For thousands of years, olives and olive oil have been staple elements of cuisines across the Mediterranean and around the world. The subtle flavours of this unique oil, coupled with its legendary properties as a healthy food, has made it one of the most popular oils in the world, and every year 2.854 million tons of oil are produced globally.
Every region that produces olive oil has its own time-honoured traditions and methods, but the growth of olive oil consumption, coupled with the development of new harvesting and processing technologies, has led to many new innovations in how olive oil is produced.
Understanding the life cycle of an individual olive can help us understand the importance of these new technologies in the olive oil industry.
Olive trees bloom in the mid-spring or early summer, and olives mature over the following months and are usually ready to be harvested by early autumn, at which point the olives are still green.
There are two main ways of harvesting olives: by hand, and by shaking the trees and then gathering the olives from the ground. The latter method has been used since ancient times, and is generally seen as less labour intensive.
However, the olives are often bruised in the process, which can lead to a decrease in quality. For this reason, hand picked olives are more desirable and are often used in premium oils.
Curing and Processing
Olives that are meant to be sold whole will, upon being harvested, be cured in a lye solution to reduce bitterness, and then rinsed and aerated before being packaged and shipped to market.
Olives that are destined to be turned into oil will be processed in a factory. The first step of processing involves stainless steel presses that turn the olives into paste and remove the pits. This paste then undergoes maxalation, a process by which water is added slowly to concentrate the oil molecules.
This mixture is then filtered using mats or a centrifuge, which separates from the oil and water from the solids, which are called pomace, and which are sometimes used to make pomace oil. The water is then separated from the oil, and the oil is refined to remove impurities.
While the flesh of the olive is being turned into oil, the pit is being prepared for use as a source of fuel. Olive pits contain 8,800 Btu per pound, which makes them an even more potent energy source than hardwood. For this reason, modern olive oil processing operations often recycle olive pits for use as a fuel source (you can click here to learn more about how this works).
Thanks to pit recycling, some olive oil producers are able to fuel a significant part of the olive oil production through the olives pits themselves, which reduces reliance on unclean sources of power and is playing a major role in helping olive operations become zero-waste.
Packaging and Shipping
There are lots of different classes and categories of olive oil, and once oil production is finished, it is graded, packaged, and shipped to markets around the world, where shoppers purchase their favourite types for use as a frying oil, a salad dressing, or a condiment.
New technological developments that make drying and burning olive pits and extracting pomace oil have made it easier than ever for even mass-produced oil to use every part of the olive, extracting every last bit of goodness. They have also made it possible to ensure that olive production remains sustainable for future generations.