Traditional Olive Oil Pressing and Olio Nuovo:
Twitter can be a wonderful networking tool. A few months ago I was busy tweeting about my last trip to Tuscany and an Italian lady started to chat to me. She told me that she loved London and had studied there. She asked why I wasn’t visiting HER (as it happens I was on the wrong side of Tuscany, or I might well have done so). We carried on chatting and sharing, so when I had the chance to return to Tuscany I contacted her and she offered to show us around Pistoia. That offer seemed very casual, but in a day, Michela managed to pack in some fabulous experiences that we would never had had without her, in addition to helping put together the rest of the itinerary for our trip. So, I am very much in her debt and rather hope that if she visits London soon I will be able to return the favour and show her a little of my home City.
In Northern Italy olives are harvested and pressed at this time of year. It is something that I’ve heard about, read about and always been rather fascinated by. I was thrilled to be taken to visit one of the last traditional mills in Tuscany, owned and run by Mrs Iolanda Cardini, who is 80 years old and has spent the last 47 years working on her oil mill in Quarrata, Tacinaia – Pistoia district. Olives have to be harvested when the weather is dry – any water on the fruit will make it rot quickly, perhaps before it even gets pressed. And, pressing the olives as close as possible to where they are harvested will achieve the best, freshest and purest flavour. We were lucky to have a few sunny days, perfect for harvesting and then pressing oil, so on our visit we could see the entire process.
And while large estates have their own presses, communal mills like the one Michela took us to visit have always been used to enable smaller farmers to produce their own oil.
As we approached, we could see a stream of deeply unpleasant looking pulp being spewed from a pipe upstairs in the mill. And, when we went into the building, the first thing that we noticed was an intense and lingering smell of oil. A ripe, fruity scent that was quite unmistakable.
Upstairs, we spotted the machine which created the pulp. Olives were tipped unwashed into a large vat, pulverised with large stone wheels then broken down yet further with a kind of corkscrew shaped macerator.
When a kind of muddy mush was produced, the entire mixture was spread out into disks, stacked up and pressed to extract all the juice.
The next process involved a centrifuge and was, so Iolanda told us, the reason washing the olives was unnecessary. By spinning the liquid, the oil and water were separated and the process completed.
The olives being pressed were brought by local farmers. Each waiting with his olives to make sure that the oil he got at the end was from HIS harvest. There were important choices to make that would affect the flavour of the resulting oil, such as whether to include any leaves in the pressing (apparently that adds a peppery flavour) and what mix of black and green olives to use.
At the end of the process, we were treated to a taste of the product. Quite different to anything I’ve ever seen in shops here, the result is very deep green and slightly cloudy. It is smooth and buttery with an intense and peppery flavour.
Called Olio Nuovo it has a very short shelf life (two to three months). If it is stored in vats, the small particles of fruit that are left in the oil and that make it cloudy will sink, leaving what we know as extra virgin olive oil. But, if it’s bottled straight away, the particles remain in the oil and will eventually ferment and spoil the oil.
Later in our trip we saw a slightly more modern estate oil product at the Tenuta di Capezzana. Not much was different. The olives were washed. The leaves were removed mechanically and the maceration process and pressing was done as one process. It’s a fascinating operation and the taste and smell of Olio Nuovo will stay with me for ever.