Oftentimes, it is difficult to let go of old ways and embrace new ones, especially when change seems to strip something of its essence. This is surely the case with the dispute over whether olive oil made the “old-fashioned” way is superior in quality to newer, mechanized machinery. It’s FICTION. From stone mills to crushers, mat presses to centrifuges, clay pots to stainless steel tanks, the way olive oil is made today is vastly superior to the old days.
But first, let’s pay homage to the long heritage of the milling in the olive oil industry. For thousands of years, over 5,000 to be exact, olive oil has been an essential part of life for many cultures. For almost as many years, stone mills did a remarkable job of crushing fresh olives in a way that released the oils from the fruit, retained the flavor and created a product that could be used and consumed in many ways. The image of the grinding stone and screw press is so tied to the romance and history of olive oil that modern-day facilities often showcase an antique wheel or press in their tasting rooms to leverage the marketing appeal of this classic method of oil production. Even clay amphoras of Greek and Roman times are frequently used as a brand symbol to connote classic, true quality.
But, there are clear reasons why the march of modern-day progress has taken hold in the olive oil industry, and it is not purely for efficiency sake. There are three factors that can diminish the nutritional benefits and quality of olive oil from the moment the olives are harvested: exposure to oxygen, light and heat. Once the olives are ready to process, these three things must all the carefully guarded against to ensure the highest quality result.
Stone milling, while effectively crushing the olive fruit and extracting oil, is unfortunately time-consuming – up to 30 minutes of grinding away at the olives to begin to allow the oils captured in the cells of the fruit to be released, all the while exposing the olive pulp to oxygen and light. Hemp mats used in screw presses eventually can clog and are difficult to clean, introducing the new olive oil to potential contaminants. Another disadvantage is the lack of control over heat in this hand-managed procedure. For some, milling this way is a learned craft using visual cues to determine when the olives have best spent their juices. But, the efficiency and precision of newer methods compared to the lack of control in old fashion mills can’t be matched.
In an era when the domestic industry continues to push the highest quality standards, modern methods simply provide a greater assurance that the best extra virgin olive oil can be created from a healthy crop of olives. It’s a fact.