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Oil-making among the Tuscan contadini 22/12/2010

Posted by florencecapital in Uncategorized.
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c. 1910

The oil-making is very picturesque, and usually carried on in a primitive, unhurried way, like all rural affairs in Italy. The Italian peasant, if he works hard, yet works deliberately; and there is something very soothing in this placid hand-labour as compared with the mechanical methods which rule our English fields. The olives are carried from the podere to the frantoio (oil-pressing room); the bruised ones, picked up from the ground, are set apart for later use, and the perfect ones pressed for the best quahty of oil. When, for the first time, I passed in beneath the old doorway, I found myself in a large dim room, crossed at angles by several broad low archways of stone. The atmosphere was warm after the sharp frosty air outside, and the men were working in their shirt-sleeves, with bright woollen scarves twisted about their waists. In the middle of the room stood an immense stone basin, into which olives were poured continally, being crushed to pulp, stone and all, by a millwheel which turned within the trough. This wheel was attached to a wooden column rising to the ceiling, and was worked by a patient ox, which, tied to a stout wooden pole projecting from the pillar, trod round and round the basin in a track of dead leaves and fern. The pulp was then taken out with wooden shovels, and emptied into round shallow baskets made of twisted cord, with a hole top and bottom which can be closed with a draw-string when the basket is full. These were carried to a press in another corner of the room and piled top on top beneath it. The machine was primitive in form, as the screw by means of which the baskets were pressed was turned by a projecting beam of wood against which the men threw their whole weight, toiling round and round until not a drop more oil could be extracted.

From the hot, red faces of Orlando and Pietro and the rest of them, this was evidently quite the hardest part of the work. The press was then unscrewed, the contents of the basket emptied back into the mill, reground, and then pressed again, to obtain a second quality of oil. The remaining pulp, dark and gritty, Orlando explained to me, was called ‘salsa’, and generally sold to factories to be made into machine oil, with a mixture of sulphuric acid, or to serve in the manufacture of soap. The finest quality of the oil was of a pure, limpid gold, and, the water which the olives naturally contain having been skimmed oif the top, it was carried away in small wooden barrels and emptied into conche (huge terra-cotta pots, glazed inside). The chiaratoio (oil-clearing room), where these are stored, must be kept always at an even temperature, as the oil thickens if frozen, and this, though not affecting the flavour, spoils the appearance. Italians boast much of their oil – which they generally use for cooking instead of butter – declaring that what reaches England is hardly fit to be called olive oil at all; and this is easy to be believed, as it is hard to get it pure even in Florence, so soon does the work of adulteration begin. It used to be the curious and characteristic custom in Florence, on the Octave of Easter Sunday, known as the ‘Domenica in Albis’, to make a solemn offering of oil in the Church of the Santissima Annunziata, as a thankoffering for the crop. A representative church or brotherhood made the offering and went in procession, with two half-barrels of oil slung across a mule covered with a bright cloth, on which, dressed as an angel, sat a little boy of three or four years old.

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