The Olive Harvest - When November Comes...
As the hot, dry Puglian summer comes to a close, September and October usually see short spells of heavy rainfall as the hot air from the south fights with the cooler air from the north. It is during this period that the olives on the trees begin to swell and ripen.
Around the start of November the area appears to take on a new life, with frenzied activity throughout the countryside. Tractors and trailers fill the country roads and the olive groves fill with workers keen to get stuck into the year’s olive harvest.
There are many different approaches to tackling the olive harvest. Larger estates may use heavy machinery to aid the collection of the olives – tractors that grab and shake the trunk of the trees in order to release the olives into a kind of upside down umbrella, before being collected and loaded onto trucks and taken to the frantoio (olive press). Other smaller producers may sweep away fallen leaves from below the trees, before waiting for the olives to fall off naturally, before being swept into piles themselves, and collected to be taken to the press.
At Boccadoro we have watched and learned from our friends and neighbours, and over the years have developed our own approach, which we feel produces the finest quality of olive oil.
We ignore any olives that have already fallen from the trees – the moment the fruit leaves the tree the olives begin to oxidise, increasing the acidity and lowering the quality of the oil. Instead, we select a tree to tackle, place nets around the base and start to remove the olives by hand.
The methods we use to collect the olives vary – we usually start by walking around the base of the tree, stripping the olives onto the nets below by hand (being careful not to tread on any olives already on the nets!), taking any olives within reach, often with the help of hooked sticks to grab and bend down branches slightly higher up the tree.
We then use 4/5 metre long ladders to get into the higher branches, repeating the same process of stripping the olives by hand to fall onto the nets below.
Finally, to get to any olives that may be out of reach even from the top of the ladders, we use long sticks to hit the branches with the remaining olives on them, causing the fruit to fall down onto the net.
Once we have completed the tree, the nets are rolled up and the freshly harvested olives poured into containers, before moving the emptied nets on to the next tree, where we repeat the process.
At the end of the day, all the containers of olives are loaded into the back of our truck, and we take them to the olive press in our local town of Ostuni. We find that the quicker this process - of getting the olives from the tree to the press - the better the quality of oil we produce. We also aim to get a good mix of greener, less ripe olives, and darker, riper olives – the riper olives produce a higher quantity of oil, but the greener olives provide the resulting oil with a greater depth of flavour. By carefully selecting which trees to include in each batch taken to the press, with the mix of green and ripe olives, we really make our oil stand out from the pack.
Once at the frantoio, the olives are unloaded from our truck, poured into large crates to be weighed by the staff at the press, and stored ready to be processed. All batches are carefully labelled and tracked, with the press being cleaned between each customer’s to ensure no cross-contamination between batches.
The first task of the olive press is to sieve and wash the olives – included along with the fruit will be numerous stems, leaves and twigs etc. These are removed, and the remaining olives washed in cold water to remove any soil or other debris that may be present.
Secondly, comes the milling stage – here, metal crushers grind the olives into a paste. This initial process is essential in facilitating the removal of the oil from the rest of the olive fruit. Typically this will take around 30 minutes to complete, depending on the size of the batch being processed.
Once the milling is completed, then follows the malaxation (or mixing) stage. This means the olive paste is kneaded and churned for around 30-45 minutes. This process allows the small oil droplets to combine and form larger droplets, making it easier to seperate the oil. It is important to keep the process at or below room temperature at this point – adding heat would enable higher yields of oil, but reduces it’s quality, meaning it could not be defined as cold-pressed and therefore isn’t categorised as extra virgin.
The final stage involves seperating the oil from the rest of the olive vegetation and any water content, and is where the modern technology really comes into it’s own. Historically this process was completed by multiple pressings, but is now achieved through centrifugal force – olive oil is lighter than water, so by putting the mixture through a centrifuge the oil can be seperated from the other vegetation and water in a relatively straightforward and efficient manner. This oil is decanted into containers ready for collection.
In terms of how much oil you can expect to get from your olives, the yield (i.e. how many kg of oil are extracted from 100kg of olives) can vary significantly depending on the variety and ripeness of the olives used. To achieve D.O.P Collina di Brindisi status, a yield of less than 25% is required – as we tend to harvest fairly early and use a higher proportion of greener, unripe olives, we find our yield is nearer 15%, certainly never outside the 10%-20% range.
Whilst this oil is exactly what we want to get from the press, and what we take away to become Boccadoro Extra Virgin Olive Oil, the typical frantoio won’t be finished yet – they are surprisingly efficient with the by-products of this process. As the extraction stage doesn’t remove 100% of the oil, some still remains within the paste – this is often further processed through refining and other chemical processes. This, however, should never be considered as olive oil, and certainly not extra virgin olive oil, but is classified as the inferior category known as olive pomace oil.
Additionally, all the twigs, stems, leaves etc. removed at the beginning of the process will be left to rot, along with the leftover olive paste. At certain times of the year the resultant compost is spread across the local fields, with a rather unpleasant rotting olive odour permeating the countryside. The olive stones, or pits, also aren’t discarded – these can be dried and sold as fuel for wood burning stoves. Nothing goes to waste!