trip. Had it been a better company, the guide would have been prepared and the routes would have been changed to accommodate less daylight. But this guide had been used to even the slowest of bikers finishing their rides in plenty of light, and he was totally unprepared for people straggling back in the dark. And believe me – there were some VERY unhappy stragglers!

So when I hear people planning a trip after the time change, I’m somewhat less than enthusiastic. How can they have the long, leisurely lunch that’s such an enjoyable part of any Italian vacation? They’ll be finished just in time for the sun to go down and won’t be able to see anything on the ride back to their hotel.

But I changed my mind after I stayed a bit longer one year, and ended up in Orvieto for the olive pressing. I have to admit right up front that I cheated. I did not participate in the olive harvest. I’ve heard it’s much more arduous than the vendemmia for grapes, and our friend Liz’s first-hand-experience blog will tell you all about the harvest part (http://www.myvillageinumbria.com/2012/11/the-fruits-of-our-labor-olive-harvest.html).

I was there to reap the benefits of others’ hard labor. Our friend Brian told me about a frantoio (olive press) in Monterubiaglio, a very small town outside Orvieto. It was early November and the olive harvest had just started. All I wanted to do was buy a few cans to take home, but once I saw the pressing process, I had to hang out there for the rest of the day.

As Liz says – the olives are brought in (by appointment), weighed and crushed. In picture #1,

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you can see the bin of olives on the right, going up the chute to the rotating crushing stones. If you look at the metal cylinder sticking out from that blue thing between the 2 men, you can see the crushed olive paste coming out to be placed on a round fiber mat. The mats on the left have already been squeezed. The men discard the olive residue in the wheelbarrow in front of them, spread another helping of paste on now clean mat and pile it on the cylinder on the right. At regular intervals, they put a heavy metal disk between the mats. When the stack finally gets impossibly high, they wheel it over to a hydraulic press (pictures #2 & 3).

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IMG_0036Even before they move it, the oil is starting to seep down the sides because of the weight of the mats and metal disks. The press takes about an hour to compress that tall stack into something a few feet high (photo #4).

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The oil is pumped through a centrifuge to get rid of all the stuff that’s not oil, and then this heavenly day-glo green liquid comes out for us mere mortals to enjoy (picture #5).

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Since the oil is unfiltered, after a couple of weeks, the particles begin to sink to the bottom of the can and the neon green color starts to fade. So I’m not saying it’s impossible to get this in the US, but it would be difficult to find and very expensive because it would have to be shipped immediately after the pressing and not wait around in a warehouse somewhere.

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You can buy excellent oil — both filtered and unfiltered — produced by the same method; the label should say “first cold pressed” in addition to “extra virgin”.  Yes — it will be delicious, but it won’t have the same pure taste you’ll experience if you’re right there.

My afternoon ended with the head of the frantoio inviting me to sit at a table overlooking the operation while he toasted several pieces of bread. Normally, bread in Umbria and Tuscany is not very tasty because tradition dictates that it not have salt (a centuries old grudge about a long-forgotten salt tax), but drizzling a bit of this gift from the gods over the warm toast transforms it into one of the best things you’ll ever eat.

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Why am I telling you about this now when the harvest is 3 months away?  I’m simply trying to provide a reason why you just might want to put a November trip to Italy on your calendar.  And you won’t mind your drive home in the dark one little bit.