Making Artisan Olive Oil

January 2004

The best olives for oil come from low growing trees, which need a lot of room and sun so that the fruit can mature correctly. If it is a traditional olive grove, there are only about 60 trees per acre, so that each tree may receive sufficient moisture and nutrients from the soil.

Traditional, as well as organic growers, use only natural animal fertilizers. Watering is carried out sparingly, sometimes with a drip system which delivers the necessary water directly to the roots. If this procedure is used, more quality trees may be planted per acre.

Volume producers cram many more trees per acre for high production and ease in mechanical harvesting. They use chemical fertilizers.

Only hand-picked, fully ripe, undamaged olives are used for the finest olive oils. Rejected are unripe or over-ripe olives because they reduce the fruitiness of the oil and contribute to its acidity. Windfall olives are usually over-ripe or bruised and only used for bulk oil.

Following a thousand-year tradition, men knock the branches of the olive tree with long sticks, in a process called vareo. (You can see a woodcut of this process on the Señorío de Vizcántar tin). The ripe fruit falls into nets that have been spread out at the base of the tree.

The harvested olives need to be processed promptly within 48 hours of being picked. Most of the La Tienda olive oils were processed the same day. The goal is to extract the oil as gently as possible without generating heat that would reduce the flavor and nutrient content of the oil.

First, large blowers remove leaves and twigs. Then, the olives with their pits intact are ground to a paste by granite rollers, or by a worm gear mechanism. The traditional manner was to press the ground olive mash between circular grass mats, but this ancient method is no longer used.

The modern process used by virtually all of olive mills in Spain employs pristine centrifuges to separate the oil. The mash is put into a small centrifuge in a container with small holes, with the ground olives yielding an oil and natural fruit water mixture. This mixture is then put in an additional centrifuge where the oil is separated from the natural fruit water. In this way only pure, unadulterated olive oil is extracted.

Often, the slightly cloudy oil is passed through a series of large settling tanks where it is clarified by gravity, and eventually placed in containers that are maintained at a constant cool temperature. A few producers pass the oil through a diatomaceous sand-like filter, instead of using the gravity process. 

The result is a sparkling bright oil, which is beautiful to behold. Some producers skip this last step and offer unfiltered oil, which has a cloudier appearance but contains more flavor and healthy olive pulp.

Cold pressed extra virgin olive oil is the only type of olive oil that has a full flavor and health benefits. Avoid 'Pure', 'Virgin' or 'Light' oils which are at least partially chemically extracted.

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