When well-laid plans go awry, often Providence steps in with an unplanned proxy, way better than any we could have thought up ourselves. And that is precisely what happened with our first venture into pressing our own olives into oil.
For breakfast this morning: our own extra virgin olive oil, cold extracted, with last year’s pickled olives, za’atar, and sourdough rye bread.
When my gardener went ahead to have his olives pressed three days earlier than we had agreed upon, I thought I had no other option for our olives but to pickle them, as our meager harvest would most likely not meet the minimum required by a press. It would probably require buying more pickling jars, unless I could convince friends to come and get some off our hands.
So what could be more miraculous and providential than my friend Roselie phoning me that she’d just found an almázara (olive press) near her farm? M and I at once set about feverishly harvesting for a day and a half. We left the ones unreachable even with a ladder for the birds, and some fully ripe black ones for later salt pickling. Our harvest came to 2 large crates and a quarter of a large trug. We estimated about 40 – 50 kilos.
Shortly after noon on Friday the 10th, we drove to the 2-hectare farm of Roselie and her husband Lambert. Their lovely house at the end of a stonewall-lined lane peeped through a diversity of fruit trees — olives, persimmons, quinces, and citrus — backlit into shimmering gold by the autumn sun. It was their neighbour who had told them about the almázara run by a cousin. Our group then headed for the village of Benicolet, driving through orchards scented by ripening persimmons, oranges, grapefruits, and olives. There, near a grove of baby olive trees on one side and a citrus orchard on the other, stood the press.
The Benicolet olive press. The man facing the camera is Victor Climent.
View from the olive press towards Montixelvo.
The guy in charge of the press, a tall young man, greeted us, and introduced himself as Noé. I had telephoned for an appointment for 1 pm the day before, and he apologised that we would have to wait, as there was still a batch going through. I said we were perfectly content to observe the process while waiting. Noé and his assistant Javi (Javier) were relaxed and pleasant as they showed us around the machinery, explaining the process at the same time that we took photos. Roselie and Lambert then left. They would be bringing in their olives at a later date.
While we waited for our turn, Noé pressed cold beer cans into our hands, and there was no way we could refuse, as we’d already refused once before. They also offered us tiny cups of a herbal liqueur, scented with anise and other sweet-smelling herbs. I was glad to see the previous batch finished before we got totally inebriated. The machinery was cleaned of debris and spent paste (pomace), ready for our turn.
Noé and Javi helped us carry the olives from the car. The olives were weighed, still in the crates and trug, and they came to 51 kilos. ‘Limpia!’ Noé was happy at the state of our fruit. The previous batch had been chockfull of twigs and leaves. ‘We picked by hand,’ I said. There are short harvesting rakes which we could have used, but only learned about later, being absolutely clueless about olive harvesting. In any case, olives meant for the table are best harvested by hand. Those for oil are usually stripped with narrow-tined plastic rakes.
Our olives were then poured into the input chute for sorting and washing.
The leaves and the fruit stems are separated, leaving the fruits to drop into a swirling cold water bath. They then proceed to be crushed into a paste, pulp and seeds together, with steel blades. (The traditional cold press method involved grinding in a stone mill with the ground paste wrapped in layers in straw or jute to be pressed.) The olive paste moves to a large horizontal tank to be mixed gently at 27°C (this is the maximum allowable temperature under cold extraction). This low temperature allows the oil content in the paste to be easily separated from the water content. It is not hot enough to affect the quality and taste of the resulting oil, and the process still qualifies as cold extraction. The term ‘cold pressing’ is now reserved for the traditional stone mill method. The crushed paste is mixed slowly, to allow enough time for all the oil to accumulate while the water drains off to pipes that lead outside.
Ground-up olive paste; the greener the olives, the paler the paste.
From the mixing tank at top right above, the oil then slowly trickles through — a stream of molten gold. ‘Bueno,’ Noé and Javi both comment on our oil as it flows. We are quite chuffed. I am tempted to taste it, but restrain myself.
The first trickle of cold-extracted oil
Meanwhile the temperature in the mixing tank drops gradually — to 26, then 25 until it is at 23°C when the last drops of oil trickle through to a sieve and on to a stainless steel collector.
The oil proceeds to a large stainless steel tank for mixing, and is then bottled into appropriate sized jugs. Our oil went into 3 jugs, each containing 5 liters. The last one only came to 2/3 of the jug. The total for our first olive oil came to 13 precious liters. And the oil content? At 28%, Noé and Javi reckoned it excellent.
Javi bottling oil from the previous batch (13% oil content).
Our oil at 28% oil content
The standard oil content for the variety of our olives — Villalonga Manzanilla (distinct from the Sevilla Manzanilla) — is between 22 – 25%; 28% is brilliant and totally unexpected. The price of extraction is 18 cents for each kilo of input fruit, and 55 cents for each 5-liter jug. In all our 13 liters of extra virgin olive oil cost us 10 Euros to process. (Prices vary from almázara to almázara. Some charge as low as 14 cents per kilo, others as high as 80 cents. Other mills also expect a portion of the extracted oil in addition to, or instead of payment.)
The high oil rating is, I assume, thanks to the generous organic amendments of stable and chicken manure over the past year, and timely drip irrigation at three critical periods: flowering, fruit set, and seed maturation. The yield of 13 liters of oil from 46.5 net weight of fruit is quite good too. Normally it takes about 6 kilos of fruit to produce 1 liter of oil. Ours came to 3.6 kilos of fruit to 1 liter. For us novice organic olive farmers, this is an encouraging beginning. And we’ve still got a good 20 – 30 kilos of fruit in various stages of being debittered for pickling. Not all our 33 trees have borne fruit this year, as they’d been neglected for years, and only received water and good nutrition since we came.
I cannot end without mentioning another incredible bit of our olive oil adventure. Because it was the team’s time for lunch (between 2 and 3 pm), we were invited to share the partridge puchero slowly cooked into deliciousness over 9 hours by Noé. The partridges were courtesy of Javier’s father who had hunted them in the surrounding mountains. As evidence, Noé warned us to beware of any remaining shot, showing us one that turned up in his serving.
What joy and undiluted pleasure it was to partake of a meal so generously and freely shared by people who an hour before had not known us at all. We sat outside at a table in front of the press in the gentle afternoon sun, drinking red wine, soaking crusty fresh bread in the savoury broth flavoured with parsley and lemon quarters. The mixed olive pickles were from Olives Sanjuan, Javi´s family firm. Across from our dining table were oranges and grapefruits ripening on their trees in the nearby orchard. Could life get any better? This is precisely the kind of experience we had wished to come across while living in Spain.
While we waited for the cold extraction to come to an end, Noé’s father, Victor Climent, was graciousness itself as he recounted the history of the olive press, designed by his eldest daughter, an architect. I note, from the framed certificates on one wall of the press, that both of Noé’s older sisters had undertaken training related to extra virgin olive oil accreditation. It is only the second year that the press has been in operation, and the very first year that it is open to the general public.
The almázara, I gather, was established as a joint venture by the Sanjuan and Climent families in 2015. The Sanjuan family specializes in preserved olives and other pickles, and has branched out into ecological olive oil production under the label L’Or del Xiu. The word ‘Xiu’ comes from the former Moorish stronghold, Castell del Xiu (Xiu Castle), which was captured by Christian forces under King James (Jaume) I of Aragon in 1244. The ruins of the castle are a tourist feature of Llutxent, a town not far from Benicolet. Both Llutxent and Benicolet belong to the comarca (administrative region) known as Vall d’Albaida.
So what is our oil like? First of all, its colour immediately after extraction was a cloudy olive green. It has now settled into a brighter yellowish green, though still fairly cloudy. In time we are assured the particulates will settle and the oil will be less opaque. When poured onto a white plate, it is a distinct yellow. Its scent is intensely fruity, like that of freshly sliced green apples. This scent is characteristic of the Villalonga type of olive. Other scents associated with the Villalonga variety are freshly mown grass and almonds, but these I did not detect. There is also a strong scent of raw olives — after all, extra virgin olive oil is none other than pure olive juice. And what about the flavour? It is, like its scent, intense, mildly bitter, and peppery, and the taste lingers long in the mouth after swallowing. We love it! Not only because it is our very own, but it is just the kind of olive oil that we like, and what we had, rather unknowingly, hoped for. We aim to harvest a little earlier next time. Perhaps even two or more weeks earlier. The Villalonga variety ripens earlier than most other varieties, and ideally for the very best oil flavour, it should be harvested at the point when some fruits are already taking on a purple blush, even when most are still green. There is a trade-off between quantity and quality. The riper the olive, the greater the quantity of oil, but we would rather have less, and enjoy the best tasting oil we can produce.
A resounding thank you to our angels, Roselie and Lambert, for introducing and guiding us to an amazing almázara! And of course to Noé Climent Bosca and Javier Sanjuan Pascual for being so nice and hospitable. We shall certainly be back with our next harvest. Thanks also to Miichan and Satchan, our cats, who helped with the harvesting.
Noé Climent Bosca, on the left, and Javier (Javi) Sanjuan Pascual.
Contact details: Noé Climent Bosca, Almázara L’Or del Xiu, Benicolet, Valencia. Tel. 655 523 567. Call ahead to book. I understand pressing is only till the end of the November.