I first fell in love with the olive tree in Greece. On the Peloponnesian plains thousands of orderly planted cool grey-green trees, punctuated by lines of stone walls, provide much appreciated shade for goats and sheep. The still landscape is silent except for the throbbing of heat and insects. It is a biblical, olympian and everlasting scene.
For some people, palm trees are the symbol of holiday and escape, but for me, olive trees are the sign that I’m deep in foreign lands, far away from home. So when I first saw my house, with its view of an olive grove, I was well persuaded. It pushed my magic button, so to speak.
Although I’m not so passionate about eating olives, last year I was still pretty happy about picking my own fruit, and then preparing and marinating my very own olives. Especially as this variety isn’t usually for the table, it’s for making oil for cooking.
This year I got into the process of making olive oil. It’s a perfectly simple and unadulterated process. You pick the olives at the same time as pruning of the vertical and central branches of the trees. With these fruit-yielding branches on the ground, they are stripped or beaten of fruit, which collect on a massive tarp.
The olives are separated from the leaf refuse and bagged – the bags are a standard size which are bought beforehand from the lagar, the co-op olive press or factory. At the lagar, your consignment is counted and given a place in the queue. At some lagars you can immediately exchange your crop for the fixed rate of exchange for oil. You can reserve a time for your crop to be put through the press exclusively and not mixed with anyone’s else’s olives. Ideal if you’d like to keep your olives away from chemicals, different varieties or olives of lesser quality. At this lagar, exclusive pressing is the standard procedure. Everyone receives the oil from their own olives.
The olives are first washed then mashed. The mashed mix is then heated to about 32-35 degrees, and the warm pulp is spread over circular mats which are stacked onto the press’ bobbin. The bobbin is put into the press, where it is raised, and pressed. The oil/water mix that is released from the olives is then siphoned through a gravity separator and filtered through a centrifuge which separates the oil from the water. The oil is poured out into jugs, then poured into drums that you’ve provided. Our crop of 524 kilos of olives was converted to 59 litres of pure, chemical free, extra virgin, cold pressed, liquid gold. (Yes, punters, it is organic – my neighbours don’t waste any more labour or cash spraying chemicals around.)
59 litres should last Tia Maria a year, feeding her crew of nine. Sounds ok, so long as you don’t put a cash value on the family’s labour: it took 3 people about 2 weeks to bring in this amount. At minimum wage that’s about €675 in labour: and even at the lager retail price of €5 per litre, it’s a poor peasant’s business.
However, because this oil is the real deal, a true premium product, direct, micro-production and cloudy – this type of oil is currently at the forefront of a wave and is sold to quality produce-oriented London restaurants for £16/litre or more, and that’s where things start to make sense. If only Australia wasn’t so far away…
marinated fresh black olives
There are a thousand variations for preparing olives. Here’s what I did last year, and they were delicious! The preparation recipe is from stephanie alexander’s the cook’s companion, and the marinade is my own.
Put the fresh olives in a covered bucket of water for 40 days, changing the water every two days. Drain the olives and then completely cover them in rock salt for two days. Rinse and then pack into sterilised jars. I made a variety of different flavours using balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, garlic, chilli, lemon, dried oregano, herbs de provence and olive oil, using half/half oil/vinegar mix. I left them in the marinade for a least a month before eating them.
This year, I put the olives in a 1/3 salt water (brine) solution for 5 weeks, changing the brine once a week. It helps to use a lot of solution so the olives are well covered and to weigh them down with a plate so they are always under the water. I stored them in the dark, covered. Then I rinsed them for two days, changing the water a few times each day. I made two batches, one with red wine vinegar and garlic and the other with balsamic and piri-piri, with half olive oil.