Production and Demand
Most of the olives produced in the world come from several Mediterranean countries. These countries include Spain, Greece, Italy, Tunisia and Turkey. It is estimated that these countries alone possess almost eight hundred million olive trees used for the production of olive oil. There are several other European countries which also grow olives for exportation, but not in the quantity that the Mediterranean areas produce. Olive trees are an excellent crop for areas with dry and rocky soils. They tolerate hot climates well and are only really susceptible to cold. The best climate for olive production is found in regions where many other crops will not survive. This creates a tremendous cash crop for mountainous areas with little rain.
Olives have been grown and pressed to produce olive oil for many thousands of years. Interestingly, the method of pressing olives has changed little in those years. Olive oil is the only oil which can be refined without the use of chemical solvents, making it one of the healthiest oils available to humanity. The creation of exquisite olive oil begins with healthy trees. Olive trees are grown year-round, but the fruits are picked at specific times of the year to promote flavor. The first crop of olives is generally harvested when the olives are green and immature. Picking the olive at this stage produces an oil which has a peppery taste that is sought after by many connoisseurs of olive oil. The second harvest is approximately one month later, when the olives have begun to turn purple or black. Many harvests begin in the month of October and most harvesting is finished by early December.
Once the olives are harvested, they are thoroughly washed to remove soil. Soil contamination can produce a flavor within the oil which is called “soil taste.” An electric blower or hand sorting method is used to separate mature olives from green olives and to remove leaves or branches retained from the picking stage. The clean olives must then be rushed to the mill for extraction. The more time an olive is exposed to light and air, the more the fruit begins to ferment. Slowing the fermentation process allows for a more flavorful oil. At the mill, olives are normally pressed with large millstones. These millstones apply extreme pressure to the olives creating a paste. This paste is the first step in separating the oil from the cells of the fruit. Each cell or lipovacuole contains a drop of olive oil. The ground paste then forces these drops of oil from the lipovacuoles to form a large drop of oil.
After the grinding process, the olive paste is spread onto large sheets or disks made of synthetic fibers. Traditionally, hemp disk were used for this job, but more recently synthetic materials have replaced the hemp because cleaning of the disks is more easily accomplished. The disks are stacked on top of each other and placed in a hydraulic cylinder. The cylinder then provides great force to push or press the oil from the paste. Water is washed over the cylinder the help remove the oil from the disks. Once this process is completed, the oil can be separated from the water by a centrifuge. It is necessary to remove the oil quickly as the fruit continues to ferment during this process. Allowing the oil to remain with the fruit contaminates the flavor of the oil. Finished oil is then bottled or placed in barrels for distribution.
The demand for olive oil has increased steadily since the Middle Ages. The increased interest in consuming a healthy diet has pushed olive oil to the forefront of cooking oils. Although olive oil is exported to many countries of the world, the majority of the oil is consumed in several countries. These countries include Spain, Italy, Greece, France and the United States. The 1970s showed a growth in demand for olive oil in Middle Eastern countries as well as with the traditional European consumers. The European community has the largest demand for the highest quality of olive oil, or extra virgin olive oil. This is thought to be due to the popularity of many cooking shows on television which highlight the use of olive oil as a substitute for unhealthy fats in a diet. Demand will continue to increase due to the massive exposure through television and Internet media, causing more people to be aware of the healthy attributes of adding olive oil to their diet.