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olives and the good oil

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.

olive trees

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.

olives on the tree

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.

olive picking

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.

washing 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.)

pressing filters

pressing mats

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.

separation of olive oil

the separation process

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…


the real deal

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.


my final product


  1. Paulo Reis December 14, 2009 10:56 am Reply

    Organic olive oil first cold press cost a fortune to by at David Jones sydney , you are very luky girl. Tambem podes preservar quijinhos frescos em azeite com especiarias num pote de barro ficam muio bons . Feliz NATAL, good luk Emma

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: December 14th, 2009 at 10:34 pm

    If only I could get it back to sydney cheaply, it would be be a money spinner – but that’s why it’s expensive: labour & transport… mmm queijos frescos, muito tipico dacqui (paulo says marinated fresh cheese in oil – very tipical here – goats, sheep or cow’s)

    [Reply to comment]

  2. Adam Long December 14, 2009 11:29 am Reply

    I do love an olive. How many of those little trees does it take to produce 500+ kilos of olives? Are you looking out over a forest of the things?

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: December 14th, 2009 at 10:29 pm

    It’s hard to say, per tree. Depends on the tree, and this year wasn’t a good year. My trees produced about 5 kilos each, and I’d say Tia Maria cleared about 100 trees. Sometimes the trees only produced well bi-annually. It’s not a forest of them, only about 15 in front of the house, but the view has a lot more scattered around. It looks like the first pic.

    [Reply to comment]

  3. Pepper December 14, 2009 2:16 pm Reply

    It’s me again. I’m looking at your pictures and wishing I had my oils/watercolors/or acrylics in my suitcase heading out to your place. I am in love with your scenery. Wow what a place to sit and paint all day, all week, etc. You are so lucky to be living there. If I don’t get to email you again before Christmas, Have a Merry Chrstmas.
    Pepper in Texas

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: December 14th, 2009 at 10:24 pm

    Yes! It’s very paintable.. and this morning the whole thing has been dusted with icing sugar frost. Pretty, except the car won’t start…

    [Reply to comment]

  4. Isabel December 17, 2009 7:13 am Reply


    I don’t know anything about olive oil (I use it for cooking, of course, but I am not one of those olive oil buffs, that discuss endlessly the taste, acidity, this or that, of the thing). But I do love good olives! As I will soon be the proud owner of two olive trees, I think I should start paying attention to your recipes. What is your favourite?

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: December 17th, 2009 at 9:16 am

    I think my favourite is lots of garlic, oregao, vinagre vinho tinto and oil. But sometimes I feel like balsamic vinegar, piri piri, garlic & oil.

    [Reply to comment]

  5. Christine Osmond December 19, 2009 6:46 pm Reply

    Oh Em, how I should like to come bathe in your vast quantities of virgin oil! Yes, damned shame Australia is so far away, since some of the stuff they pass off here as EVO is as lame as an old brown dog. Not your brown dog, other brown dogs. Other peoples brown dogs.

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: December 21st, 2009 at 2:02 am

    bathe, yes. a big bath of it in the front yard for visitors. full immersion evo therapy. you’re onto something. (and you might be onto something about lame brown dog – we might be on even-stevens if he was less one leg)

    [Reply to comment]

  6. Moon over Martinborough January 13, 2010 5:49 am Reply

    Looks gorgeous. My partner and I are American expat city boys who landed on 20 acres and an olive grove in New Zealand. We’re having heaps of fun. Best of luck to you!

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: January 14th, 2010 at 6:46 am

    Olives in New Zealand… sigh… sounds heavenly!

    [Reply to comment]


  7. Celia February 8, 2010 1:36 pm Reply

    Emma, you’re great! I’ll have to come visit you the next time I’m in Portugal (I’m a Portuguese in America). Our beautiful village is Amioso do Senhor, near Alvares/Gois – it’s kinda between Coimbra and Serra da Estrela, not far from you. My grandparents still live in the village, it’s also where my parents grew-up. I would love to have you over for a drink. You seem like a great person to get to know. I can tell you’re a great animal lover like myself. My husband and I are also well versed in DIY home improvements as we fix-up our home here in America.

    Where are you located now? I can’t figure it out after reading some of your posts. Just that you’re south of beautiful Coimbra.

    Stay great!

    [Reply to comment]

  8. olive oil February 20, 2010 3:24 am Reply

    As for as i understand, olive oil is very good for you in little quatities as long as it isnt heated. If you just want to put olive oil over bread or some other food it is ok …for cooking it is best to use a vegitable oil or sunflower oil

    [Reply to comment]


  9. Dorian Poll January 19, 2011 11:09 pm Reply

    Thank you! You often create very fascinating content articles. You improved my mood.

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: January 24th, 2011 at 6:17 am

    Thanks Dorian.

    [Reply to comment]


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