13 Jun The traditional olive oil press
The traditional olive oil press
On a Greek island, it’s a sunny spring day. Flowers bloom everywhere, their scent blending with the light sea breeze that reaches the whitewashed villages high in the mountains. We are surrounded by a warm feeling as we walk through the narrow alleys, touching the bare stone of centuries-old houses and stables. A donkey’s cry can be heard on the other side of the valley, echoing far away. It’s lovely and peaceful.
A slew of bulky old keys cling to the hands as they prepare to open the wooden door. The old olive press, a solid reminder of human labor and times gone by, makes a creaky sound.
This simple old stone structure could be mistaken for a simple home or even a stable from the outside. This is not an industrial structure, as its modern descendants are. The space is surrounded by four thick stone walls, with the traditional supporting wooden ceiling.
Olive oil is a uniquely Greek product
Traditional olive presses in Greece went out of business decades ago, to be replaced by modern, mechanized presses at different times depending on location or island. The old buildings were almost completely abandoned, serving only as storage spaces at best, as the new technology was quickly adopted. People were relieved to be moving on and forgetting the long winter days of intense, hard manual labor, as well as the rainy nights spent carrying olive sacks up and down the village.
Looking at the traditional olive press today and hearing the stories of the men who worked in it, it’s easy to understand why the transition was so abrupt and left no time to reflect. It is difficult for today’s Greeks, who consume olive oil so easily and in such large quantities, to comprehend the labor required by their forefathers to produce this precious liquid. It all makes sense once you step inside these old structures, with their bare ground and dim lighting, the bulky stone mills and metal press.
Regardless of how poor people were or what other means of survival they had, olives and olive oil have long been some of Greece’s main products and a staple of the Greek diet. The annual olive picking season would typically take place in autumn, with the entire family involved in the activity of carefully hand picking olives from the trees. Later, assisting tools were introduced, such as the special fork that combs branches, dropping olives to the cloth spread beneath. The olive picking procedure has largely remained unchanged to this day, especially in smaller, more remote areas such as the islands, and the olive picking season is still a major feature of autumn.
The operation of the traditional olive press
Given the significance of olive oil, it’s hardly surprising that every town had an olive press, with most Greek islands having three or more. These were “private businesses,” with the proprietor giving the facilities to other villages for a charge – generally one-tenth of the olive oil produced.
Once the olives were harvested and packed in bags in the field, they were brought on the backs of people, donkeys, or mules to the olive press. Depending on the size of the facility, three to six employees would be working there virtually constantly, each with their own set of tasks. It was hard labor, but it was rewarded with such a precious resource that getting recruited in the press was considered a stroke of luck. There are anecdotal instances of males who got jobs in the press via family ties or other connections. Back then, everything was extremely different.
A variety of tasks were necessary to guarantee that production ran properly at all times. The fire at the corner needed to be set early in the morning, which required fetching wood, lighting it, and maintaining it going. The fire would burn as long as the press was running, heating up water to be utilized in the press. Olives would be placed on the mill table. The olives would next be pressed and turned into paste by men or donkeys pushing the massive wooden handles that moved the mill stones. A worker would resist the centrifugal force by following the movement of the mill cylinders while carrying a wooden pan. The mill would spin in circles while three or four men or an animal laboriously pushed the handles.
The ground olives were put in canvas sacks after they had been pounded into paste. These pieces were more akin to huge envelopes than bags. The paste was spread horizontally to the surface of the fabric, which was then closed by gently plucking all four corners. It was an honor for a press to be renowned for its workers’ ability to generate the correct thickness for the paste layer.
Cloth bags were placed on top of each other at the press. These were massive constructions characteristic of the nineteenth-century industrial age. Their vertical axe, which is often made of steel, would be loosened, enabling the bags to be put between the pressing surfaces. When the space was filled, men would push the wooden handle that moved the vertical axis downwards, squeezing the stack of bags. The men’s heavy breaths mingled with the metallic sound of the pressing axis being fixed and released, producing a rhythmical sound effect. The bag paste would gradually dissolve into the pool in front of the press as a golden-green liquid. When the handle looked to be impossible to travel any farther, it was linked to a spinning pole where two, three, or four men combined their might to crush the bags even more.
Olive oil was combined with warm water in a pool in front of the press before being collected and stored in storage pots. Because the oil would be concentrated on the top, the water would settle to the bottom and be pumped away via a waste channel.
After being created and collected, olive oil would be divided to the individuals involved: the producer, the owner of the press, and the laborers. As easy as it seems, division was a difficult operation that required precise calculations in certain locations.
Perhaps, via storytelling, the effort of pressing olives does not seem so far off from what we would anticipate or compare to today’s norms. But standing inside a classic olive press today, surrounded by its plain but remarkable machinery, remembering the many hours of labour that went place here in the past, the cold, the rain, the physical exertion required, the little output… It is a humble experience that can only fill us with affection and a warm wave of profound appreciation for all the generations of ordinary people who conducted the same difficult rite every fall.
But, for all of the comfort and simplicity of having our olive oil on hand now, one thing has been gone for all time: the pleasure of being together, of working together for a shared good, of the collaborative effort that reminded people of their common interest every fall. And with it, the tales and laughs exchanged in the evenings while sitting around the crackling fire, saying goodbye to summer and hello to winter.
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