An olive press is a machine or device used to extract oil from olives by applying pressure to the fruit in order to release the oil.
In this article we dive into the history of the press, how it was used, and the modernization of pressing machinery and equipment over the past century.
The History of the Press
Over 5,000 years ago the Greeks began cultivating olive trees for fruit and pressing them into oil, making the cooking fat a very old food.
The tree, originally from the Middle East, made its way to Greece and eventually to the rest of the Mediterranean basin including countries like Morocco, Egypt, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.
Creating and refining the press was a huge step for human beings because it allowed us to more easily make oil which was not only a super healthy and nutritional fat but used to cure many types of foods, including fish and vegetables, for centuries.
The ability to cure foods is amazing because it means we can store out of season products for months or even years. This simple fat helped the people in the Mediterranean basin access necessary nutrients year round and maintain a balanced diet.
Today we still use very similar canning and jarring methods to store and cure foods.
How Does the Press Work and What is it Made of?
Traditional presses consist of a stone basin which holds an upper millstone. The stone wheel sits vertically and is operated using a large wooden handle. When the handle is pushed the stone wheel goes around the basin crushing or pressing anything in its path.
During harvest farmers pour the fruit into the millstone and then use livestock such as oxen or a donkey to pull the upper wheel which crushes the fruit into a paste. This method is commonly referred to as the "stone press" or "treadmill press."
The paste is then collected into what are known as frails, which are woven baskets. The frails are stacked on top of each other and a stone weight is placed on top to apply pressure. With the weight of the stone begins the extraction process, a mixture of water and oil begins to drip out and is collected.
The mixture is then left to decant with oil rising to the surface. There have been several different versions of the press over the past few centuries, however, they all operate in a similar way.
Introduction of the Modern Mill
Since the 1950's engineers have made incredible technological and mechanical advances. Today producers now use what is called a mill to make oil.
Modern mills use mechanical systems for extraction. They're typically made of stainless steel and consist of a hopper, washer, slicer/crusher, and malaxer which turn the fruit into a paste. Then the paste is pumped into the centrifuge which actually extracts the oil.
The product that exits the mill must then be filtered or decanted before it's shelf stable. The filtration process is also completely mechanical, read more here.
Related: How is EVOO Made?
Do People Still Use Presses?
For the most part no. Almost all producers have upgraded to a modern mill because it's faster, allows them to make more oil, and produces a higher quality product.
While romantic and a beautiful part of history, traditional presses don't make the quality of product we have today. They require the use of livestock, are quite cumbersome, and require a significant amount of time to make olive oil.
They're still greatly admired by producers and agriculture enthusiasts because they're beautiful and a cool part of human history since we used them for thousands of years. However, they're not efficient or very practical for modern farmers and producers.
Italy and other Mediterranean countries still have many ancient presses you can visit for a glimpse into the history of agriculture!
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