When you conjure up the Mediterranean diet in your mind the first thing that probably comes to you is olive oil, and quite likely Italian olive oil. The month of November is the big month for the Italian olive harvest, when the many varietals of olives are picked and brought to one of the hundreds of olive presses throughout the country.
We just picked and pressed our olives at a local olive press. Here's all about our olive oil harvest, along with information on what goes into harvesting olives in Italy.
The Olive Harvest is a family affair
Throughout Italy olive harvesting takes place on the thousands of orchards owned by families. If you only have a few trees you take your olives to the press to be combined with other local olives so that you can take home a few bottles of olive oil.
The goal is to have enough trees and pick enough olives to have your very own olive oil. We have plenty, and more each year as our trees grow larger.
Olive harvest is a time for family and friends to gather together for a day of hard work outdoors in the sunshine to pick olives and ready them for the press. The very youngest member of our family is just 14 months old and she spent her time sitting on the olive nets playing with the olives and looking at all their gorgeous colors.
Five-year-old Riccardo had his own basket and followed the lead of others who have been picking olives for decades.
It’s exhausting work but the rewards are plenty. Lots of laughter and stories are told, and the day is interspersed with coffee breaks and cakes, and then of course today at lunchtime a hearty meal of pasta amatriciana, grilled sausages and potatoes, salad and some wonderful full-bodied local red wine.
The Harvesting Process
The first step is to spread nets out underneath the trees so they catch the olives that fall to the ground while you’re picking. You can pick by hand, the most time-consuming technique, or you can use a plastic claw that pulls the olives off the branches. There are also electric claws that work in the same way but they also shake the branches which helps olives fall to the ground.
Lots of olives are way high up in the tree so someone needs to venture up to the top to pick those olives. There are also special ladders you can lean against the tree to climb up and reach the olives.
The harvest is an all day affair with 5 to 10 people working virtually nonstop. Then at day’s end when the harvest is done it’s time to head to the olive press, known in Italy as the frantoio.
What happens at the frantoio?
The very first step is to weigh your olives. The olive press is paid by weight: about €13 per quintale. We had 4.4 quintali this year. One quintale is 100 kg or 220 pounds, so in other words this year we had just under half a ton of olives.
Depending on when you pick your olives you will have a different yield. Our yield was about 11% and if we had waited to pick our olives a few more weeks it would’ve been higher. But then you have to add in the bird factor because once the olives are ripe birds enjoy eating them so you might in the end have less olives to take to the press.
After the olives are weighed they head up a conveyor belt that shakes off all the leaves and excess debris. The olives then move to a bath to rinse them off, and finally they head to the press.
In the past olives were pressed between two giant circular stone disks and the olive oil drizzled down from the sides into a large container. Nowadays olive pressing is done in a stainless steel structure that’s more efficient and much more hygienic.
The liquid that emerges after the pressing is a dark, thick gunky looking liquid; it’s a mixture of solid matter, water and olive oil.
It’s centrifugal force that separates the olive oil from the other watery and solid matter. Once this happens you finally reach the magic moment when your olive oil comes pouring out of a spout into your stainless steel olive oil container ready to take home.
What is extra-virgin olive oil?
Extra-virgin olive oil is cold-pressed olive oil, in other words the oil you see pouring out of the spout right after the pressing. It’s not entirely cold-pressed because some heat is added during the pressing process but never greater than 27°C. Extra-virgin olive oil should also have less than an .8% acidity level. If you are a medium-size producer or a very large producer you must have your olive oil certified so that the consumer is sure that the oil has been cold-pressed, that it's acidity level is no greater than .8% and that the oil comes from where it says it does.
The history of the olive harvest
Harvesting olives for culinary and other uses dates back to the eighth millennium BC. Italy is a major producer of olive oil in the Mediterranean, along with Spain, Greece and a few other countries.
Italy produces olive oil in all of its regions but each region has its own varietals, or cultivars, of olives. Italy is the world leader for number of olive varietals: over 500!
Olive varietals in the Lazio region
In northern Rome where we are, in the Lazio region, there are three primary olive varietals.
Our trees are almost all leccino and these olives yield a wonderful flavor of freshly cut grass, almonds and a gentle spicy finish.
Another common olive varietal in the Lazio region is frantoio. Frantoio olive oil has an intense artichoke leaf flavor along with hints of freshly cut grass, almonds and a delightful bitter harmony and persistent aftertaste.
Pendolino olives are a rare varietal in Lazio and the oil has a gentle herbal aroma.
Before we had our own olives we, like many people without olive trees, got our olive oil from friends, neighbors or relatives. Or we bought some from a local frantoio.
Whatever oil you purchase bear in mind that just after pressing the flavor is quite intense with grassy and spicy tones, but this mellows considerably over time.
If you store your olive oil properly in a stainless steel or glass container, in a cool dark place, your oil will last a year or even two.
Olive tree challenges
Fruit flies are a threat to olive trees because they deposit their larvae into the tree’s fruit. When this happens you see a tiny hole on the olives, which of course ruins the fruit.
There are ways you can protect your trees and the least invasive technique, used by organic olive oil producers, is to hang buckets with natural hormones from the trees to repel the flies.
Freezing temperatures are another threat to olive trees. Two years ago we thought we had lost over half of our trees to a freeze. Olive trees are hearty and resistant and although the freeze split some of the trunks and caused the bark to peel off, over time the trees healed themselves. And this year we had a wonderful olive yield.
A few words on commercial olive harvesting
At small frantoi there is one olive oil pressing and the residual solid matter is used for fertilizer.
Commercial producers press their olives a second time, at a higher temperature to extract more oil from the olives. This oil is virgin olive oil and it’s also good quality oil, often used for cooking and frying.
There’s then a third pressing, again at a much higher temperature. This oil is used for fuel and industrial applications. And, once again, the residual solid matter is used for fertilizer.
Let’s dispel a few misconceptions about olive oil
Olive oil color
Many people believe that a great olive oil has a rich green color, but actually this isn’t necessarily the case. Some oils are green and some are gold toned; the color is determined by the olive varietal.
At an olive oil tasting usually the oil is put in blue glass containers so that you’re not influenced by the color during the tasting.
The best way to taste olive oil is with bread or a boiled potato. First, deeply inhale the aroma and then taste the oil - a similar approach to wine tasting.
Yes, you can fry with olive oil!
There’s a misconception about the smoke point of olive oil. It depends on the varietal but olive oil can reach 410°F – a perfect temperature for frying. In addition, olive oil has a superior ability to resist oxidation and form harmful compounds during frying which makes it an ideal oil to fry with.
Olive Oil Recipe Ideas
Two ways to cure olives
If you have fresh olives it’s wonderful to cure them and set aside for use all year long. They’re great served as an appetizer, or used in pasta and other dishes.
Salt cured olives
To salt cure olives take a glass jar and put a little layer of rock salt on the bottom. Top with a layer of olives, then another layer of rock salt, and more olives until the jar is filled. Close the jar and set in a dark closet to cure. Every day give the jar a gentle shake and you’ll see that in a couple of days all the bitter liquids will start to purge off. Pour it out and put your jar back in the closet. After about a month taste one of the olives and you’ll see it has a wonderful flavor.
There are a few variations when you cure your olives with rock salt. You can add in some sliced garlic, hot chili peppers or zest from lemons and oranges. The olives will take on some of that flavor and they’re absolutely divine.
Keep the olives stored in the closet and I guarantee you they will last pretty close to forever. Except for the fact that you’ll eat them quickly because they’re so delicious.
Olives cured in salamoia, or a saltwater solution
This is my preferred way to cure olives. Dissolve 90 g of rock salt in 1 L of water and allow it to cool to room temperature. Put the olives in a large glass jar about ¾ full. Pour the salt water solution atop the olives so that they are completely covered.
Again, after about three or four weeks all the bitterness will be purged off and your olives are edible and ready to use in recipes or eat just as is! Remember to rinse them off before you use them to remove the excess saltiness.
This is the very first thing we make when we bring our freshly pressed olive oil home. Toast a couple of pieces of country bread and gently rub with a garlic clove: not too much: just a bit to lend a gentle garlic flavor to the bread. Drizzle abundantly with your new olive oil, salt and devour!
Aglio Olio Peperoncino Spaghetti
This is probably the easiest pasta dish to make and it’s a favorite of ours.
Sizzle 2 smashed garlic cloves and one hot chili pepper in 60 or 70 ml of olive oil. Toss in 400 g of al dente spaghetti along with some freshly chopped parsley and a sprinkling of salt.
You might also want to try this delicious Spaghetti with a Spicy Tomato Anchovy Sauce.
Books about olive oil
Extra Virginity: the Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil is a great book by Tom Mueller well worth checking out.
And how about this Olive Oil and Vinegar Lovers Cookbook?
Would you like to purchase some wonderful Italian extra-virgin olive oil?
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