How the traditional olive press worked
Given the importance of olive oil, it is no wonder that even the smallest village used to have an olive press, with most villages on the Greek islands having 3 of them or more. These were what we would call today “private enterprises”, with the owner providing the facility to other villagers in exchange for a fee –traditionally 1/10 of the olive oil produced.
Once olives were collected and put in sacks in the field, they were carried on the back of humans, donkeys or mules to the olive press. Depending on the size of the facility, three to six people would be working there almost round the clock, each one in charge of different duties. It was hard work –but rewarded with such a precious resource that it was considered good fortune to be hired in the press. There are anecdotal stories of men using family ties or other connections to find their way to a working spot in the press. Times were truly different.
Several duties were necessary to be constantly well operating in order to ensure production. Early at dawn, the fire should be lit at the corner, which meant bringing wood, lighting it and keeping it burning. The fire would be burning as long as the press would be functioning, heating up water to be used at the press. Olives would be spread on the mill table. Men or donkeys would then push the large wooden handles that would put the mill stones in motion, pressing the olives and turning them into paste. A worker would be following the movement of the mill cylinders, holding a wooden pan to bring back the olives and paste towards the table, counteracting the centrifugal motion. Round and round the mill would turn, with 3 or 4 men or an animal painstakingly pushing the handles.
Once olives were transformed into paste, they were set into bags made of cloth. More than bags, these elements looked more like huge envelopes. The paste was distributed horizontally on the cloth surface, which was then closed by carefully picking all four corners. The thinner the paste layer, the better, and it was a privilege for a press to be known for the worker’s ability to give the paste layer the ideal thickness.
Cloth bags were then stacked one upon the other at the press. These were bulky structures, typical designs of the 19th century industrial era. Usually made of steel, their vertical axe would be released, allowing the bags to be placed between the pressing surfaces. Once the gap was filled, men would push the wooden handle that turned the vertical axe downwards, pressing the stack of bags. Again and again, this repeated movement created a rhythmical sound effect, the heavy breaths of men mixing with the metallic sound of the pressing axe being fixed and released. Steadily, the paste of the bags would come out as a golden-green liquid, falling in the pool in front of the press. The degree of pressure needed was such that once the handle could seemingly move no further, it was tied to a turning pole where 2, 3 or 4 men would combine their force to squeeze the bags even further.
Olive oil was mixed with warm water in the pool in front of the press, from where it was collected and put into storage pots. As oil would be concentrated on the surface, water would remain at the bottom, from where it would be pumped away through a waste channel.
Once produced and collected, olive oil would then be distributed to the people involved: the producer, the owner of the press and the workers. As simple as it may sound, division was an elaborate process and in some places, specific calculations had been developed.