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From Tree to Table: Making our very own olive oil

(post, Judith Klinger)

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From tree to table: Our very own olive oil

First we hand picked 146.1 kilos of olives. It took 3 days of climbing trees, spreading nets and schlepping crates of olives. It was glorious to be out in the sun, sliding olives off the tree, my hands feeling smooth and soft at the end of the day.  It felt good and right and pagan to be out there harvesting olives.  If we had Etruscan ancestors, we were connecting directly to them as we talked to the trees, gave thanks for the fruit and sang songs. OK, we chose to sing chain gang and railroad hobo ditties, but you get the vibe, right? 

Now that we had our crates of olives, we still hadn’t solved our olive oil press problem. The picturesque mill we’ve used before wasn’t an option.  They got a little carried away with ‘straneiri extortion’, that’s when they charge the foreigners more money than anyone else. For as long as we live in Italy, we will forever be stranieri, but that doesn’t mean we don’t understand what’s going on. And the proprietor lady of the mill is mean, mean, mean.   
Word had it that a new mill in Gualdo Tadino was the place to go, except they had a 280 kg minimum, and that’s a lot more olives than we had.  I called anyway, told her our sad story, and she said, OK, come tomorrow at 6:30, took my name, and that was that. 

Directions and map in hand, we drove the winding road (what do you call a road that has a curve every 25 meters? writhing snake road?) with rain pelting down and the smell of fresh olives filling the car.  We finally find the mill, and it’s brand spankin’, shining new. We walk in at 6:14 and a smiling man says, “We’ve been waiting for you.”
Huh? There posted on the wall is a time chart, with my name on it, and they’re right on schedule. It’s a miracle, could we still be in Italy? 

Our olives are going to get combined with another family’s olives so we can meet the minimum. We introduce ourselves and surreptitiously sneak peeks at each other’s olives. Politely, we ask, “Where are you from?” .  “Where are your olives from?”  “Hand picked?” “Any hail damage?” Their olives look a lot like our olives, and they seem like fine upstanding people. Both sides are satisfied and we agree to be co-pressed, co-mingled, and co-oiled. 

The process begins!  We take pictures and laugh and carry on, and everyone around us  laughs along.  The mill is spotless, stray leaves and stems are swept up immediately, the staff wear blue lab jackets, the machines are stainless steel magnificent with a high-tech control panel. The owner explains, “We eat this oil, of course it’s clean!” 

The fork lift comes and takes away our hard earned olives and dumps them into the shaker machine and that’s the last time we see the olives until they come out as oil. The shaker machine is the first step in removing any stems and leaves. The olives are then washed and carried into the GENIUS machine..  The GENIUS has three compartments with a huge auger screw, similar to a wine press, and it mashes the olives into pulp and somehow extracts the pits. The pulp is so loose and liquidy that it can be pumped out in a hose about 3 inches wide, where it goes into the ELEPHANT, which is a centrifuge that extracts the oil and the water and pumps the left over pulp out the back door.  That pulp gets sold on the secondary market for lower grade, processed olive oil. Our extra virgin olive oil will be the first pressing of good quality olives, no heat, no chemicals, just olivey goodness. 

Since this who process takes awhile, the mill owners have set up a waiting room. A fire is burning, which is a welcome sight on a chilly, rainy night. Better yet, there are strips of grilled guanciale (like pancetta, but from the cheek of the pig, tender, salty, bacon X 10) ready to be eaten on wood fire toasted bread, literally drenched in fresh olive oil. A bite of the bread and the oil is running down my arm like juice from a burst peach.  It’s a sensory overload, washed down with a fresh white wine. Now, this is a waiting room! 
The bigger issue was the smell of all those olives being pressed was making everyone hungry, and that guanciale was even more of an appetite opener. It was the most exquisite torture waiting for our oil, but everyone is in a good mood.  We stand around watching a man filling his cans with oil, and we all stand around mesmerized at the wondrous oil. Finally he looks at me and says, “Bello. Molto bello ogni volta.”  “Gorgeous. Gorgeous every time.”  I think there is something that gets released into the air as the olives are pressed, it’s like naturally occurring lithium at a hot springs. Everyone smiles. 

Finally, the oil is pumped into one last centrifuge and the spigot opens and out comes our oil! The oil is measured in kilos and we watch the scale, hoping we’ll get 50 kilos, the oil flow slows to a trickle and we top out at 54.65 kilos of oil. Woo hooooo!  More smiles all around. 

We all troop into the office to pay up, and the mill boss is a sweet woman who very carefully divides up the bill between us and our new oil friends. Then she heads outside to personally divide up the oil so there won’t be any disputes. Everyone is happy. We get a short, well meaning lecture about having plastic jugs and we promise to take the oil out of the plastic as soon as we get home. Satisfied that we will treat our oil properly, everyone shakes hands, trades kisses and we head out the door with our oil.

We even find a decent pizza place to finally get something to eat. All in all, a fine night’s work. 

We had a celebratory dinner the next night, featuring our extra, extra virgin olive oil.  It’s extra extra virgin on the very first night that you taste it, after that it’s just extra virgin. Still fabulous, but never like the first time. We had to start with more grilled guanciale on fire toasted bread with oil. This satisfies every primal craving you’ve ever had: crunch, salt, oil, pork, wood smoke, only this time we washed it down with cold Prosecco. 
And then to guild the lily, shrimp broiled on a bed of salt, finished with shaved white truffles and a generous drizzle of our new oil. Does it get better than this? Buon’appetito indeed!