The great myths of olive oil: Traditional ways are always the best
In an activity as old as olive harvesting, tradition can sometimes be the worst adviser. Leaving room for modernization and innovation is the only way to extra virgin quality, even though we maintain the utmost respect and pride for the past time, and the legacy it left to this industry.
By Cécile Le Galliard
Our precious olive tree, our ancestral culture for 5,000 years continues to be a symbol of wisdom and tradition. This central point of Mediterranean landscape and gastronomy continues to intrigue, it is our veritable treasure. Over the years, olive oil producers have strived to improve the quality of extra virgin olive oil incorporating methods aimed at producing better quality oil with a cleaner, more positive environmental friendly approach.
One traditional image that some consumers hold on to is the notion of ‘cold pressing’ still seen on many labels. This labeling can be confusing for buyers as most mills today have installed centrifuges that extract (still cold) olive oil in the extracting process. Consumers visiting so-called "modern" mills at harvest time are often surprised at how clean and odor free the premises are.
The olive-growing sector has changed considerably over the years. This might be for reasons of profitability, but their main aim is to improve the quality of the oil, especially to obtain the maximum nutritional values and to have the best tasting extra virgin olive oil. Manufacturers now consider factors such as hygiene, the contact of the oil with light, oxygen, pomace, vegetation water, the length of time the process etc. ..In the past, there were so many sources that caused defects, resulting in poor quality oil: extra virgin changed to lampante olive oil in seconds under these poor conditions (from the Spanish word lampara lamp; oil not fit for consumption and used as fuel as in Romans times).
Why then do we continue to sell these images of tradition as if a quality olive oil was directly linked to a method that has been perpetuated for thousands of years?
And what if modernity, in the case of olive oil, has improved our taste buds and our health?
HARVESTING BY HAND
In traditional olive groves, and on slopes, harvesting by hand was the only way to go for the producer -- it was a race against time to get the olives to the mill as quickly as possible. Olives should not be stored for too long before crushing as this can cause fermentation and a musty scent.
To make extra virgin, a very short time must be respected between picking the fruit and crushing the fruit. Mechanical harvesting saves time, much more so than harvesting by hand. Today with the development of super intensive farming and the use of harvesters, time has become shorter and shorter, allowing freshly picked olives to get at the mill quickly.
Moreover, harvesting by hand requires a lot of manpower, an additional cost for the producer, and stress to find staff every year. Olive picking is not the most popular work and the use of the gaule for example requires a real know-how in order to avoid damaging the fruit and the tips of the branches (harvest of the following year).
When harvesting by hand, possibly with the help of a hand comb, 60 kg of olives or so can be harvested per day. The use of the gaule is more efficient (50 Kg of olives per hour).
Hygienic methods in the mill have improved over the years. In the past, with the traditional press and the extraction techniques producers used it was almost impossible to maintain hygienic measures. The present day extracting system in modern mills, mixers and centrifuges is clearly more hygienic.
These «modern» stainless steel mills must be perfectly clean so as to avoid acceleration of fermentation caused by the remains left over from the previous olive crushing. This means that at the end of the day, all the pipes of the crushing unit must be thoroughly cleaned. For those who do not have a mill, choice is very important: Before taking olives to the mill, check the condition of the pipes!
Some mills still extract with a press, not an impossible task but the standards of these mills must be more draconian. In addition to hygiene, these traditional presses need more time and manpower (we come back to the same problem as for the harvest): time + prolonged storage of the olives before crushing + prolonged contact with air + prolonged contact of the oil with pomace remains make it more likely with the traditional mill to lose the positive attributes of the oil and even worse, can lead to the development of sensory defects and increase the physico-chemical parameters.
INTENSIVE OR SUPER-INTENSIVE PLANTATIONS
It is true that the landscape of intensive or super-intensive olive groves is moving away from the bucolic image of traditional olive groves, which still represents the majority of olive groves in the Mediterranean basin. However, with trees planted closer together however allows an economy of scale on several key posts and gives more olives per hectare.
The super-intensive olive grove or fruit hedge with a spacing of 1.5 meters between each tree is debatable.
Arguments for spacing: We produce more, much more, we are more profitable, and we can mechanize 100% of the harvest with one person at the wheel of a harvester and another driving the tractor with the olives to the mill. This way, we reduce the harvesting time, transport time to the mill as well as reduce the waiting time before crushing the olives. This method works well for other fruits (apples, pears), some olives varieties tolerate these conditions very well, we can be organic and some are even biodynamic, the quality is not less, on the contrary, ... In new producing countries or in areas where we currently plant (as in Morocco for example) the super-intensive system is the most common.
Against spacing: We don’t have enough hindsight as yet to see the long-term effects of this system on the tree, the soil and biodiversity, overexploitation of soils and water reserves, few varieties such as arbequina, arbosana, koroneiki, chiquitita, oliana tolerate the super-intensive, standardization of the sensory profile of oils, after 25 years the tree is removed and a new tree is planted, ...
It's not easy to form a clear-cut opinion, on such a controversial subject. I tasted wonderful oils from super-intensive farms and visited a beautiful impressive plantation near Sevilla converted into biodynamic farming with other varieties than those mentioned above.
(Cortijo el Puerto, photos below) or near Hellin (Pago de Peñarrubia).
But I remain attached to the olive tree where we give them more space allowing them to grow . It is necessary to see in time what results we will have!
As for other crops, the treatment of soil in olive culture is vital. Olive groves have been treated for decades and new producers, new generations, often come up against "traditional" ways of dealing with this issue.
Growers should consider that the organic market is growing and for some markets it is a condition that will improve sales. First, there are the additional costs of treating the soil adequately and secondly consumers are looking for environmental and health issues of the product, for the staff working in the olive grove and the people living around it.
Several studies are now demonstrating the benefits of plant cover to preserve the soil, groundwater and biodiversity. Cécile Cron, producer (Cova Fumada) and taster, told me when this series of great myths came to light that: "When it rains, the water doesn't get into the soil because the treated soils are hard as stone... so pools at the foot of the olive trees (when it rains during the harvest period it's a catastrophe) or water that gullies and destroys the terraces when cultivated on terraces... Then these producers water, you walk on your head. Young or new producers are much more sensitive to this theme".
Here is the work of SEO bird Life with the project of Olivares Vivos: "Olivares Vivos" reminds us of the importance of the herbaceous cover to preserve the soil of the olive grove.
Well-managed plants cover, increases soil fertility and protects it from erosion. In addition, it improves biodiversity, promotes balance among communities of living things, controls pests and diseases, and mitigates the effects of climate change due to carbon sequestration.
THE GRANDMOTHER AND THE GRANDFATHER
The idea that you have to be born amongst olive trees, have a father and grandfather who were olive growers or even a grandmother who throughout your childhood cooked with olive oil and educated you to her taste does not make you an expert olive oil grower or taster.
As in wine, new producers have discovered the profession, they have discovered this product and are seeking careers in the industry, communication, audiovisual and finance. They have dedicated themselves passionately to producing exceptional extra virgin olive oils.
In terms of quality, our grandfathers and grandmothers did not do as well as modern day producers. They very often harvested too late, stored olives which they picked off the ground in bags, keeping them for several days before transporting them to the mill as well. They also used the remains of pomace in the press ... The oils were most often defective and often not fit for consumption as with (Lampante olive oil definition).
As trainers we come across a false sense of what olive oil should taste like. Uncontrolled fermentation or rancidness in poor quality olive oil for example are tastes that some have been accustomed to and have accepted, old habits that developed in childhood.
Once initiated to what good quality extra virgin olive oil should taste like there is no turning back.
NEW PRODUCER COUNTRIES / OLD PRODUCERS
Olive oil is produced today in 56 countries in the world: 9 new producers added since 2016 including El Salvador, Ethiopia, Kuwait, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Macedonia.
The number of orchards has increased by 15% in the last 15 years with 60% of the olive trees planted in Europe, 27% in Africa, 10% in Asia, 2% in America and less than 1% in Oceania. The olive tree is present in all of the 5 continents and in both hemispheres.
Even if traditional olive growing countries such as Spain and Italy still dominate international competitions, oils from new producing countries (meaning outside the Mediterranean basin without any significant olive oil attachment in the past) are gaining ground, recognized for their quality approach as DNA despite any significant olive attachment to the past.
In the prize list of the MarioSolinas 2020 for example (IOC Competition) China and Australia received first prize in their categories.
Producers don’t need to worry, the competition does not come from the sector itself, from these new producers, or new generations of producers, but in the wider market of vegetable oils where olive oil represents only 3% of the total oils consumed, there is therefore margin.
Sources : Translation made by Alice Alech from the original article
About the author : Cécile Le Galliard (France) had a course of the University of Jaén (Spain), she works as a consultant, she organizes tastings and training courses and select oils for Maison Brémond 1830.