Each year my family works through about four gallons of extra virgin olive oil. I love its flavor, and its aroma as it hits the pan. I use it in salad dressings like Kefir Ranch Dressing and Kombucha Vinaigrette, in baking as for these Olive Oil and Wine Cookies, and in light cooking. The process of turning bitter olives into fragrant and beautiful olive oil fascinates me, and though I've visited olive groves before, I never saw a pressing - following olive oil production from grove to bottle.
So I recently invited myself to Jovial Foods' first olive oil pressing of the year. They've supported my work and I've been a customer of theirs for a number of years, so I was elated when they said "Yes" to my request. I bought a ticket, hopped on a plane and had the opportunity to see just exactly how traditional, heirloom quality extra virgin olive oil is made, and I couldn't wait to share that with you.
Visiting Jovial's olive oil production is a lesson in history, in the preservation of traditional foodways, and a celebration of the traditional foods that have nourished generations, and it all begins in the beautiful hills that surround Verona in northern Italy.
It Starts with the Olive Tree
The olive tree is a magnificent tree, renewing itself each year with new shoots that spring forth from the root, it never really dies; rather, with care and pruning, it can continue to nourish generation upon generation for thousands of years. Indeed, some of the world's oldest trees, those nestled in the hills near Verona in Italy, were first planted by the Romans and have been tended since those times by hand. The olives from those heirloom trees first tended by Romans, then by generations of hands through the middle ages, the Renaissance, surviving two world wars, are still pressed to make organic extra virgin olive oil.
Spaced far apart in long rows against the terraced hills that surround the misty old-world city of Verona, these ancient olive trees grow. Ample space between rows of trees means that there is not only enough from for each tree to grow, but it also reduces the risk of potential pests and other threats to the olive trees. Modern groves, by contrasted, are planted in huge, gaping flat fields with trees positioned close to one another to maximize yield and to ease mechanized harvest, but when trees are positioned close together it leaves them more vulnerable to pests, and farmers use pesticides to mitigate the risk they pose. And Italian olive oil has been detained at US Ports in the past because it tested too high for pesticides (read more here).
Ancient groves, by contrast, are spaced far apart and often include multiple types of heirloom olives, and both factors are inherently protective of the olive crop, making them particularly well-suited to organic production.
Harvesting the Olives for Oil
When the olives begin to ripen, they're pulled from the trees by hand, gathered, inspected and then rinsed with clean water before pressing. At the farms that supply Jovial Foods, the harvest typically begins in mid-October once the weather cools and the olives begin to ripen, and the harvest lasts through December. Unlike other producers that harvest olives that have fallen to the ground, the farms that supply Jovial, harvest the olives directly from the trees. This dedicated harvesting method is labor-intensive, which accounts in some part for the expense of extra virgin olive oil.
When olives are harvested by hand from the trees, they're less likely to become cracked or bruised. The moment the olive is compromised, bruised, pierced or cracked or crushed, its fragile acids have the opportunity to oxidize, resulting in muddy flavors and undeserible high acid content. Traditional methods of harvest keep the olive intact, unbruised and its nutrients and flavors remain fresh, vibrant and uncompromised.
Pressing the Extra Virgin Olive Oil at Low Temperatures
Once harvested, farmers gently sort the olives to clean them and remove any debris that might compromise the oil, or influence its flavor; what we want is beautiful, pure and unadulterated olive oil. They're inspect by hand, and lots with too many bruised or damaged olives are rejected in their entirety.
From here, the olives rinsed in clean water, filtered once more through a large screen that catches any remaining bits of debris like olive leaves, before they're sent for pressing between heavy, weighted granite stones that mash them down into a fine paste. That paste is sorted, and kneaded in machines designed to keep air out and temperature always below 85 F, though when I was there the temperature never exceeded 68 F.
And when it first is pressed, it is a shocking vivid, day-glow green. And, remember, where there's color and flavor, there are nutrients.
Cold processing of olives for oil keeps the flavors intact and keeps the oil from oxidizing, which preserves its flavor, its antioxidants and its fragile fats for storage resulting in a low acid level. A high free fatty acid content is indicative of oxidation, and highly oxidized oils are rancid oils.
Blending the Oil for Beautiful, Balanced Flavor and Aroma
The paste is then sent through a centrifuge that extracts the extra virgin olive oil, gently, and once it has been extracted it is stored in huge vats closed to the air and in a temperature-controlled environment, again to preserve the integrity of the oil and all the nutrients it contains. Where a the olives are grown, their specific variety, and how late in the season they're harvested influence the flavor profile not only of the olive, but also of the oil that olive produces. Once all of the olives from supplying organic farms have been harvested and pressed for their oil, the work of the blender begins.
Just as a traditional master perfumer blends together exquisite notes of essential oils to form exquisite aromas, so, too, does the blender taste, smell and test the harvested oils before blending them together for an exquisite flavor. Some olive oils tend toward buttery notes, others are so peppery they catch in the back of your throat. The blender's job is to capture the unique, often elusive and mystifying characteristics of each of the pressings, and string them together to produce a singular, beautiful extra virgin olive oil.
Bottling the Oil to Preserve Flavor
Once the blender achieves the right components of flavor and aroma, the olive oil is ready to bottle, and just as care was taken in its production to minimize exposure to oxygen that might oxidize the oil, so, too, is care taken during bottling. The bottles are first flushed with nitrogen, then filled and capped, a process that preserves the integrity of the oil and all that it offers.
Testing the Oil to Ensure Quality, Flavor and Nutrition
The oil is also tested, to ensure the acidity remains low. Acidity level in the final oil is indicative of the quality of the oil, and is ultimately a measurement of free fatty acid content, which is also an indicator of rancidity as the higher the acid level and the higher the free fatty acid content, the lower quality the oil is the more markers of rancidity it has.
The acidity level of extra virgin olive oil must be less than 1%, and the acidity of their oil does not exceed .4%. It's remarkably good oil. In addition to testing for acidity level, they also test for antioxidant levels as well.