I should say this first: there are very few people who still make oil this way. Margarite said we’re seeing a form or making oil that is ancient. This farm is only one of a couple farms in the region who do it with a wheel, most of the others now use machines to separate and crush the olives, hot water to speed the process, then centrifuges to separate the oil from the water – even the organic places do it this way now. She said that industrial oil is “totally pure,” and she said it in a way that wasn’t nice. Their oil doesn’t have the imperfections that give something taste and nuance. The oil we made spent most of its time mixed with the purple water. Margarite says that the purple oil/water mixture – which gives the oil flavor – doesn’t even exist in industrial operations. The oil spends very little time with the rest. Further, most industrial mills (even the organic ones) are a mixture of many different farms’ olives – A farmer takes X kilos to the mill and gets X liters of oil in return, but that farmer’s olives are mixed with olives from all the other farmers who showed up that day. On this farm, the oil we took out was the from the olives we put in from the trees outside. They were never heated or cooled, and the only thing mechanical was the motor that was used to slowly turn the stone.
In the 1940s Margarite’s dad bought the enormous stone wheel from a mill that went industrial a few towns over – I asked how old the wheel itself was and she said, “ancient.” The gears were built by Margarite’s husband in the 1950s and she brags to me about it all the time. Before the 1950s the stone turned by water power through wooden gears, and I’m not exactly clear how they got the water. And before they had an olive mill they would carry their 300 kilos of olives down to a mill by the river and spend a day making oil and feasting, then carry it all back up to their house.
The oil making process is two parts:
1) Crushing the olives
2) Separating the oil from the rest
The first crushed olives on the stone
The stone then turned for about 3 hours, crushing all the olives and their pits. It was all purple, which is interesting since the oil comes out clear and yellow from this mess. Even at this point the oil is edible off the stone, as long as it’s clear.
After lunch, the olives are properly crushed and they add lukewarm water to the bowl while the stone is still moving. If the water is too cold, the oil thickens. If it’s too hot then it cooks a little. Both things change the taste of the olives, so they try to match room temp with the water. For whatever reason the water in this room is heated by a fire.
The water lifts the entire mass of purple to the top of the bowl, and the oil floats to the surface while the stone is still moving. They stop the stone, and that’s the end of the crushing part.
To separate the oil from the rest they use a couple methods.
The first and most effective is to take a frying pan with a bunch of holes in the bottom and dip it into the mess, just to the depth of the oil. They lift it out and you can see any water drop out the bottom, then they quickly unload the oil into a bucket. At this time there are two people with bundles of branches sweeping the oil across the surface toward the lifter.
When the bucket is full, someone dumps the oil through a sieve to remove any little pieces of olive that might have gotten through. If the bucket was pure oil, then that batch goes right into the vat.
Dirty vat and funneling
If they saw water (it’s dark purple) mixed with the oil go through the sieve, then they dump it in a dirty vat. That vat is separated by hand – they lift oil into a funnel that someone has stopped with their finger. After a few seconds they let out some fluid – if it’s water, then they let it run until the water is gone. If it’s oil, they dump the oil into a bucket, then that bucket is dumped in a clean vat.
The net and the press
After all the oil has been lifted out of the mill, they put the remaining olive pulp into a nylon net. The nylon net is put into a hydraulic press and it squeezes out every remaining drop into the dirty vat. Here they again separate the oil by hand.
Collecting more at the tank.
At the holding tank they then repeat the process of brushing oil along the surface, lifting it out with a frying pan, and taking the buckets to a sieve. The holding tank, after its final pass for oil, is drained through Margarite’s property and down to the river.