Why Some Producers Are Not Ready to Give Up Their Traditional Presses

Inefficient and difficult to maintain, traditional presses are often dismissed as a relic of another era. Olive Oil Times found some producers who say they are not about to abandon their old presses anytime soon.

Olio Roi
By Malcolm Gilmour
Apr. 3, 2018 08:51 UTC
Olio Roi

Olive oil mills are becom­ing more mod­ern and increas­ingly auto­mated. The gleam­ing stain­less steel and rows of but­tons are a tes­ta­ment to the effect that invest­ment and research have had on turn­ing fruit into oil. Traditional presses are often char­ac­ter­ized as an anachro­nis­tic, uneco­nomic way of mak­ing olive oil.

There is a ten­dency to look for the bit­ter and pun­gent oils that stand out in com­pe­ti­tions, but it’s entirely pos­si­ble that this comes full cir­cle, and we see a return to lighter, fruitier oils that con­sumers often pre­fer.- Franco Boeri Roi

Upgrading equip­ment and processes can be costly. However, some pro­duc­ers don’t cite costs as the rea­son they stay with many of the older ways of doing things. Expense does­n’t even fac­tor in their deci­sion.

Given the choice, why on earth might pro­duc­ers still want to make oils in this way? A small band of qual­ity-ori­ented estates across Greece, Italy and Tunisia’s response is that using presses pro­duces oils of greater indi­vid­u­al­ity, main­tains a link to tra­di­tion, and best expresses their olives’ char­ac­ter­is­tics.

When cen­trifu­gal decanters were intro­duced in the 1960s, becom­ing pro­gres­sively more refined over the fol­low­ing years, the ben­e­fits were clear. Centrifuges spin the olive paste at high speed in a hor­i­zon­tal or ver­ti­cal drum before sep­a­rat­ing the oil, water and waste.

Combined with sim­i­larly mod­ern crush­ing meth­ods as olives entered the mill, such as ham­mer mills, cen­trifuges made pro­duc­ing olive oil more effi­cient. They also made the process con­tin­u­ous; in other words, there was no need to stop while the equip­ment was re-stacked. You keep pour­ing olives in, you keep get­ting oil out.

Franco Boeri Roi of Olio Roi, a farm that has around 10,000 Taggiasca trees near Imperia in Liguria, Italy, was not about to dis­pute the dis­ad­van­tages of work­ing with presses. His mill, which pro­duces oil sold to the likes of Eataly and Zingerman’s in the US, as well as in other coun­tries, has both a mod­ern, con­tin­u­ous line and a more tra­di­tional, dis­con­tin­u­ous line with gran­ite mill­stones and hydraulic presses. The time and care you need to give to clean­ing, labor costs and the space needed are big draw­backs,” admit­ted Roi.

Olio Roi

Over in Greece, Kiara Koutoulakis’ fam­ily estate, Koronekes, near Heraklion in Crete makes oil from Koroneiki olives. Like Olio Roi, they make oil using both presses and the con­tin­u­ous, cen­trifu­gal method. The stages of pro­duc­tion using presses are the same as the ones in a mod­ern olive mill,” explained Koutoulakis, but right after the malax­a­tion, the paste is poured onto stain­less steel discs which are stacked one by one until a full press of 80 – 100 discs is ready.” While the discs are stacked, the run-off of oil from the paste is col­lected and bot­tled under the estate’s Fleur d’Huile label before the oil from the press­ing itself is col­lected for its other brand.

Unlike the blasted oils made with cen­trifu­gal extrac­tion meth­ods, the olive juice gen­tly seeps out of the paste and most of the volatile and del­i­cate aro­mas, fla­vors and polyphe­nols are pre­served,” Koutoulakis said. She added, When we taste the cen­trifu­gally-extracted oils we make in another olive mill in the vil­lage, it is clear that the pressed oils have more aro­mas and fla­vors.”

Roi also agrees that dif­fer­ent pro­cess­ing meth­ods give dif­fer­ent oils: With the tra­di­tional method, you get an oil that is sweeter and richer with notes of hazel­nut and pine nuts; with the con­tin­u­ous method, you get more green fruit, and a thin­ner mouth­feel with grassy notes of olives, arti­choke and green apple.”

Most peo­ple would agree that diver­sity in styles of olive oil is a good thing. But there is also some­thing more intan­gi­ble and dif­fi­cult to cap­ture about using presses, which seems to ren­der mod­ern mills if not exactly bor­ing in com­par­i­son, then cer­tainly less excit­ing places to be at har­vest time.

Abdelmajid Mahjoub of Les Moulins Mahjoub, a Tunisian estate near Tunis that sup­plies oil to the bak­ery chain Le Pain Quotidien, still uses presses. My attach­ment is ancient, and a sym­bol,” he said. There is a strange inten­sity of pas­sion and an immense tal­ent in pro­cess­ing olives tra­di­tion­ally. The mod­ern process is humil­i­at­ing for the oil mas­ter and seems to be a lit­tle debat­able. It ster­il­izes us. The clas­sic process reflects the soul of the olive tree most won­der­fully.”.

Yacine Amor, who dis­trib­utes the estate’s prod­ucts in the UK through The Artisan Olive Oil Company, describes the impact of watch­ing a tra­di­tional mill in action: I visit their farm on every trip to Tunisia. It is a very spe­cial expe­ri­ence where tra­di­tion and expe­ri­ence come together and the machines seem almost sec­ondary.”

Back in Crete, Koutoulakis echoed Mahjoub’s con­tention that mak­ing oils with presses requires a lot more from the miller, not least the tech­ni­cal demands: There are a lot of para­me­ters to keep in mind such as malax­a­tion time, the room tem­per­a­ture when the discs are stacked with the paste, the stack­ing of the discs in record time to avoid oxi­da­tion, the tim­ing of the press…then the nat­ural decanta­tion process and the skim­ming process.” All this, she said, is a labor of love.”

So, what does the future hold for oils made this way and their declin­ing num­ber of pro­duc­ers? Roi, for one, strikes an opti­mistic note by sug­gest­ing we might take a look at a trend in another indus­try. If you look at what’s hap­pen­ing in wine, there is a move away from all those wines matured in oak that tasted the same, and a return to more tra­di­tional tastes and vini­fi­ca­tion,” Roi sug­gested.

Something sim­i­lar could even­tu­ally take place in olive oil, with a shift towards styles that favor more tra­di­tional meth­ods: In oil now there is a ten­dency to look for the bit­ter and pun­gent oils that stand out in com­pe­ti­tions, but it’s entirely pos­si­ble that this comes full cir­cle, and we see a return to lighter, fruitier oils that con­sumers often pre­fer.”


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