In the orchard, shaded by the westerning sun, ranch hands toil, sweat on their foreheads and time out of their minds. Wind rushes through an oak savanna, once inhabited by cowboys, who may have nurtured similar aches in their backs. At first blush, one might not believe such a poetic depiction is reality on harvest day in our olive orchard but here at Milewide the fall air brings everything you’ve been daydreaming about all year.
After too many cups of coffee, we slip on our gloves and harvest bags, with a similar excitement only experienced before the age of 7 on Christmas morning. We kneel down underneath a big olive tree, setting out a cloth that will catch the olives combed off their branches. You know what they say, when life gives you olives, make olive oil, and that is exactly what is about to happen.
Step 1 – The Paste
With sacks piled up in our pressing room, we quickly sift through our pickings, removing any foreign material that may diminish the quality our oil. We use a primitive process to produce small, artisanal batches. The first of our semi-industrial equipment- mind you, the sound it makes is by all means industrial – is a food processor, attached to a stand with a bucket fastened on top. The olives are poured in through the bucket, fall through the food processor, and the paste is dispensed.
Step 2 – Malaxing
When we have about 16 quarts of paste, which is about all we can process in a day’s work of two pressings, it’s time to stir and warm it up. This is similar to melting chocolate in a bain-marie, or water bath, for those of you who flunked French. We place the bucket of olive paste into another bucket filled halfway with hot water. Then, fit a mixer into the olive paste, and let it get to malaxing, or mixing. This separates oil from the ground olive flesh, and creates larger droplets of oil for extraction.
Step 3 – The Olive Tower
Thirty minutes later, the DIY supersize bain-marie has done its work, and our olive paste is ready to be prepped for the press. This sequence reminds me of making a trifle cake. The olive tower is made in a large metal tray with a hole on one end fitted with a cork. Our olive trifle is layered with: first a solid, plastic plate, then a sequence of slotted plastic plates and tough, thin fabric is layered one after another. In that order, you begin the tower, then using a square frame, we fill and smooth over a layer of olive mash, so that when you remove the frame, you have a perfect square of olive mash to cover with another fabric mat, then a slotted plate, another mat, olive mash, and so on, continuing this sequence for 10-15 layers.
Step 4 – Just Press It
Now patience becomes a virtue, after transferring the metal tray to the actual press. We very slowly crank the lever, once, twice, maybe three times to start the pressing. Olive water and oil will begin to seep out along the edges of the fabric mats and into the metal tray. As it begins to fill, we uncork the hole and let the contents out into the final bucket. From there, we decant, jar, and wait to for separation to occur so we can extract the oil from the water and other particulate matter.
Step 5 – If You Consider This a Step…
It’s time to sit down to a harvest dinner, and reminisce.
“What a day this year has been,” amongst the passing of bread, cheese, figs, articokes, leeks, and wine, “I thought they would never blush.”
Late November’s harvest is a ritual embedded in the culture of homesteading and of the ranch. While we wait for the oil to settle, there is nothing but time to reflect on the year passed, and plan for the future harvest coming too soon. This year, we are entertaining the idea of infusing our oil with rosemary. Stay tuned for how it holds up against Beth’s homemade bread.
– Brielle, Ranch hand at Milewide Nursery
PS: We have decided that next year will need a standard commercial press or we will need to use a public press to extract all the oil we can get. And, we will have even more trees producing… we will get back to you.