The Greeks have been producing olive oil for more than 4,000 years. Initially in households where families used stone vats to simply crush and heat the olives. Olives were placed on a large stone slab where pressure was applied with a round stone. This procedure produced a paste, which was then taken to the olive press.
From the smallest village to the largest town, from small family-run businesses to large commercial enterprises, the olive press has played a major part in Greek life. 3,000 years ago, Thales, one of the seven wise sages of ancient Greece, predicted the demand for olive oil and foresaw the need for olive presses at a specific time of the year. He rented up all the olive presses in his hometown of Miletus. The next year when there was a bumper crop of olives, he made a fortune by controlling the olive press prices. Thales had created the first monopoly in history.
The first type of press consisted of two millstones rotated with the help of a thick wooden beam. This was the trapetum (from the Greek verb trepo – to turn). In Roman times, the mola oleria came into use. This was made up from two cylinder shaped stones driven by an upright axe. Both types of mills were used in Byzantine times.
After the 18th century, olive presses in Europe were driven by machines. Until the 1970s, animal-driven presses were still in use in Greece. Today olives are centrifuged (not pressed). The oil expressed is known as “first pressing, extra virgin olive oil.” The centrifuge system is preferred to grinding as the temperature is lower, the result is better-quality “cold pressed oil.”
More than 60% of cultivated land in Greece is given over to a 132 million olive trees, placing the country third in the world (after Spain and Italy) in olive production. It produces about 350,000 tons of olive oil a year, some 12% of the world’s annual output.
Every rural family has a grove of olive trees and produces its own olive oil. Every Greek village has an olive oil mill used by the villagers for the extraction of oil from the olive crop. Visiting an olive oil mill during the oil production season (November to January) is a fascinating experience. Each family brings the olives from its crop to the mill, produces its own oil, and usually pays the mill’s owner with part of the oil output.
In November, as the days become shorter and cooler, with the first rains of winter, the olives enjoy the last burst of growth. It is time for the Greeks to harvest the olives. The olives must be wet before picking. If dry, the oil yield will be much lower. Nets are spread beneath the old olive trees, which are then beaten with a stick to dislodge the olives, which are then placed in sacks, loaded onto trucks, and taken to the local olive press.
We can visit the mill even when it is inactive and watch the documentary video of the production process prepared by Tallis.
Adjacent to the mills there are usually small shops, which sell olive oil and other products derived from the olives, from soap to olive jam.