Stories of people & places, festivities & traditions from my travels around the world

Making olives into oil: visiting a Greek olive pressing factory

by Lucy Hornberger

The trucks and tractors, loaded high with bulging sacks of olives, start to roll up to the olive pressing factory at twilight after a long day's harvesting. As darkness falls, the factory is flooded with light, a beacon on the main road in this small town in Greece's Laconia region. After helping with the olive harvest we're excited to be invited to see the next step in the process, and witness 'our' olives being pressed into oil.
The olive presses are housed in a large warehouse-like space, with twin rows of machinery making a pleasingly linear operation. The sacks of olives (all hessian, no plastic is allowed) are first emptied into huge crates, then a forklift truck starts the pressing process, lifting the crates with ease and zooming away to dump the contents into a large metal hopper. This is done at breakneck speed, one crate swiftly following another, but not a single olive goes astray.
The olives, still complete with stems and plenty of leaves, drop through the hopper and ride an elevator up to the washing machinery. Here leaves and larger stalks are blown from the olives, and are sent along a tube through the wall of the building, to then cascade down into a heap outside. Farmers load up on this by-product and feed it to their goats. The olives are tumbled, sprayed and rinsed, then continue along the production line and into the crusher which removes the stones and renders the olive flesh into a thick mushy paste. The crushed stones fall into another hopper, to be used as mulch for the fields (although we are told that some factories process the olive stones - presumably with solvents - to make low grade oil for the 'Eastern market', in other words Russia). All these processes take place at a very high volume. In fact the noise in the factory is such that it is hardly possible to hold a conversation and the workers appear to communicate mostly by nods and sign language. There are ear defenders on a shelf, but no one is using them.
After much pummelling and stirring the paste is filtered, and pumped into a tank. At last a stream of thick yellow-green oil pours out of a chute and down through a metal mesh into a large vat. At this point farmers have a choice: either sell the oil to the local cooperative, in which case they will receive payment per litre and the oil will be pumped into a communal tank, or pay for the pressing and market the oil themselves, in which case the oil will be pumped into metal canisters. Our host is unhappy about the low rates offered by the cooperative and instead intends to take his oil to Athens where he hopes he can get a better price. His oil is therefore pumped into the shiny metal canisters, an operation done with the same speed and efficiency as the rest of the pressing process.
As we wrestle the canisters into our van, more sacks of olives are arriving in the forecourt and the forklift zooms back into life to start the process all over again.
A visit to Sparta's beautifully designed Museum of the Olive and Greek Olive Oil is a must for anyone at all interested in olives. We were drawn there by the wish to see how olives were traditionally pressed (mule-powered mills were in use in parts of Greece into the 1970s!), but there is plenty more of interest, including a displays on olive oil soap making, olives in Greek culture and history, and interesting short films on olive harvesting and processing.

Article & photos posted February 14th, 2016

Text and photos copyright © 2016 Lucy Hornberger. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use prohibited.


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