The olive harvest usually gets underway in early autumn, when the fruit is fully ripe, and it ends in late winter. The job of harvesting the olives is a process that has barely changed over the past two millennia. From Greco-Roman olive cultivation we have inherited the techniques of “vareo” (beating) ”and “ordeño” (hand-picking) passed down generation to generation since time immemorial. Ordeño, or hand-picking consists of collecting the olives directly from the tree to avoid damaging either the fruit or the tree. This is a technique mainly used for olives to be consumed whole at the table. In ancient times, the women were in charge of this harvesting technique. Because they were stronger, the men also employed another method, called “vareo” or beating, in which they used a large stick to beat the olive tree branches until the fruit dropped onto canvas blankets spread around the entire periphery of the tree. After that the olives were tossed into baskets to be cleaned through sieves and then transported with beasts of burden to the town press, where the oil was made.
Today the olive harvesting methods have changed considerably thanks to new tools and machinery, including the blower, which blows the olives that have already dropped from the tree, and the beater, a small vehicle that picks up and separates the olives from stones and branches. The comb, which is based on the traditional “vareo” or beating, mechanically beats the trees so the olives drop to the ground. A vibrator is used, which is an arm that attaches to the olive tree branches and makes them vibrate until all the olives drop. Today another vibrator is also used which is similar, but instead of being used by a person it is attached to a tractor, although it operates in a similar fashion: instead of making the smaller branches vibrate, it makes the entire tree shake to loosen the olives.
Crafting olive oil
Virgin olive oil is the oleaginous juice of the olive which is separated out from the other components of the fruit. When it is crafted with the right procedures and it comes from fresh, healthy and perfectly ripe fruit, olive oil boasts exceptional organoleptic qualities. It is practically the only vegetable oil that can be eaten raw while wholly retaining its composition of fatty acids and other extremely important components for health and nutrition, such as vitamins and polyphenols.
The stages in making olive oil are milling, malaxing, centrifuging and decanting.
- • Milling: The first step in making olive oil is milling or grinding the olives to destroy the structure of the plant tissues forming them
- • Malaxing: Slow mixing or malaxing the milled olive paste helps the oil droplets to bind together into larger droplets. Because the olives are harvested in cold weather (autumn/winter), and to aid in the extraction of the oil, malaxers tend to have a heating system that usually consists of a double wall or inner tubes where a heating fluid circulates. Excessively heating the oil to more than 25º C leads to significant harmful changes in quality, since the volatile components that contribute to the flavour of fine oils are lost or quickly degrade at higher temperatures.
- • Centrifuging: This is how the solids and liquids are separated using centrifugal force. This process yields an oil with a bit of water in it, as well as the solid mass of the olives and the remaining water (pomace)..
- • Decanting: In this process, all the remaining water is removed from the oil.
These steps in making olive oil are the ones used today and have helped to significantly improve the quality of the oil. Traditionally, the olives were milled using stones, and the resulting paste was poured over hemp baskets and later pressed to yield the oil. The lengthiness of the process and the remains left throughout the entire process made it very difficult to craft good-quality oil.