A few months ago, I discovered an olive mill near Beziers. Domaine Pradines le Bas is just a few kilometers from Beziers town centre, in the direction of Murviel-les-Beziers. Francine Buesa has been planting olive trees on the estate for more than 15 years, and her trees are now in full production.
I visited again last week to watch olive oil being pressed. The olive harvest starts as early as at the end of August, when the olives destined for the table are being picked. The harvest can continue into January. Once the table olives are picked, the rest of the harvested olives are being processed for oil. Green, purple and black olives come from the same tree, but are at different stages of ripeness. As olives ripen, their oil content starts to increase.
At Pradines le Bas, the table olives are picked by hand, whereas the olives destined for olive oil are harvested mechanically. A special harvesting machine is used – the machine spreads what looks like a giant upturned umbrella underneath the tree, and then gently vibrates the tree, shaking off the ripe olives. The upturned umbrella catches them all! The olives are then loaded into large crates and taken to the mill for processing. Here’s a picture of the machine:
At the mill, the olives are loaded into a machine which separates the leaves from the olives, and washes the olives.
The black box on top of the machine takes care of the leaves, a bit like a giant vacuum cleaner, whilst the ‘washing machine’ is below. Once the olives are washed, they are transported to the room next door. Stepping into the room next door was great! There was a wonderful scent in the air – difficult to describe – somewhat herby but definitely smelling of olive oil.
From the hopper, an Archimedes screw takes the olives to the mill unit, where they are pulped, stone and all!
The olive pulp then goes into a malaxer, a machine, which slowly mixes the olive pulp for up to 45 minutes. This mixing helps the extraction process later on.
Here’s a video for you – unfortunately you don’t get the smell, but you’ll get an idea of the noise!! 🙂 (Note: e-mail subscribers, you may have to visit the website in order to be able to watch the video)
From the malaxer, the pulp gets pumped into the extractor, where the pulp is spun to separate the liquid from the solids. The solids end up next door and are later spread out in the olive groves, nothing is wasted!
The yellowish olive juice runs through a sieve into a container, from where it is pumped to a centrifuge.
The centrifuge separates the water from the oil. The golden coloured olive oil runs from the spout in a thin but steady stream!
When freshly pressed, the olive oil has a cloudy appearance. The oil is unfiltered, so tiny particles of olive pulp are still in suspension.
Once pressed, the oil is transferred to stainless steel tanks, where, over time, the particles slowly drop to the bottom, leaving the oil perfectly clear and sparkling!
The bottom of the stainless steel tanks are v-shaped, and that’s where the solids collect. A tap at the bottom of the tank allows the solids to be drawn off. That part is sent to a soap factory for processing into soaps and cosmetics.
The oil is now ready to be bottled and sold! The shop is right next door to the mill. Large windows in the shop allow the visitors to see the equipment throughout the year.
In the shop you can find a variety of olive oils (you can taste them all!), tapenades, table olives and cosmetic products, as well as a selection of products from partners (vinegars, jams, etc.). You can also buy via the on-line shop, but nothing beats tasting the oils before you buy! When you buy olive oil, bear in mind that up to 10 kilos of olives are used to make a litre of olive oil. At Pradines le Bas, all olive oil is cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil.
Making olive oil is not the only activity at Pradines le Bas. Up the stairs from the olive mill is a gallery for contemporary art. Don’t miss it if you visit – the exhibitions change on a regular basis, and are always worth a look!!