Pressing matters

Categories: News and previews

Danillo of the The Olive Oil Co has set up an olive press in the Market Hall and is spending three days creating olive oil and explaining this alchemic process to the Market’s visitors. Clare Finney pays a visit to find out more

“You can’t hurry olive oil,” says Danillo, owner of The Olive Oil Co, as we stand, shivering, in the sub-zero temperatures of Borough Market in December. Beside us, Danillo’s shiny olive pressing machine stubbornly refuses to yield. It, too, is freezing, as are the olives, accustomed as they both are to their native Mediterranean climes. Eventually, however, the press—a large, Dalek-like feat of engineering—starts whirring like a plane about to talk off and Danillo peers hopefully inside. “I think we can have a go now,” he says. “I’ll just give it some heat.”

He reaches behind him—then turns back around, brandishing what can only be described as an industrial hairdryer and proceeds to, well, blow dry the Dalek. “The temperature is 9C and we need it to be about 25C,” he explains. “We need to be able separate the fat from the water, and that requires heat.” He checks the temperature gauge again. It’s still a tepid 14C, but a small crowd of school children is gathering expectantly so he seizes a crateful of hard, nubile green olives and pours them into the mouth of the machine.

“The olives are crushed first. The stones and leaves are discharged, and the paste is worked until it’s smooth. It takes a long time,” he smiles as I resume my fidgeting, “probably even longer here because it’s so cold. Look,” he opens the machine again. The olives are churning, gradually being pulverised into pieces, but the mix is more like tapenade than anything resembling the beginnings of olive oil. “You can smell the freshness,” he says, breathing deeply, sending up wreaths of mist, “but it is not yet oily and mellow.”

Two stones and a donkey
He replaces the lid. With a good half an hour to go before we can taste the Dalek’s work, we talk above the machine’s clatter: about historical methods of producing oil (two people, a couple of large stones and a donkey); the slightly shady industrial practices of mass producers; and about the extra virgin and virgin olive oils which Danillo makes, sources and sells.

These are the real deal: green olives, picked from the tree and transported to a mechanical press within 48 hours, maximum. “As soon as they leave the branch the olives are not happy. They need to be pressed ASAP.”  Virgin and extra virgin oils both contain freshly pressed olives. The difference between the two is simply that extra virgin is even less acidic than virgin, which ranges from 0.9% to 1.52% acidity, while the finest extra virgin oils usually have acidity levels between 0.2 and 0.4%. The process of collecting the fruits is labour intensive: olives that have fallen on the ground are not good enough—too ripe—and it is some undertaking to handpick the trees overnight to ensure they can be pressed in time. Yet this pure dedication to quality is precisely what Danillo, in bringing the press from Tivoli to Borough Market, hopes to show.

There is a clear lack of knowledge in the UK about the process of making oil, Danillo tells me. “We expect olive oil, which lasts for weeks, to cost no more than £6, but we’ll spend £12 on a bottle of wine for an evening.” The two are comparable, he explains, because they share many qualities. “There are over 400 varieties of olive oil in Italy alone. It varies from region to region according to soil type, climate, landscape. Like wine, it has its own beauty. It can be bitter, fruity or sweet.”

Hard work
And like with winemaking, it is hard work for little material reward. “Out of 100kg of olives you get about 17 litres of oil,” says Danillo. He’s bringing 2,200kg to London—enough to make 330 litres of oil, or 110 litres for each day that the press is here in Market Hall. At the bottom of the press, the pipe from which oil should be running, continues to thwart the hopes of the empty canister waiting expectantly below. One of the children shouts excitedly. He thinks he’s seen something, but it is wishful thinking. The paste, warmer now but still a few minutes away from real fluidity, has yet to even enter the decanter part of the machine.

This is where the magic happens. When Danillo deems the paste ready, he lifts a lever and it slides slowly forward into another chamber that extends beneath. “The decanter presses the paste to get juice, then splits the paste to separate the fat out,” he explains. I don’t quite understand it, but Danillo’s been working with olive oil long enough for me to trust him. The farmers he works with have been growing olives for generations: their trees, in order to bear fruit, must be at least 80 or 90 years old.

Educating people
“For a while the small producers were disappearing,” he explains. “All the big companies were swallowing the market and the land.” Ten years ago, this started shifting. “People are more aware now. They are starting to know and appreciate quality.” Small producers are able to live off their oil again. Their costs are high, and Danilo remains baffled and concerned at how supermarkets succeed in selling extra virgin and virgin olive oils at £6.40 a litre. “The current cost is €150 euro per 100kg of olives—that makes €8.82 per litre at cost, and that’s before transport to London, bottling, labelling and retail. I don’t know how they do it,” he says grimly, “so I can’t comment. I can only show people my oil and educate them on the differences. Then people can choose whether they buy cheap or good quality, extra virgin or whatever—but at least they know.”

We look at the pipe again. Something is happening—really happening this time, in an emerald-green dribble of thick oil. I feel like Robin Williams discovering flubber. Danillo just looks relieved. “Did you think it might not work?” I ask him. “For a moment,” he confesses, grinning, and hands me a small taster cup of the cloudy, peppery, freshly pressed olive oil. My hands are now numb, I can’t feel my feet and my nose is blue—but at the taste of this beautiful nectar, I feel for a moment like I’m in an ancient olive grove in the warm Italian sunshine. Cheers.