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The Art of Making Oil

The Art of Making Oil

Bright green, peppery-fresh and with a raw strength so huge it almost resets you, Denis White’s cold pressed extra virgin Frantoio oil is so distinctive it deserves a new name.

“The colour is so beautiful that it is crazy to ignore it, although it is not a factor in prizes,” says Denis. “Pungency and fruitiness are great qualities – with a good olive oil, you get them in spades.”

This is one of the best oils to have come from his small grove in the lush Strathbogie Ranges – one of the first to be planted in the region just a couple of hours north east of Melbourne.

Denis’ initial interest blossomed into a passion when he began to discover the historical associations with the tree that lives for thousands of years and the oil that can be drawn from its fruit: its place in classical civilization, its near-magical health benefits, and its importance to the healthy Mediterranean diet.

“Plus, of course, the beauty of an olive grove is matchless,” says Denis.

After some extensive research and with the help of an Italian friend who studied chemistry at university in Bolongna “who really knows about these things”, Denis eventually planted a mix of Spanish, Italian, Greek varieties on his sloping plot just south of the small, unassuming country town of Euroa.         

It took three years for the first olives to appear, and another few before any could really be harvested.  Seventeen years on, the olives are still picked by hand – though now picking is spread over the course of three months.

“We only pick one day a week, and let the olives ripen as they will,” Denis explains.

They’re all pressed the same day they’re picked in an Italian centrifugal press about half the size of a Fiat 500 (over which Denis agonized for several years before buying).

The pressing itself is an involved process.  Once the olives are fed into the press, they’re smashed (pits and all) into a paste by a hammer mill, stirred or ‘malaxed’ to puncture the microscopic organic sacs that hold the oil, and spun so that the paste and oil separate.

The sediment is then allowed to settle for a day or so before the oil is filtered to remove any last residue.

“There is a bit of art in making good oil, including not being greedy about getting every last skerrick,” says Denis.

“It is better to leave some oil in the waste than to leave some waste in the oil.”

Cold pressing is an exact science.  The oil won’t flow at less than 20 degrees celsius, and it spoils at 40: so Denis works in the 23-28 degree range. He bottles single varietals – like the jaw-dropping 2013 Frantoio – as well as an extra virgin blend with a greater richness, depth of flavour and balance.  And he does it all surrounded by the trees that bore the fruit.

“There is a unique magic in the moment when the first drop of oil comes out of the press, and slowly becomes a trickle, which hopefully continues trouble-free until all the olives have been pressed,” says Denis.

“I find it amazing that by doing what I do to have the press make oil out of olives, I am able to produce such a fabulous substance.”

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EVOO is available here.