The following particulars with regard to the production of olive oil in Tuscany have been furnished to Mr. Consul Inglis by one of the principal exporters in Leghorn:
The olive oil produced in Tuscany from the first pressing of the fruit is intended for consumption as an article of food. Hence, great attention is paid both to the culture of the olive tree and the process of making oil.
The olive crop is subject to many vicissitudes, and is an uncertain one. It may be taken as a rule that a good crop does not occur more frequently than once in three years. A prolonged drought in summer may cause the greater part of the small fruit to fall off the trees. A warm and wet autumn will subject the fruit to the ravages of a maggot or worm, which eats its way into it. Fruit thus injured falls to the ground prematurely, and the oil made from it is of very bad quality, being nauseous in taste and somewhat thick and viscous. Frost following immediately on a fall of snow or sleet, when the trees are still wet, will irretrievably damage the fruit, causing it to shrivel up and greatly diminishing the yield of oil, while the oil itself has a dark color, and loses its delicate flavor.
The olive tree in Tuscany generally blossoms in April. By November the fruit has attained its full size, though not full maturity, and the olive harvest generally commences then. The fruit, generally speaking is gathered as it falls to the ground, either from ripeness or in windy weather. In some districts, however, and when the crop is short, the practice is to strip the fruit from the trees early in the season. When there is a full crop the harvest lasts many months, and may not be finished till the end of May, as the fruit does not all ripen simultaneously. Oil made early in the season has a deeper color, and is distinguished by a fruity flavor, with a certain degree of pungency; while as the season advances it becomes lighter in color, thinner in body, and milder and sweeter in taste. Oil made towards the close of the harvest in April or May from extremely ripe fruit is of a very pale straw color, mild and sweet to the taste, though sometimes, if the fruit has remained too long on the trees, it may be slightly rancid. Oil very light in color is much prized in certain countries, notably France; and hence, if it also possesses good quality, commands a higher price in the Tuscan markets.
The fruit of the olive tree varies just as much in quality as does the grape, according to the species of the tree itself, the nature of the soil, exposure, and climate of the locality where it grows. Some varieties of the olive tree largely grown, because thought to be better suited to the special conditions of some districts, yield a fruit which imparts a bitter taste to the oil made from it; such oil, even when otherwise perfect, ranks as a second rate quality. The highest quality of oil can only be obtained when the fruit is perfectly and uniformly sound, well ripened, gathered as soon as it has dropped from the trees, and crushed immediately with great attention. Should the fruit remain any time on the ground, particularly during wet, weather, it deteriorates fast and gets an earthy taste; while if allowed remain an undue length of time in the garners it heats, begins to decompose, and will yield only bad oil.
The process of making oil is as follows: The fruit is crushed in a stone mill, generally moved by water power; the pulp is then put into bags made of fibre, and a certain number of these bags, piled one upon another, are placed in a press, most frequently worked by hand; when pressure is applied, the oil flows down into a channel by which it is conveyed to a receptacle or tank. When oil ceases to flow, tepid water is poured upon the bags to carry off oil retained by the bags. The pulp is then removed from the bags, ground again in the mill, then replaced in the bags and pressed a second time. The water used in the process of making oil must be quite pure; the mill, press, bags and vessels sweet and clean, as the least taint would ruin the quality of the oil produced. The oil which has collected in the tank or receptacle just mentioned is removed day by day, and the water also drained off, as oil would suffer in quality if left in contact with water; the water also, which necessarily contains some oil mingled with it, is sent to a deposit outside, and at some distance from the crushing house, which is called the "Inferno," where it is allowed to accumulate, and the oil which comes to the surface is skimmed off from time to time. It is fit only for manufacturing purposes. After the second pressing the olive pulp is not yet done with; it is beaten up with water by mechanical agitators moved by water power, and then the whole discharged into open-air tanks adjoining the crushing-house. There the crushed olive kernels sink to the bottom, are gathered up and sold for fuel, fetching about 2 francs per 1,000 kilos., while the debris of the pulp is skimmed off the surface of the tank and again pressed in bags, yielding a considerable quantity of inferior oil, called "Olio lavato," or washed oil, which, if freshly made, is even used for food by the poorer classes. The pulp then remaining has still a further use. It is sold for treatment in factories by the sulphide of carbon process, and by this method yields from 7 to 9 per cent. of oil; of course suitable only for manufacturing purposes. Only the first two pressings yield oil which ranks as first quality, subject of course to the condition of the fruit being unexceptionable. New oil is allowed to rest awhile in order to get rid of sediment; it is then clarified by passing through clean cotton wool, when it is fit for use.
The highest quality of olive oil for eating purposes should not only be free from the least taint in taste or smell, but possessed of a delicate appetizing flavor. When so many favorable conditions are needed as to growth, maturity and soundness of the fruit, coupled with great attention during the process of oil making, it is not to be wondered at that by no means all or even the greater part of the oil produced in the most favored districts of Tuscany is of the highest quality. On the contrary, the bulk is inferior and defective. These defective oils are largely dealt in, both for home consumption and export, when price and not quality is the object.
In foreign countries there is always a market for inferior defective olive oil for cooking purposes, etc., provided the price be low. Price and not quality is the object, so much so that when olive oil is dear, cotton-seed, ground-nut and other oils are substituted, which bear the same relation to good olive oil that butterin and similar preparations do to real butter.
The very choicest qualities of pure olive oil are largely shipped from Leghorn to England along with the very lowest qualities, often also adulterated.
The oil put into Florence flasks is of the latter kind. Many years back this was not the case, but now it is a recognized fact that nothing but the lowest quality of oil is put into these flasks; oil utterly unfit for food, and so bad that it is a mystery to what use it is applied in England. Importers in England of oil in these flasks care nothing, however, about quality; cheapness is the only desideratum.
The best quality of Tuscan olive oil is imported in London in casks, bottled there, and bears the name of the importers alone on the label. There is no difficulty in procuring in England the best Tuscan oil, which nothing produced elsewhere can surpass; but consumers who wish to get, and are willing to pay for the best article, must look to the name and reputation of the importers and the general excellence of all the articles they sell, which is the best guarantee they can have of quality.—Phar. Jour. and Trans., May 17, 1884, p. 923.
The American Journal of Pharmacy, Vol. 56, 1884, was edited by John M. Maisch.