There is a certain romance attached to the notion of what an olive press should look like. Many people rightly associate olive oil production with classical Mediterranean provenance which immediately conjures up images of sunlit groves and traditional stone presses. There is a tendency to associate such classic methods with purity or quality, but this romantic idea often does not hold up in reality. Certainly, small batch producers located on rural farms often utilise the methods perfected by their grandfathers and deploy stone mills pulled by donkeys and manned by villagers. There is no doubt that, directly off the press, stone pressed olives will produce some of the freshest olive oil you will ever taste. There is also no doubt that fears of ‘over processing’ or industrial corruption don’t occur to many when considering these ancient production techniques.
There are a few problems with romanticizing oil produced by traditional methods in a modern, global scale context. Simply, this method does not produce very good or lasting oil. These grindstones are valid methods of producing olive oil, as they are successful in breaking up the fruit’s pulp without damaging the pit or skin. They produce good quality pomace, and the lack of water reduces polyphenol runoff. However, these benefits only occur under ideal conditions.
These devices, especially the straw mats used within them, are difficult to clean which means oils often go rancid very quickly due to higher microbial remnant from each batch made. The paste they make is too frequently exposed to oxygen and light. They require a large amount of manual labour and their production times are much longer from harvest to pressing. They are idealised in concept, but not exactly sanitary in practice.
The degradation of olive oil is mainly due to this exposure to oxygen and light. Olives, once harvested, should be pressed within 24 hours as oxidization begins immediately upon harvesting. The modern method introduces a level of control out of reach of the traditional, and it is here where modern machinery shines and is consistently able to produce oil of a superlative quality. The introduction of malaxation, or slow churning, and cold pressing allows modern equipment to better aggregate oil collected from olives while preventing the olives from oxidising by keeping container temperature below 27 degrees Celsius.
Modern equipment certainly lacks the aesthetic and romantic appeal of traditional presses, but suffers few of the shortfalls of these methods. Machines do not allow you to see the process of production as centrifuges are hidden away behind stainless steel exteriors. However, the logic is simple: clean oil is good quality oil. While oil quality is equally dependent on the quality of olives used and the time taken from harvesting to extraction, the extraction method and its level of sanitation are the factors that ensure good olives become good oil.
These industrialised methods make vastly superior oil that is healthier and available to the consumer in larger quantities at lower prices. Their ease of sanitation and control benefits both the producer in terms of efficiency and the consumer in terms of quality assurance. Olive oil is an industry, and as such it needs modern industrial processes to ensure its survival and cater for its massive audience. While the traditional stone mill still has a place as a culturally significant reminder of the humble origins of this now global trade, it simply cannot cater for any consumer demands besides that of nostalgia.