Monday, December 3, 2012

Il Frantoio (Olive Oil Production)

Il Frantoio (Olive Oil Production)
Last week we spoke about ‘La Raccolta delle Olive’ (The Olive Harvest) and we left off as the olives were being rushed to the frantoio, or the olive pressing mill. Once harvested, olives must be pressed as soon as possible, generally within 36 hours at most. That means that during this time of year olives mills run almost around the clock as one truck after another pulls up with their precious cargo.

There are many different ways to press oil. From the ancient method of using millstones to today’s high tech machines that, from cleaning to pressing the olives, automatically complete every step. While there are several variations on the process, let’s examine the traditional methods first.

The initial step is to prepare the olives for pressing by separating any stems and leaves and washing them. Once clean, the next step, called the frangitura, is where the olives, pits and all, are crushed until they form a brown paste. During the crushing, this paste is kneaded and generally heated ever so slightly so the oils will be released. The exact temperature of heating is a topic of great debate and often varies from one olive grower to the next, but the heat will never rise over 80ºF (27ºC), the maximum temperature allowed during extraction to still consider the oil “cold pressed.” In the traditional stone ground method, large granite wheels slowly crush the olives as they rotate. Using modern methods they are sometimes sliced with sharp blades instead of being crushed, but in many modern mills wheels are still often used. The aromatic fragrance that arises as these fresh olives are crushed is the first taste an onlooker has of the fine olive oil to come.

Once crushed, the next step is called the gramolatura, where the olive paste is spread out onto many circular mats made of a woven material, which are then stacked on top of one another and placed in a hydraulic press. As the olive paste is very slowly pressed, a reddish brown mixture of oil and water emerges from the press. However, this liquid produced from the estrazione still doesn’t look like the olive oil you’d expect. To make the final product, the liquid is put in a centrifuge that separates the oil from the water. Watching the freshly pressed oil drip out of the centrifuge in vivid shades of greens and golds is the moment of truth as this year’s labor and harvest can finally be tasted.

Today modern mills often use an entirely mechanical method, which can combine some, if not all, of these steps into one continual cycle from washing to the final product. While not as romantic an image as the stone mills, the modern continuous cycle mechanical pressing offers many advantages. Each step takes place in a temperature controlled environment, and the stainless steel machines allow for easy sterilization and cleaning. This flexibility and control, as well as the fine olive oils produced, has made the continuous cycle process more and more popular over recent years.

Tuscans love their olive oil and take great pride in it as well. This is what makes the annual harvest and pressing of olives such a labor of love for so many.  - Luxury Italian Cashmere, Bedding & Bath Linen

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