So the burning question was: how much oil would we get from this year’s olive harvest? Mr Blue-Shirt had arrived at the oleificio with our freshly picked crop as the purple dusk fell and too late for it to be pressed that day, but in time to find that we had harvested a very satisfying 196kg of olives: just enough for a proper single pressing. Better still, Rodolfo the owner had invited him back to watch the whole pressing process the following morning.
The oleificio we use to get our olives pressed is a small yet impressive set-up in the corner of a sprawling and immaculately kept olive farm down a lane on the way to Macerata. We had found it the previous year by following the recommendation of our neighbour Enrico and the signs off the main road to Morrovalle, the next village from us. Despite the wave of storms that had dragged nearly all the fruit from everyone’s trees in the final critical weeks before the harvest, we had managed to garner just shy of 100kg. Batches under about 200kgs are usually pooled and you end up with a pro-rata share of the resulting oil, but Rodolfo was willing to reward our efforts and run our meagre pickings through the press before he shut up shop for the year. We ended up with an impressive twenty-five litres of oil that Rodolfo had approvingly described as ‘buono’ – good. He had even said that some of our fruit was good enough to cure for table olives. So hopes were high for this year.
“Did you go to Rodolfo’s, then?” I asked the next evening when I got home from work. Mr Blue-Shirt looked at me as if I had lost my mind.
“Was I likely to miss the opportunity to poke around someone else’s workshop? Of course I went!”
“Yes, daft question, I suppose. All that shiny gadgetry: I bet you were in seventh heaven!”
Ever the engineer, Mr Blue-Shirt has never lost his fascination for all things mechanical and is still drawn to practically any kind of machinery like a moth to a flame.
“Tell me all about it then,” I said, lowering my bag of books to the bottom stair and easing off my shoes.
“It was brilliant! He’s actually got a much more complicated set-up than I realised – and all squeezed into a space only about the size of a double garage.”
“Really? When we went there last year, I got the impression he just had the basics so he could do a bit of pressing on the side. He’s mainly an olive farmer, isn’t he?”
“Yes, but with the amount of money that lot must have cost, he’s definitely not doing it just on the side!”
“Do you want a cup of tea? I’m gagging.”
“Yes, please. There were a few old codgers there too – you know the type: all flat hats and leathery faces. They were really friendly, though, and kept explaining to me what was happening in each machine.”
I finished making tea, carried the steaming mugs into the sitting room and settled onto the sofa: this could take some time, for I knew that not the tiniest step in the process will have passed Mr Blue-Shirt by.
“Well, go on then: what did it all involve?”
“Right, so first of all a chap emptied all our crates into one big one that then tipped the whole lot through a stream of air that blew away all the twigs and leaves and so on.”
“I thought you got rid of all the leaves and twigs, though.”
“I picked out what I could, but there was still loads of debris in there that you don’t want to end up in the oil.”
“So where did they go next then?” I asked, sipping my tea.
“Well, the hopper they landed in fed them onto a large round tray. This bit was amazing.”
Mr Blue-Shirt put his mug down and rummaged around in his pocket for his phone.
“I took a video. Look! They still use huge rotating stone wheels to crush the whole olives into a sludgey paste. All that hi-tech everywhere, but it’s effectively the same technique they’ve used for centuries. I love it!”
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I suppose.”
“Exactly. And then there’s another bit that’s just a modern take on ancient technology: it’s actually an Archimedes screw that feeds the goo into the next machine. A stainless steel one, but look: an actual Archimedes screw!”
I peered at the shaky video that showed the black paste winding through the screw and into the slot-shaped nozzle of the next machine. This spread a generous layer of paste onto a circular mat made of stainless-steel mesh. Mr Blue-Shirt stuffed his phone back into his pocket and took a swig of tea.
“Then the bloke from the start re-appeared: when the mat was fully covered, he lifted it off, replaced it with a fresh one, and threaded the full one over a thick pole mounted on a round plate that sat on a low trolley. By this time, the next mat was ready, so off it came and onto the pole. He went on like that until he had a stack about 1.5 metres high.”
“I’m pretty sure the mats date back centuries too. Carol Drinkwater mentions them in her books about the history of olives. Only they were made of straw or something originally, I think. Anyway, what happened to the stack?”
“Right, then came the pressing itself. The chap wheeled the trolley into a huge press which slowly pushed down on top of the stack of mats.”
“Was the press one of those old things with a great big comedy wing nut on top you sometimes see in farmyards?”
“No, proper hi-tech this time: hydraulic. Four hundred kilos of pressure per centimetre squared,” he declared in full nerd-mode.
“Only you would know something like that!”
“One of the old codgers pointed out the pressure gauge to me,” he grinned. “He told me it would take a good half hour to press all the oil out, too. It just trickles down the sides into a big steel tank in the floor.”
“You surely didn’t stand there watching it all that time, did you?”
“No, not even I’m that much of a nerd! I went to the cashpoint in Morrovalle: Rodolfo doesn’t take cards. It’s strictly cash only.”
“Something else that hasn’t changed for centuries, then!” I observed wrily as I leant over to put my empty mug on the coffee table.
“So what was happening when you got back?”
“Well, the oil is a horrid opaque khaki colour when it drains into the tank – look…” I squinted at a photograph of what looked like a vat of used motor oil.
“Yes, there were still quite a lot of solids in there at that point – pulp, skin, bits of pip and so on. So to get rid of them the oil is pumped into a centrifuge that separates the sediment from the oil. It spins at 7000 revolutions per minute, and so when it poured into our flagon that Rodolfo had already positioned below the spout, it had finally started to look like olive oil.”
Mr Blue-Shirt thrust his phone back into his pocket.
“And that was it, done!”
“Wow! It must have been so satisfying to see our oil pouring into our flagon!”
“It was! I can’t wait to taste it, but Rodolfo said we need to let it settle for a couple of days. It still looks a bit cloudy.”
“So go on, tell me: how much have we got, then?” I asked.
“Thirty-one litres!” said Mr Blue-Shirt smiling broadly.
“Well, that’s not much more than last year – from double the amount of fruit. That’s a pretty rubbish yield, isn’t it?”
“That’s what I thought, but Rodolfo says it’s not all about quantity. Apparently, the long, hot, dry summer affected everyone’s yield, and ours was still pretty good.”
“Well, that’s something, I suppose.”
“Yes, but the thing is, all that heat and sun has actually improved the quality of the oil, according to Rodolfo. He reckons it will have a richer and more intense flavour.”
“Really?! Well, that makes me feel loads better! Can we go and take a look?”
Down in the musty gloom of the cellar Mr Blue-Shirt unscrewed the lid of the flagon and shone a torch in through its wide neck. The beam illuminated the fragrant greeny-gold oil that nearly filled the flagon and I inhaled deeply, savouring the distinctive grassy and peppery aroma. I swear I could practically feel the sunshine and hear the crickets. It was not just oil; not just Casa Girasole oil. It was liquid summer…