Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
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Journey from Branch to Bottle

A branch ready for picking in a Tuscany grove
Each year, from November into January, olive farmers throughout central and southern Italy begin picking the ripe fruit from their trees. The olives are then put into coarse-weave, plastic sacks or crates and hauled to a local frantoio. These oil-pressing sites, sometimes centuries-old, operate seven days a week during the annual picking season. The frantoio crews work round-the-clock to keep pace with the demand.
Once pressed, an ample portion of the oil is poured into large metal or plastic canisters the local farmers have provided. The farmers cart these full containers back home to serve as their own personal supply of olive oil for the year, often sharing the treasured, premium oil with their extended families and selling it to neighbors and friends. The remaining oil left with the frantoio is sold to large suppliers. These middle-man distributors, in turn, sell the oil to supermarkets and other food outlets serving the general public in Italy and around the world.
Italy is one of the world’s major producers of olive oil. An Italian region long famous for the excellence of its oil is Tuscany. The hilly countryside there with its dry climate and soil is ideal for growing olives, according to Raffaello Resti, an Italian agronomist. Resti provides consulting services to many of the olive farmers in areas near his home not far from Florence. He is passionate in his commitment to protecting the highest standards of olive oil production.
One weekend in mid-November 2004, Resti invited us to tour some of the Tuscan olive groves and to tag along on a visit to a frantoio, Villa A Sesta, in the Chianti area.
A few weeks later in early December, Romano and Pina Sciotti, our neighbors who live south of Rome also invited us to join them as they picked olives in one of their tiny groves. Afterwards we went with them to their nearby neighborhood frantoio, Santa Chiara.
Olive trees can grow an average of two feet each year. They are pruned to a short height and the branches are thinned so the fruit can have maximum exposure to the sun -- “so open a bird can fly through them,” is a rule-of-thumb for pruning the trees.

A late afternoon sun illuminates a hillside grove of recently harvested olive trees near Villa A Sesta in the Chianti area of Tuscany.

This grove in Loppiano, just outside Florence, is typical of Tuscany. The olive trees often share ground space with cypresses.

Romano and Pina Sciotti pick olives by hand from a tree in the backyard grove of their home south of Rome. Though machines are now available for the task, purists consider the more laborious picking by hand to be least damaging to the fruit.

Romano and Pina Sciotti pour freshly picked olives into a sack to be taken to a nearby frantoio. Olive crops vary from season to season and region to region. In Tuscany, this year, according to Italian agronomist, Raffaello Resti, the olive harvest is ottimo, the best. Not so in some areas farther south. Because of too much rain and wind in the spring, the Sciottis’ harvest this year is only a fraction of the usual amount, they said.

Raffaello Resti, Italian agronomist, displays two varieties of olives grown in the Chianti area. The red and purple colored fruit above is Moraiolo. The green fruit below is Leccino.

From one of the trees in the grove of Romano and Pina Sciotti south of Rome, a branch droops from the weight of Leccino olives, ripe and ready for picking.

In the time-consuming, handpicking method, olives are carefully stripped from the branches, using as little pressure as possible to avoid bruising the fruit. Pina Sciotti demonstrates the method she has practiced every fall for more than 50 years.
Extra Virgin, Virgin, or Ordinary Virgin are the three top categories defined in official standards established by the International Olive Oil Council. But the first step in creating all olive oil begins at the frantoio – olive press -- where the process of extracting the oil from the olives takes place. For a frantoio to produce the highest quality oil, two standards are primary: use the freshest olives with the least possible damage to them during the time period of picking and transportation to the frantoio; and during the processing stages of washing, pressing and purifying, maintain a thermal temperature cool enough to avoid altering the chemical composition of the olives at the time they were picked from the tree.

Renato, frantoio manager, stands in the doorway of the centuries-old Villa A Sesta site in the Tuscan district of Chianti. Famous for its red wine of the same name, the Chianti district also is a major producer of olive oil. (In the area’s olive groves, the grape vines for wine are often grown in alternating rows among the trees.)

On the second floor of the Villa A Sesta frantoio, crates full of olives are ready for the first stage of processing – the deposit into a nearby floor bin that will dispense the fruit down through a chute into a machine for washing. Many olive growers now prefer the use of these airy crates, instead of the plastic bags. The bags, with less ventilation, can sometimes cause damage to the olives by inducing fermentation.

A bin for dispensing freshly-picked olives down through a chute into a machine for washing the fruit on the first floor of the Villa A Sesta frantoio in Tuscany.

Olives tumble gently through the washing process at the Villa A Sesta frantoio. The machine maintains a constant mild temperature for the water. During this stage, surface dirt and other matter are removed from the fruit.

After they are washed, the olives are moved into the second major stage of processing, the crushing. In this machine at the Santa Chiara frantoio south of Rome, the three big wheels move rapidly, rolling and rotating over the olives, pits and all, in a massive stainless steel vat. The process transforms the fruit into an earth-colored paste.

At the Villa A Sesta frantoio in Tuscany, the olive paste is dispensed through a tube from the olive-crushing machine and layered onto spongy, plastic plates. This paste is now ready for the next stage, the pressing process.

A pressing machine at the Santa Chiara frantoio repeatedly compresses the olive paste layered onto the plastic plates, squeezing water and oil out through a hose into a small tub.

From the compressing machine, the liquid now is moved into the final processing stage. This final, purifying procedure separates the oil from the water and removes any pit residue or other debris suspended in the liquid. In earlier times, the oil-water combination was simply placed into a container where the separation process occurred via the natural process of gravity. Now, as seen here at the Santa Chiara frantoio, a modern and much faster machine for separating, a separatore, uses centrifugal force for the purifying process.

During the months from November through January, these stainless steel canisters, used for the long-term storage of olive oil, are often seen filling the back spaces of the cars and trucks of farmers driving along country roads to and from the local frantoio.

In a Villa A Sesta frantoio storage room, agronomist Raffaello Resti holds a bottle of freshly made olive oil. Next to him is a canister filled with more fresh oil, ready to be bottled. Each year, this frantoio produces approximately 100,000 liters of olive oil.

by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
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