So you’ve planted some olive trees eh? Good for you. Terracotta urns stuffed with marinated olives, virgin green oil and general romantic Mediterranean abundance are filling your thoughts no doubt. Keep it up, you’ve a way to go yet.
I planted some olive trees seven years ago and last years harvest nearly filled the bottom of an ice-cream container. The starlings ate most of them, their health and glossy plumage a direct result of their olive diet. But starlings aside, after a decade your olive trees should yield an average of 5kg of fruit per tree. And how much oil would you get if you pressed it?, around 500 ml. They don’t tell you that when you buy the trees do they? Take it from me folks, growing olives is a long term, low yield, proposition.
If a diet rich in olive oil makes you live longer you’ll need to because you’ll be ancient before you get any. But don’t let my pessimism deter you. It didn’t deter me. I have astounded myself, and my kitchen appliances, with the lengths I’ve gone to in pursuit of that Mediterranean dream. This time last year I set about trying to press my own olive oil. To press an olive you first need to shred it, including the pits/stones which contain quite a bit of oil. Pits are tough and I can attest to the fact that the following kitchen appliances do not grind them:
- food mouli
- coffee grinder
- food processor
- spice grinder on food processor
- cast steel hand cranked mincer
I gave up all hope of crushing the stones and decided to settle for removing the olive flesh and pressing that, (let’s face it the reduction in yield from this compromise was going to be minimal). To remove the flesh from the olives I found the power drill operated Fruitinator was the most effective device.
Employing my high school physics, I reasoned that oil and water separate and all I had to do was add water and my extra virgin oil would float to the top like a deep sea drilling disaster. A big jar of green goo ensued and was left to it’s own devices to separate. It didn’t. The surface was vaguely colored like a puddle on a gas station forecourt. The penguins were safe.
Back to the drawing board. Water was clearly the problem, not the solution. What I needed to do was dry them so that only the oil remained. Then when I pressed the raisin like olives, all they would have left to give would be oil. So I picked another bucket and into the dehydrator they went.
Squishing the dried olives between my fingers yielded a pleasant oily paste, now all I had to do was press them. I’d read in an esteemed publication that a basket cider press could be used to press olives so I put it to the test. I can advise that a cider press can be used to squash olives but no oil gushed out to fill the ridiculously large bucket I’d positioned under the press.
As I removed the perfectly intact flat olives from the press I realized my mistake. I still needed to shred them to release the shriveled flesh from the stones. So back into the Fruitnator they went and out came a rich tapenade paste to which I should have added salt, potted up and been happy with. But no, back into the press it went and now surely the oil would come.
And it did! A slow seep of green gold oozed across the base of the press tray. It nearly even made it to the outflow pipe. I employed the only kitchen devices not yet used in the project, the rubber spatula and funnel, to scrape up the oil and fill a small medicinal vial. And vile it was. Worse than the worst cough medicine your Mother ever tried to make you swallow. This bowl of burnt tar and bitters would not be joining dukkah and drinks on the deck.
But although I’d exhausted my olive harvest and my appetite for washing oily equipment, I wasn’t letting go of my Mediterranean dream. There was always next year and I had a whole winter to plot and scheme before the next olive harvest. First step was the starlings (and no I didn’t put them in a pie), next step was more pressing.
“Bob”, I said, “your press needs more horsepower if we’re to squeeze anything out of these olives”. “OK” said Bob. Being the resourceful man that he is he went into his shed and duly pimped the press for me, emerging with a cross between a bondage and discipline device and something you could jack your car up with. Basically, he fitted the press with a 2-ton hydraulic car jack and reinforced the basket with more rings and studs to take the pressure. It was a thing of weird beauty.
Employing what I’d learned from the previous seasons mucking around, this year I would cut straight to the chase. Pick olives, annihilate with the Fruitinator, pack into the press and Bobs your Uncle there will be oil (for the record Bob is not my Uncle, he is the man who makes the fruit presses we sell). While I was waiting for the olives to ripen I had a practice on some apples with the help of a friend who showed me how to use the jack safely and then I tried it on olives.
As with all product development, there are a few things to sort out. Center aligning the jack required care and when the olives got under pressure they started firing oily liquid out between the slats, hitting everything in site and making noises like someone with a bad tummy upset. An uncontrollable fit of the giggles followed and my “press secretary” moved me and the whole operation out onto the lawn where I couldn’t damage anything except my stomach muscles.
The yield was a mighty mason jar full of the dreaded green goo but this time, it did separate. Unfortunately, the oil was on the bottom but I siphoned it and got a jam jar of the most lovely honey colored oil imaginable. Definitely worthy of an invitation to my romantic Mediterranean porch party.
Will we be going into production with the car jack press anytime soon? I have to ask myself would anyone else be mad enough to wait 8 years and invest $200 in a press to get a jam jar of olive oil when they can buy a liter of it at the store for $8.99? I think we both know the answer to that.
But that dear reader is not the point is it. What drives me is a need to have a go and I don’t think I’m alone in that. And anyway, the story doesn’t end there. Next week I’ll tell you how you DO press olive oil and also how you grow, harvest and pickle them. Then you too can be a Mediterranean porch dreamer like me. Click here to read the next installment…