The New York Times, December 19, 1897, p. 24:|
OLIVE OIL OF PROVENCE.
An Old French Mill
Where Primitive Methods of Manufacture Still Prevail.
USED FOR THREE CENTURIES
Processes Followed in Getting the Oil from the Fruit
as Practiced by the Provencals--
A Curious Little Town of Southern France.
VELAUX, France, Dec. 1.-- About the time that our friend Columbus was getting ideas into his head of another continent across the great water, aome one established a mill at this place for the extraction of oil from olives. In course of time that mill with all its original machinery and appurtenances, as well as another mill at Tortosa, in Spain, became the property of Mr. J. E. Blanc, who is, in the language of this part of the world, a "fabricant negoclant d'Huile d'Olive," or, as we should put it, a manufacturer of and dealer in olive oil.
Mr. Blanc is either Mister or Monsieur, as you like, as he has spent nearly twenty of the happiest years of his life in New York and other parts of America, and keeps an office at 43 Broad Street. When he learned that Mr. Pressly, the United States Consul at Marseilles, and I were desirous of seeing an olive oil mill in operation, he kindly invited us to come out here with him. Hence the dating of this letter from a little Provencal town that an American traveler would otherwise have been very unlikely to stumble upon.
It is not as easy for an American to gain admission to an olive oil mill as might be imagined. The manufacturers in general have an idea that Americans want to learn the secrets of the trade, though it is one of the simplest processes in the world; and that having learned them we will set out olive groves all along the Hudson and the Mississippi and some of our other creeks, and steal away their business.
Mr. Blanc, however, being more than half American, is a man of advanced ideas, and has no hesitation about letting his friends see his oil made and sit down with him and help eat it after it has dripped from the press.
A Quaint Bit of Provence.
Velaux is not one of the places that you find marked upon a map of the world with a large black dot. But on a map of this department of France, which is called Rouches-du-Rhone, or Mouths of the Rhone, it can be found five or six miles back from the shore of the Mediterranean, on a branch of the P.-L.-M. Railway that cuts across from Rognac to Aix.
About twenty-five miles west of Marseilles is a large bay with a very narrow entrance, an arm of the Mediterranean which the French Government is talking of utilizing for navy yards and naval repair station; and on the north shore of that bay is Rognac. From Rognac the branch train runs inland and soon enters the a large well-tilled valley, on the north side of which is a high hill crowned by a village and the remains of a castle, both of which look old enough to have been built by the Romans; and that is Velaux.
The train runs through the valley, and on alighting we had a mile to walk up hill, over a beautifully hard and smooth macadamized road, between stone walls that are still in good repair, though evidently as old in many cases as the crumbling castle. And this is Provence.
The old folks call it so still and cling to their own languaged, though other Frenchmen say is is only a dialect, and Government has taken away even the name and divided the old territory into departments. The old inhabitants, however, do not like this change; and not only do they still call themselves Provencals, but they dote upon one or two Provencal poets, who print their works in Provencal on one page and in French on the opposite; and they would see nothing either tempting or nourishing ina meal that was not prepared according to the rules of the Provencal notebook.
I have learned in a few days to hold a very high opinion of these old Provencal people. They are kind, amiable, obliging, industrious, religious; and they cook like angels.
Farms Without Houses.
We had hardly taken 100 steps in the big valley before I saw that there was something strange about it, but is was some time before I could make out what it was. Here were the familiar fields, just as we have them at home, some newly plowed, some in grass, many covered with olive and almond trees. Walls between the fields, some shade trees, good roads--it might have been a fertile valley America by shutting one eye to the ancient town on the hilltop, for all but the one indefinable thing.
And presently I discovered what it was--there were no houses among the farms. Here from my window on the hilltop I can count you every house in this valley that runs ten miles in one direction and two or three miles in the other. There is the station, with a little inn beside it, both modern. Then comes a great stone affair, with towers, that looks like an old castle, but is a winemaking concern. Then there is a small house at the turn of the road, unoccupied, and just at the foot of the hill are two or three comparatively modern dwellings, one of which is Mr. Blanc's summer residence. But those are all; here are 100 farms in sight and not a single farmhouse, and it is the want of them that gives the landscape its unfamiliar look.
"That is the survival of ancient customs," Mr. Blanc explains, when I ask about it. "In old times, the provinces were continually at war, and a farmer who lived in a detached farmhouse would have been an easy prey to the enemy. For their own protection and the safety of their stock they built their houses in a group, and so the villages were formed. They had further to go to work, to be sure, but in case of attack they had a better chance for defense. Now that there is no such danger the custom still survives, and throughout the south of France you always find the farmers living in the neighboring village."
The wine place with the towers we could admire only from the outside, as the olives and the breakfast were waiting. It was evidently built in such shape that it could be defended, but in more recent times a large residence has been added at one side. Across the road were large vineyards; and in the vintage season, I am told, you can go to the mill with a cask and buy the grape juice fresh from the press for 5 cents a quart. There need be no question about the purity, for you can stand there and see the grapes put in and catch the juice as it runs out. Later on, when the juice has turned into wine, it sells for 8 or 10 cents a quart. The common retail price of this ordinary table wine in Paris or Marseilles is 12 or 15 cents a quart.
In the Olive Mill.
When the top of the hill was reached the oil mill was one of the first buildings, just past the old church with a Virgin Mary on the front wall inclosed with a wire netting, presumably so that the boys cannot throw stones at her and break her. The basement of the mill, in which is the machinery, is on a level with the ground, with the warehouse above, and a dwelling adjoining. We were taken through the front door up a tile-paved stairway, first into the office and thence into one of the warerooms where olives and almonds are stored. Everything was of stone, as old and solid as one of the castles on the Rhine.
The busy New Yorkers who go to 43 Broad Street to buy this oil have little idea, I imagine, of the romantic place from which it comes. In this dark wareroom have been stored olives and almonds certainly for three centuries, perhaps for four. The floor is of tiles, the beams like trunks of great oak trees, the stone walls thick enough to stand an old-fashioned bombardment. Best of all, the machinery is exactly what has been in use here from the beginning, with the exception, I believe, of one iron screw press, which has a modern look. Making olive oil is precisely the same process now as it was in the earliest Biblical days.
Here in this wareroom are tons of almonds in sacks and tons of olives lying loose upon the clean floor in heaps. Above is another wareroom of the same size, also packed full. The olives come not only from the plantations belonging to the mill, but also from neighboring planters. When I pick up one of the olives and bite it I find that it is hard and extremely bitter--as unpleasant to the taste as a green persimmon. Then by asking questions I learn two things about olives: first, that those we buy in bottles and eat raw are treated with charcoal to destroy the acrid taste, and secondly, that the olive in its ripe state is not green, but purple like a plum. The olives of our American acquaintance are always green because they are picked before they ripen.
Crushing the Fruit.
Here in an adjoining room is a big square wooden hopper standing on the floor; and this, as we are to learn in a few minutes, is the "feeder" for the mill below. It is kept constantly full of olives, and when the valve is opened they run through into the crusher. And having seen this first stage, we are taken down into the mill.
The working part is, as I have said, on a level with the ground, but in the latter part of the day it is as dark as a cellar, having only one or two small windows, and artificial lights are used. In the two big stationary lamps hanging from the ceiling kerosene oil is burned; but in the small movable lamps, which are shaped much like the old Roman lamps, only olive oil is used. This is a measure of safety. If a kerosene lamp should accidentally be dropped into one of the oil tanks it would set it on fire, but drop an olive oil lamp and the flame is immediately extinguished.
The most conspicuous object in the mill is the grinder, or crusher. If you have ever seen an old-fashioned snuff mill you know exactly what this looks like. It is a circle of stone about fifteen feet in diameter, raised perhaps two feet from the floor, with an outer rim several inches higher than the bed. In the centre is an upright wooden beam revolving on pivots, to which are fastened two lateral arms that swing out several feet beyond the circle. Two heavy stone rollers are attached to these laterals--rollers about thirty inches high and eight inches thick--in such a way that when a horse is harnessed to the end of each pole and they walk around the outside of the circle on a straw-strewn track the stones travel around the bed, near the rim, crushing whatever is beneath them.
Now we are ready to make some oil. The Superintendent takes hold of the spout that leads from the hopper above, opens a valve, and walks slowly around the circle with it. The olives run down from the hopper, and make a neat little circle on the bed, very even and symmetrical. Twice the man goes around, and when he is done there is a circle of olives six inches wide and about four inches high, close to the rim, just where the stone rollers will strike it to the best advantage.
Off go the horses, with a bandage over their eyes to keep them from growing dizzy, round and round the ring, like circus horses. Away go the stone rollers over the olives, crushing them, pits and all, into a greenish oily paste. It takes ten or fifteen minutes of grinding to reduce the olives to the proper consistency, and then the workmen take up the paste with wooden shovels and load it into a truck, which is wheeled to the front of the first press.
Getting the "Virgin Oil."
Now the mats come into play. They are made of straw, round, about two feet across, and look very much like thin door mats, except that there is an upper part with a big hole in the centre, which makes of each mat a sort of flat straw bag. Two men pack the paste into the edges of these mats between the upper and the lower parts, and a third man takes them as they are filled and stands them in a straight pillar, one on top of the other, under the first press. There may be twenty, thirty, fifty mats under the press at a time, according to circumstances.
The big wooden screw is turned till the top plate comes down upon the heap of mats, and immediately the oil begins to flow. It is hard to imagine those little tough berries having so much oil in them. It runs down the edges of the mats in tiny streams before any pressure is applied, down through a nozzle in the base into a stone tank sunk in the floor. A hearty young fellow inserts a small lever in the top of the screw and turns it, with one hand at first, then with both hands, till it tightens so that he can turn no more, and the oil flows faster. Then a big lever is inserted, a pole as heavy as the mast of a sloop, and two young fellows take hold of it. At first it goes easily enough, but as the screw tightens they have to throw their weight upon it and strain. At length they can turn no more, and the lever is taken out. The oil is still flowing; and thus the pressure is left on for ten or fifteen minutes, till the oily stream ceases.
This is what is called "first pressure" oil--the very best oil the olives can give--and this oil of Provence, they tell me, is the best that is made.
Oil for the Commoners.
Now begins the next process. The screw is loosened and the well-flattened mats are taken out and piled afresh under the iron screw, which is connected with the crushing mill by cogs in such a way that as the horses make their rounds the screw is tightened. This gives heavier pressure than the wooden screw; but the product is "second pressure" oil, and not as good as the first.
On the other side of the room is a brick furnace with a big kettle of boiling water on top. Some of this water is carried over and thrown on the mats, a dipperful over each mat as it is laid on, to facilitate the flow of oil. Oil and water run down together into a separate tank, where the oil of course rises to the surface and is easily skimmed off. When the screw's pressure reaches a certain point--the point at which the horses have as much as they can do to move--a weight falls and the screw is disconnected from the cogs.
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