Fashioning a leap of faith we realized our wildest dreams in 2006 and installed at Montecastelli, what would become the first ever miniature Alfa Laval olive mill in the Chianti.
For every olive oil producer it must be the aim to process his olives as soon as possible after the olives are harvested from the trees. After all olive oil is a fresh food product, made without any conservatives or additives and the freshest olives make the freshest oil!
In each major olive growing area big consortiums were formed to support the needs of the local growers and equipped with huge and expensive machinery, offering each farmer time slots to process his olives. This meant that olives, even of the best producers, were stored for up to 48 hours, or in some cases even longer, to await their slot for processing. The olives were stored in the mean time, in fruit cases or bags, and thereafter subject to transport and frequent moving from one container into the next, risking bruising of the olives, and often setting off a fermentation or oxidation process. As you can imagine this did not help achieve making the best oil possible. But a small, individually managed olive mill was either none existent or of such rudimentary technology that it did not represent an alternative choice. Hence our olives at Montecastelli were also never processed within less than 48 hours until 2005.
This has changed now, and in combination with a newly researched workflow and the installation of our new mill, the Oliver Light 500 (the first in central Tuscany!), we not only can process our olives within an average of 4 hours after picking, but also have 100% control of temperature settings, can choose between two milling devices, and set the exact amount of oxygen that we want to allow our olive paste to be exposed to. As this was all theory until recently and looked great on the drawing board, but never actually was put to trial in a classic olive growing area, even the Alfa Laval engineers were excited about the outcome of our combined efforts in the 2006 harvest.
And what a result! We thought we were producing cutting edge olive oil already, but this clearly represented another level hitherto unknown to us. Not only did we produce the lowest acidity levels (higher acidity levels indicate advanced rancidity!) and a technologically perfect oil, but most astonishingly the oil turned out more like the fruit, the olive itself. It had lost the excessive immediate punch and spiciness of earlier productions, and substituted this part with pure olive essence and a level of creaminess that we had never experienced before. We felt ecstatic, we felt like we had reinvented ourselves once more as olive oil producers.
With great excitement we immediately took our new oil to the main chefs in our area and then abroad, with the result that for the first time ever before the oil was bottled it was already spoken for and presented on the best restaurant lists we could dream of: Casalta (Tuscany), Arnolfo (Tuscany), Hearth (NY), Falai (NY) and many others (updated list click here)
How does it really work and what makes it so different?
As the technology of our mill can be described as “cutting edge” and in many ways refined over pre existing models and those existing on a larger scale, these differences are found in the details and not in the general concept, which consists of a two phase continuous method. Meaning a machine that is fed continuously with olives on one end and after an average of 1 hour yields the oil of those olives introduced into the process. The machine basically cleans the olives of dirt and impurities, crushes them, mills the olives in a malixer to engage an enzymatic process under which the olive droplets are released, and subsequently spins out the oil in a two step centrifugal process. Two aspects seem to us to have contributed to a significant improvement over other technologies: the crushing of the olives is performed via two discs, equipped each with about 50 sharp teeth or small knifes, that are rotating in opposite directions and as such chopping up the olives with hardly any friction into grain size particles. Thus no extra heat is developed by the milling and no quality is lost. Second it is possible to limit the amount of oxygen we allow in the malixer to reach the olive paste and thus are able to send an olive paste into the decanter that is as fresh in color as the olives themselves.
The biggest impact however seems to be achieved by gaining full control of timing, that is to say primarily by the extreme shortening of the time the olives spend between picking and milling. We had already realized a significant gain of fresh flavors shortening the storage time in 2003 from 72 hours to 48, the same had occurred in 2004 once we started ventilating the olives in crates before taking them to the mill. However the recently acquired ability to control timing and coordinate picking with immediate milling is the clue to top quality oil. With timing we also have discovered that independence from the local consortium mills allows us to choose our starting dates for picking olives independently from what the mill masters at the consortium mills are dictating. Lets say in a year of generally low production, the big mills usually open late as they forecast less total tons of olives to be processed. While it is their aim to keep their machinery going once they have started, it may mean for the farmer that the earliest possible picking of the olives may only be started when the optimum quality is already compromised by cold spells and over ripening. We have discovered that keeping an optimum balance between pruning and slight organic fertilizing of our soil may allow us to anticipate the harvest to the beginning or middle of October, whereas usually the olive harvest starts in the central hills of the Chianti never before the first week of November. By owning our own equipment we can now determine the starting date of our harvest independently and gain significant freshness, higher levels of antioxidants and extremely low acidity readings by starting just 10-14 days earlier than in past years.
We also played around with milling our three dominant varieties separately: Frantoio, Leccino and Moraiolo, and gained the ability to separate the new olive grove from our old trees. After various tasting panels we decided however to blend back together all three levels of oil produced, as we felt that excellence can not be made any better by dividing the ‘whole’ into its ‘parts’. The benefit for the use in an ambitious kitchen of variety oil is more a head game than a real contribution to distinct flavor. Olive oil after all is not a perfume or a variety based wine with aging potential, but rather a unique fresh food that at its best expresses a great deal of characteristics of its local territory and rich olive scent. Whereas Moraiolo olives taste different from the Frantoio ones, this difference is never as significant as when you move into a different location or altitude, change the soil conditions and moisture levels, conditions that all have a significant impact on the oil that you will produce.
With the new mill and the changes in our work methods, we think we are on the right road to producing the best, freshest and creamiest olive oil possible, and offering our clients a true experience on the palate while finding, also for ourselves, renewed excitement and commitment to this ancient food for the modern world!