Making Your Own Olive Oil
Good olive oil is a precious commodity – it can instantly elevate the taste of any dish and transport you to the rolling olive fields of Mediterranean Europe. As South Africans know, this comes at a price – and usually a high one at that. To make matters worse, many of the products labelled ‘extra-virgin’ we pay so much for are actually mixes containing refined olive oil or other cheaper oils, which can take away the health and taste benefits of the real thing. What would it take to bypass this processing and cheating and supply yourself with a lifetime of homemade olive oil? As it turns out, not all that much.
Let’s crunch the numbers. Imagine you’re living in Greece, the country with the highest per capita consumption of olive oil in the world. According to statistics, Greeks consume an average of 20l of olive oil per person per year. A not-so-close second is Spain, at around 14l per person. These averages are likely far higher than any South African household, but it’s always best to work with worst case scenarios. Now, how many olives does a single tree produce? On average, one mature olive tree will produce between 15 and 20kg of olives per season. This is in optimal conditions, which most regions of South Africa don’t really have, so we’ll use the lower estimate. Producing 1l of olive oil requires around 3 – 4 kgs of olives, so one tree can produce about 3.5l every season, give or take. In other words, to make enough olive oil to last you the year as the highest consumer of olive oil in the world, you only need 5.7 healthy olive trees. Rounding that to 6 (I wouldn’t want to buy .7 of an olive tree at my nursery anyway), a mini olive farm in your own backyard will take up about 16m2 of your garden and provide you with the freshest, tastiest olive oil possible, all year long.
In South Africa, olives are best grown in areas with dry summers and rainy winters, mostly in the Western Cape. They require a period of cold to trigger flowering and long hot summers to promote ripening. These trees cannot handle frost, which damages vulnerable parts of the plant, especially in young trees. In winter, day temperatures should not exceed 21°C degrees or drop below -2°C. Plant your olive tree in a full-sun position in an area protected from strong winds. Space the trees around 4m apart and the rows 2m apart. Young trees may need to be staked to help them grow upright. The soil should be very well-draining, ideally with some gravel mixed in. Water around once a week while the tree is establishing, changing to once a month once it has settled. In the right conditions, new olive trees should produce fruit after 4 years. Before that time, pruning is not a necessity although it may help keep the tree neat. After your first harvest, cut back the branches that produced fruit to make space for new ones. Olive oil can be made from any olive variety, but some have a higher oil content than others. Look for the ever-popular ‘Mission’ olive or ‘Frantoio’ for the highest possible oil production.
Making olive oil
If you’re looking at making your own olive oil long-term, an olive press is a worthwhile investment. No pitting is required, and it is certainly the simplest process of all the extraction methods. However, as an olive press is not a common kitchen gadget, we’ll focus on how to extract olive oil with what you already have around the house. Start by picking the olives from your tree. Both ripe and unripe olives can be used to produce olive oil, but ripe olives release more oil in the process. Clean the fruits thoroughly and remove the pits. Transfer the amount of olives you’re working with into a large bowl – 1kg at a time is best to produce around 500mls of olive oil. Crush the olives into a paste until they display a glossy sheen. This process releases some of the oil, making the olives appear shiny. Add 3 tablespoons of warm water for every cup of olives used to the bowl, stirring together. Using an immersion blender (or transferring the mixture to a blender or food processor), blend into a fine paste. Mix this paste in circular motions with a spoon until the oil begins to visibly separate, after around 3 – 5 minutes. Cover the mixture with a cloth or paper towel and leave to sit for 10 minutes to allow the rest of the oil to separate. After 10 minutes, place the mixture into a sieve lined with cheesecloth and cover. Place a heavy weight on top to press the mixture down into the sieve. Once the liquid has drained and is left to sit, you should see a layer of oil sitting on the top of the mixture. Using a syringe, remove the oil and place into a sterilised jar. The olive oil can be stored for up to four months, but is best used as soon as possible for optimal taste and freshness.