On my recent visit to Italy to harvest our extra virgin olive oil, I had the pleasure of visiting an ancient olive press in Sicily, Italy. The process of extracting olive oil during ancient times was a very different and labor-intensive process. The type of equipment used to extract oil was an old stone mill, a series of mats and a donkey.
The press was flanked by a massive millstone, which was used to crush the olives after fall harvest. The stone weighs about 1,200 pounds. The stone olive press isknown as a trapetum. The trapetum consists of a large stone basin (mortarium) in the middle of which a small cylindrical column is attached (milarium). On top of the column is a carved rectangular tenon on which an iron pin (columella) can be adjusted. A horizontal wooden shaft, supported by its middle on the pin, bears on either end a lens shaped mill stone (orbes), flat on its inner side and curved on the outer.The two millstones are partially sunk in a stone basin, that is filled with olives. A double rotational movement of the millstones, done either by humans or animals, is achieved by using the protruding handle formed on one of the two edges of the horizontal shaft penetrating the millstones. Due to the gap between the millstones and the basin the olives are crushed but not their stones.
The first step required crushing the olives using a crushing stone, and collecting them into a basket. The crushed olives would then be collected into a basket and then further processed by the oil press.
Great care was taken to ensure that the cylindrical stones which crushed the olives were set to just the right spacing between them and the mill receptacle that held the olives so that the pulp was separated without crushing the inner nut, which would lend a very bitter taste to the precious oil.
The second step of olive oil production is done on another installation: the basket is pressed with force, extracting the oil out of the crushed olives and collecting the juice into a storing vat.
Olive oil was mixed with warm water in the pool in front of the press, from where it was collected and put into storage pots. As oil would be concentrated on the surface, water would remain at the bottom, from where it would be pumped away through a waste channel.
The sensation of being inside a traditional olive press today, surrounded by its simple yet impressive equipment, thinking of the endless hours of work that took place here in the past, the cold, the rain, the physical activity involved, the small production… It has been an incredibly humbling experience for me and one that can only fill us with love and a warm wave of deep appreciation for all the generations of simple people that performed the same painstaking ritual every autumn.
But for all the comfort and ease we have gained in having our olive oil at hand on our table today, one thing has been lost forever: the joy of being together, of working with each other for a common good, the collective effort that every autumn would remind people of their common interest. And along with it, the stories and laughter shared in the evenings while sitting around the burning fire.