you could call it a place of dreams, you could call it many things. hopes flourish and fade, and flourish again. money changes hands, and all to the grinding whir of the great stone wheels, pulleys, and hiss of steam. this is the world of the olive mill
you can guess how many you’ve got before you go, you can try and weigh them, you can estimate what percentage of oil you might get from them, but until you are there, you will never really know
for some, its a few days, for others a couple of weeks, and for some it might be months, before you get to the mill and get them all pressed
the wait is agonising, worrying whether or not you have enough, whether they will have gone off before your appointment, whether you won’t even get them all off the trees before they rot, or fall off. whether the weather will be with you or against you, or somewhere in-between.
you visit the mill and get told your appointment is now not possible. they will telephone later to tell you when to come. later comes and goes, and still no phone-call.
you phone them and they are still not forthcoming. you wait some more.
and then the day arrives. you load up, and head off. first to another mill, only to find them in an even more chaotic state than the one with whom you had an appointment. machinery has broken down here too, and thirty men stand around arguing at the tops of their voices with the owner “why does it take so long?”. you take a ticket, and go.
30 people ahead of you. no chance today.
then back to the mill you chose first. the one with the most old fashioned machinery. the one everyone says tastes best, and lasts longest.
then at the mill you can’t make yourself understood, and your appointment that should have been the day before, seems somehow to have been shunted still further forward. they’re not ready for you, and they don’t know when they will be.
you have, of course, double booked yourself, and are running out of time. more people begin to arrive. trucks spewing out olives, people with loads ten times the size of yours. people in suits, and people in beaten up old work wear, people in brand new executive cars, and people on tractors, and everything in-between. how will it ever happen for you? pressure mounts on and on, time runs through your fingers like the oily slick of black water that runs across the floor. you stand and fret, no one understands your mountain dialect, or your pidgin Portuguese, you might as well be from mars.
one minute there’s no room for your whole truck full of olives, and then something happens, and by some miracle you’re given a crate and you off load your much worried about cargo.
now to find out how much they really weigh. is it anywhere near what you hoped? nearly 400 kilos this year (368 if you wanna be precise) in old money thats over 800 lbs, wow. so much more than last year. we did it, the first bit.
now you can go, still no idea of how long the wait until they’re pressed. no one can tell you, but at least you can breakfast now.
a few hours later you return, still no news. time running out, you wont be able to get back here to get the oil because you wont be here, unless they can do it soon.
and then it happens again, a miracle, twice in one day. and this time in a completely different way, someone recognises you, someone you spoke to last year, someone who took you under their wing, who saw your frailty, who recognised something in you they wished to help. you tell them of the problems you have had.
“calm” they say, and repeat like a mantra. “calm”, always easy to say, and hard to find.
they go off, and you see them speaking with the owner, the owner who’s ear you could not get, who understood none of your words, understands his every word. and there it happens before your eyes, of all the hundred crates and pallets waiting to be washed and loaded into the machine, they pick yours.
anyone would forgive you for crying. how can this be? after all this time. and a few simple words from a kind stranger and everything is changed, your whole life regains its balance and composure.
you are elated.
this is the moment you have waited for all year. the moment your olives are pressed into oil. your oil, from your olives.
through the washer, round the spin cycle, and up the hopper into the stone grinding mill. they tumble out a few at first, then almost a cascade, but steady. mashed and scraped, and cockscrewed up into the machine that spreads the paste out like primula cheese onto the mats. the mats stack, and keep stacking. then trolley across the floor into the press.
massive hydraulic pressure bears down on the mats with your olive paste. a tarry black sludge like crude oil pours out.
separated twice with hot water. first in a tank then a centrifuge, finally your oil pours forth.
how much, the big question. watch the hydrometer the man says.
10, 20, 30 40, 42 and that’s all she wrote. not bad, not bad at all.