We are olive oil addicts in the Jolly Tomato household. And yet olive farming has always been something of a mystery to us.
Sure, we use olive oil in just about every meal. But how do you get oil out of a bunch of olives? That’s a question that we were determined to answer as part of Real Food Summer. Fortunately, we were able to do so as part of our farm tour through the Fresno Fruit Trail, sponsored by the California Farm Water Coalition and the Fresno County Farm Bureau. We had the pleasure of visiting Enzo Olive Oil, an organic olive oil company that is part of the Ricchiuti Family Farms/Bella Frutta family.
Olive Trees and Olive Picking
The thousand-year-old process of making olive oil begins with, of course, olives, which grow on olive trees. (“Is an olive a fruit or a vegetable?” our five-year-old wanted to know. This prompted some Googling before we confirmed that an olive is indeed a fruit.) The Enzo olive farm grows Arbosana and Arbequina olives (both Spanish varieties) as well as Koroneiki (a Greek variety).
When the 90-acre farm ramps up to full production, sales and mill manager Gordon Smith says the approximate harvest may be as high as 5 tons of olives per acre. This would yield up to 40 gallons per ton, if everything goes well in the season.
The olive farming process begins with a machine that actually shakes the tree so the olives fall loose. (The olives fall into nets.) Then workers whisk the olives off to the factory in large crates so that they can be made into olive oil at the peak of their flavor.
Inside the Olive Oil Factory
Once inside the production facility, special machines wash the olives and sort them to get rid of pebbles, leaves, and other debris. A hammer crusher then smashes the olives, pits and all. (In the olden days, stone or granite wheels did this job.) The resulting paste then goes into a machine called a malaxer that mixes the paste. The timing of this is tricky because the more you mix it, the more oil you can get out of it, but you don’t want to overmix it and destroy the flavor.
Then a pump moves the paste into a centrifuge, which spins the paste at incredibly high speeds to separate the oil from the pomace. After two rounds in the centrifuge, the oil moves into a holding tank, where it has to settle for 30 to 60 days. After that settling period, it is finally ready for bottling and shipping. By the way, there’s no waste in this process: The pomace (the leftover pieces after the oil is poured off) is a valuable byproduct. Farmers use it for fertilizer and also for cattle feed because it is high in protein.
Some olive oil makers run the pomace through the mixing/centrifuge process one more time to get a “second press” of olive oil. However, the results are not as flavorful and not as nutritious as the extra-virgin oil that comes from the first pressing.
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
Extra-virgin olive oil is extremely perishable, warns Smith. It can last two years in “ideal storage conditions,” which would be below 70 degrees, no exposure to light, and minimal exposure to oxygen. If you figure that your pantry might not always offer ideal conditions, consider the shelf life less than two years.
So – how does it taste? As one person on our tour put it, “Hey – olive oil that tastes like olives!” It is a very rich, fruity oil that is great for dipping and stands up well to strong flavors like tomatoes. Selected retailers around California sell it in-store, but you can also order it at www.enzooliveoil.com.
Blogger disclosure: The California Farm Water Coalition sponsored our trip through the Fresno Fruit Trail. We did not receive compensation for this post. All opinions expressed are our own.