the making of olive oil – an ancient ritual

In short: pick them, crush them, press them.

Or a bit more in depth, if you’d like. People in the Middle-East and the Mediterranean region have been munching on olives for at least 5,000 to 6,000 years. It’s not one of those nice fruits that you can just enjoy straight from the tree, though – try it, and you’ll have a very bitter and in many ways unpleasant experience. Instead, olives become edible either by being cured and fermented, or by being pressed into delicious oil.

Olive trees often live for hundreds of years, and some have even been shown to be over 1,500 years old! They’re tough, drought tolerant, most often survive fires, and can produce fruit throughout their entire, very long lifetime. No wonder there’s a lot of myth and symbolism surrounding these trees.

Ok, back to the point. The opposite of short does not have to be a textbook.

Last autumn, I experienced olive oil production for the second time in my life. Unlike the first time, I decided to take part and document it (there might even be a video at some point, but one cannot be sure): everything from the olive harvest to the storing of the oil. Let me continue telling this story with the help of some photographs. This is, after all, a photography blog.

1. The Harvest.

No-one said the trees give up their fruit willingly – on the other hand, who minds spending the day climbing trees in the beautiful Moroccan autumn sun?

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“Picking” might be the wrong word. Sure, there is some picking involved, but mainly, it’s about shaking branches, hitting the tree with sticks and gathering the fallen fruit from the ground.

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Some (everyone else) were better at it than others (me); they also sometimes seemed to disappear into the tree.

2. The Cleaning.

Because no-one wants olive leaves in their oil. Also, water makes olives really photogenic!

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Very pleasant team work.

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The pressing material and tools also need to be cleaned. Wondering what these are used for? Stay tuned, and you’ll find out! (I hate cliffhangers)

3. The Crushing.

Just like the olives aren’t voluntarily handed over by the tree, a fair amount of effort on the part of the humans is required to extract the oil from the olives.

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Olive porridge! The olives familiarize themselves with two huge millstones for 30-40 minutes – long enough to grind the olives, let the oil droplets join to form large enough drops, and to let the enzymes in the olive cells start the process of bringing out some of those lovely aromas and tastes. Mmm…

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After a long enough time in the mill, the olive paste is is loaded into the fiber disks that were drying in the fourth picture. These, in turn, are placed in the press.

4. The Pressing.

Perhaps you’re starting to get the idea – making olive oil is no gentle process. Pressing the oil out of the crushed olive paste is also, as the name suggests, a rather brutal activity. But, it’s the one kind of violence I completely endorse.

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Preparing the press.

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The millstones turning in the back, and the manual press in front.

5. The Oil.

And finally, the end product! Well, almost – the oil that oozes out through the fiber disks is mixed with way too much water. Still, the oil is finally there, and it’s beautiful.

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And there it is – the end result of a year of sunlight and a somewhat strained collaboration between human and olive tree. On the other hand, the collaboration has been very fruitful, for all parties involved.

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The water can be separated from the oil with the help of gravity (as water is more dense than oil, it forms a layer underneath it, given enough time) or a centrifuge. In the end, we’re left with a liquid that is extremely high in energy, has a wonderful smell and taste, and can be used in anything from a salad dressing and oil lamps to the lubrication of machinery and the synthesis of quantum dots. Go figure.

Any questions? Feel free to ask! (Yes, the oil is absolutely exquisite.)

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