Saturday, December 5, 2009

Olive Picking Season & the Frantoio

“Good oil, like good wine, is a gift from the gods. The grape and the olive are among the priceless benefactions of the soil, and were destined, each in its way, to promote the welfare of man.”

George Ellwanger (1848-1906)
Pleasures of the Table (1902)

I woke up today to the most exquisitely sunshine-filled, crisp fall day. Rome and the Lazio region are at the tail end of olive picking season and today is the last day our local frantoio (olive oil press) will operate before cleaning out its presses and closing down until next November. We have about 30 trees and almost all are just three years old so the majority of our oil comes from the few trees we have that are over half a century old.
We took our 5 liter jugs to the frantoio and waited while our olives were pressed. If you have few olives, like us, your olives are batched up with those of other local olive pickers and placed into communal containers. While we waited we chatted with everyone, all of us excited at the prospect of taking home our newly pressed olive oil and envigorated by the fresh air and beautiful day. We all shared recipes for our olives; each of us has set aside part of our harvest, the plumpest olives, to salt cure and use later in appetizers, pasta sauces or main course dishes. Whil
e we talked the frantoio owner offered us bruschetta: toasted country bread smothered in oil that had just trickled out of the press. Most frantoi have a wood burning stove or electric grill to prepare bruschetta for those waiting for their oil to be finished. It’s part of the festive environment that has surrounded the olive pressing season for centuries.

For the past month olive picking has been the full time activity of everyone in our area. Nets are spread out under every tree to catch olives as they’re picked.

The olives can be green, black or brownish red. It's important to pick them when they're at their ripest point; the green color doesn't necessarily mean the olives aren't ripe. Olive color can vary widely on a single tree.

Nowadays many people use an electric comb to speed up the picking process but others still prefer the hand-picked method, like this local woman.

Once olives are picked they're put into plastic containers and then loaded up ready to be taken to the frantoio. You'd think that these olives, plump and ripe enough to produce oil, would also taste good. If you bite into an olive be prepared for a surprise: something unpleasantly bitter that you'll have difficulty keeping in your mouth.

Once the olives arrive at the frantoio they are weighed and put into a machine that will separate the olives from leaves and other debris. They then pass into a bath and on into an olive crushing machine that will grind the olives into a paste.

The olive oil is then separated from the liquid and solid matter by centrifugal force. This process is repeated a second time to remove any residual liquid from the oil. And then out trickles the olive oil ready to drizzle onto bruschetta!

When our oil is ready we load it into the car and head home. Our oil is a rich golden green color and has an enticingly spicy, grassy perfume. Over the course of the coming months the oil will age and its flavor will become smoother. We prefer the olive oil’s just-pressed flavor as the spicier, grassier tones make for great bruschetta and salad dressings.
While the golden green color is esthetically pleasing it actually has nothing to do with the olive oil's quality, as commonly believed. Color is determined by olive varietals and the region in which the trees are grown. Olive oil quality is determined instead by factors such as acidity level (by EC law acidity cannot exceed .8% for extra-virgin oil and 2% for virgin olive oil), along with taste tests establishing its organoleptic quality. Our neighboring region, Umbria, is considered to have some of Italy's best oil. This is in part due to tight regional restrictions calling for an even lower acidity level than the national level.
Our olive oil has been extracted by the virgin method, meaning it's extraction is strictly mechanical. It is cold pressed, but this term is actually a misnomer as olives must be warm enough to allow for the oil to be efficiently extracted. European law requires that the temperature cannot exceed 27 C to be labeled cold pressed.

So how can you really tell what you're purchasing if you buy olive oil in the United States or anywhere else outside of the EC? Above all, read the label carefully. What is labeled as Italian extra virgin olive oil might not mean it's Italian at all, only that it's been bottled in Italy. Frequently the oil is a mixture of oil from a number of countries. One thing you can be certain of is that by carefully reading labels before purchasing and choosing olive oil over another fat you are making the healthiest, and tastiest, choice available.


  1. Yum! I miss the good tasting and relatively inexpensive olive oils of Italy. As well as the fresh bread and mozzarella. Here, I think they put too much sugar into the different types of bread and as a result they all kind of taste the same. Love this blog!

  2. Such a wonderful post. I'm sure those who go on your culinary tours enjoy.

  3. Great article, makes us all wish we were in Italy for the harvest! Thanks for sharing your piece of paradise.

  4. wow looks delish! thanks for the comment btw.

  5. Beautiful post! Sitting in cold & dreary NY I'm missing Italia. Olive oil season is so wonderful, such a gift from the gods in my opinion. I love the smell of the frantoio, sort of warm and well, olivey!
    Enjoy your holidays!

  6. Enjoy every last drop! It's snowing in New York City and cooking with lots of olive oil. Thank you global village!

  7. How do I know when olives are ready for harvest? I want to brine them for table olives. I live in Northern California and have a frontoio tree - 3 yrs old. Not a huge harvest but enough for my first attempt at brining olives