How is olive oil made? A quick look at all the stages involved, from picking the olives to pressing out the juice!

Firstly, sorry for not having blogged in almost a week! Do you ever just feel a bit overwhelmed, like you just really need a break? That’s me alllll the time at the moment – I’m frazzled. Pregnancy is exhausting for so many reasons! Not to mention the fact that we’ve had workmen in our house more often than not this week, which I always hate. At the weekend we went to visit some friends in Yorkshire and I didn’t check my emails once. It was absolutely lovely.

I’m back today though, with something a bit different. As I mentioned briefly in my vegan sandwich post, in November I spent a lovely weekend in Provence (Southern France) learning about French olive oil. I was planning on just sharing a recipe using the oil, but I found it so interesting learning about how olive oil is made that I wanted to share that instead.

France may not be the first country that springs to mind when you think of olive oil producers, but there are several relatively small producers in Provence, who are all looked after by a co-operative called Olivence. Over the course of a weekend, we visited each producer in turn and saw every step of the olive oil making process.

The following is all based on the small producers we saw. I imagine larger producers use similar methods, just on a more industrial scale.

Picking the olives

The olive trees are grown in long lines, to make it easier to pick the olives. First, a huge net is laid out between the rows of trees to catch the olives as they fall.

Then, this nifty little tractor-type machine (sorry, I’m no farmer) has the first go at picking the olives. That scary looking spindly thing on the end of the arm vibrates back and forth really quickly to knock the olives off the tree, where they’re collected in the net.

In case the machine misses any, it’s then the job of these guys to go round with their own Ghostbusters-style backpacks and their own mini versions of the vibrating contraption to shake any remaining olives to the ground. Each tree produces anywhere from 15 – 50kg of olives in one season, so there’s a lot to be collected!

Another tractor-like vehicle then comes along, winding up the huge net onto a wheel at the front of the machine. As the net is gathered inwards, a man uses what’s essentially a huge hoover to suck up all the olives. This then sends them into a huge bucket on the back of the vehicle. It’s back-breaking work, but so clever!

This is what the olives look like when they’re first picked – completely different to how we usually eat them! They’re very juicy inside, but they’re not edible at this stage as they’re far too bitter. In order to become table olives, they’re stored in salt and water for about 6 months until they become the tasty little morsels I love so much.

So much work goes into creating the gorgeous olive oil and table olives that we tried over the weekend, and it was great to see how much love the small producers have for their products. I imagine that’s somewhat lacking with larger, more industrial producers.

Extracting the oil

First, the olives need to be cleaned. They’re poured through a wire mesh, which removes any large twigs and leaves. Then they’re thoroughly tossed about in cold water – it all happens on a big conveyor belt.

(Sorry for these photos, it was dark when we visited this particular olive oil producer – press trips are great fun, but there are no early nights!)

The olives are put into a big machine that grinds them up, stones and all. As you can probably tell from the above photo, it doesn’t look particularly appetising at this stage – it’s basically just a grey sludge.

The olive paste (which sounds so much nicer than grey sludge) then goes through two separate centrifuges – the first to separate the solids from the liquids, and the second to separate the water from the oil. I’m afraid the centrifuge machines are fully contained so I couldn’t get any photos of these steps, but what emerges is pure olive oil. To make the freshest olive oil possible, this process all takes place as soon as possible after the olives have been picked – preferably within about 6 – 12 hours of picking.

Once the oil has been extracted, all that’s left to do is bottle it up, and serve it! Overall, it takes around 6kg of olives to make just 1 litre of olive oil.

Above is just one of the beautiful olive- and olive oil-inspired dishes we ate over the weekend (there were many more!). This particular dish was served up at the Michelin-starred restaurant Une Table Au Sud in Marseille. If I’m remembering correctly (baby brain), it was grilled pineapple with pineapple sorbet, olive oil ice cream and candied black olives. I definitely remember that it was absolutely delicious – one of my favourite dishes from the whole weekend, and I don’t usually have much of a sweet tooth.

A little shout out to all the olive oil producers in Provence who were kind enough to let us look round: Vignolis, Moulin Castelas, Moulin Cornille, La Lieutenante, and La Maison Codefa. Everyone was so friendly – great trip. I will definitely be keeping an eye out for all of their olive oils back here in the UK (although I came home with enough to last me a good while…!).

By the way, all the photos in this post were taken on my Samsung Galaxy S7 phone. This isn’t a sponsored post and they don’t know I’m mentioning them, but I’ve been super impressed with the camera and wanted to give it another quick mention!

I hope you found this post interesting – if not, recipes will resume next time!