Olive oil is fast food

It’s olive harvest time in Tuscany. From mid-October until mid-December it animates the countryside around Lucca where the hills are covered with olive trees and vines.

Olives at the perfect ripeness for picking

Our olives are mostly used to produce oil, for which Lucca has been renowned at least since Roman times. Many estates produce olive oil for sale to the public, but lots of private individuals own some trees and produce oil for their own consumption.

It’s one of the few agricultural activities which, when done according to best practice, takes only a day. It’s now understood that in order to preserve in the oil the true flavour of the olive, you need to get the olives from the tree to the oil container on the same day. This makes it ideal for my guests, since they can see and understand everything from start to finish. And since olive oil is essential for all except northern Italian cooking, it’s something you’ll want to know about if you’re interested in Italian food.

Raw vegetables dipped in oil and vinegar

Mixing new olive oil with wine vinegar for pinzimonio (raw vegetables dipped in dressing)

Come along with us as we go to harvest our olives.

Vineyard at Alle Camelie

We head to the terraces of the olive grove.

Spreading nets under olive trees

Spreading nets to catch the olives.

You will see groves where nets are put under the trees weeks before the farmer intends to harvest his olives. These farmers don’t want to miss a single olive that might drop off earlier. But those olives will sit in the nets on the ground starting to spoil, and when they’re pressed, they’ll give the oil an undesirable flavour.

Picking olives by hand

We strip the olives from the branches by hand.

olives in plastic crate

Our crate of olives ready to be taken to the frantoio (olive press).

If you can afford it, you have your own press which makes it easy to press each batch on the day it’s picked. If you don’t have your own press, you take your olives to a public frantoio, and it might take you three or four days to pick enough. You have to choose which kind of frantoio you want to go to — traditional or modern.

At both types of frantoio first you weigh in your olives (and pay by the weight). Then a big fan blows away the leaves and the olives are washed.

Washed olives

Olives flying out of the bath.

From here on the processes are very different. The machinery of the modern frantoio is designed to exclude oxygen as much as possible, whereas the paste and oil are exposed to the air throughout the traditional process. Let’s go to the traditional frantoio first.

grind stones at olive oil mill

Two huge stones grind the olives (stones and all) to a paste in an open container.

whole olives to be ground

The olives go in whole, stones and all.

olive paste

The olive paste after 45 minutes of grinding and being exposed to the air.

olive paste being spread on mat

Now the olive paste is spread on woven nylon mats.


stack of olive mats

The mats, coated with paste, are stacked on a spindle (remember LPs?)…

stack of mats in press

…and rolled to the press. (I love the typography.)

olive oil press

You can see the oil as it’s pressed out around the edges of the mats.

Before we see what happens next, let’s run over to the modern frantoio and watch the same processes. First of all, we notice there are no gigantic stones.

In this machine, strong rapidly rotating blades smash the whole olives to smithereens.

Reducing the olives to paste takes only seconds.

The olive paste is heated and stirred in closed vats for 45 minutes.

The definition of cold pressed olive oil allows the olive paste to be heated as high as 28C.

Modern and traditional methods converge for the last process.

olive oil centrifuge

Centrifuges separate the paste and water from the oil.

We can’t wait to taste our new olive oil.

Our final visit is to the back of the frantoio.

residue of first pressing

Here’s what’s left of the olive paste.

This residue may be used to fertilise the olive trees, or it may be sold to industrial plants that add chemicals and high heat to extract more olive oil that can’t be labeled either ‘first pressing’ or ‘extra virgin’, and generally has little flavour. Once you know this, you’ll think twice about buying inexpensive ‘olive oil’.

The olive harvest has a special place in my heart, because it was the first agricultural activity I took part in when I moved to Italy, and it gave me the idea for my culinary tours. It’s the centrepiece of my October tour Truffles, Olive Oil & Chestnuts. Come and experience the olive harvest yourself.

Erica Jarman invites you on inspiring culinary tours of life behind the scenes that you won't find in any guidebook — get to know the food artisans and craftspeople of Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Piedmont and Liguria. Come join me and my Italian friends and dip into a lifestyle where lunch is more important than business. Find out more at Sapori e Saperi Adventures and follow Erica’s own adventures on her blog.

Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.



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