In the mid-late 1980, I had the rare opportunity to witness and photograph the production of Cypriot olive oil using “old school” processing techniques that had already largely dropped out of existence across the island. By the early to mid 1980s, most traditional olive oil production facilities had been up-dated or entirely replaced by modern olive oil presses. However, the age-old traditions of producing olive oil could still be found in remote villages, where people practiced the same simple system, using very similar tools and technology, to extract oil from their olives as they did way back to the Bronze Age at least, if not earlier.
The foremost authority on traditional olive oil production in Cyprus through the ages is the former Director of the Department of Antiquities, Cyprus, Dr Sophocles Hadjisavvas. I recall in the early 1980s, during the construction of the (then) new Lefkosia-Lemessos motorway, Dr Hadjisavvas saved a Hellenistic period olive oil press from destruction, when he conducted “rescue excavations” in the road-line quite near to the Governor’s Beach area. Thanks to his efforts, the entire ancient limestone platform, complete with distinct cuttings believed to be connected to the pressing of olive oil during pre-Roman times, was loaded onto a flatbed truck and delivered to the Larnaca District Museum, where it now stands in the back garden. In 1992, Dr Hadjisavvas wrote “Olive Oil Processing in Cyprus: From Bronze Age to the Byzantine Period,” a book that stands out as the most comprehensive study of the history of olive oil in Cyprus and beyond. (Recently, he’s turned his focus on to wine production in antiquity and is about to come out with a new book: “Cyprus Land of Wine.”)
Anybody who looks at the various steps involved in traditional olive oil production in Cyprus will quickly conclude that, up until the fairly recent introduction of modern presses, the processes used are based on fairly simple technology that go back to at least the Bronze Age, if not earlier.
Of course, the first step is to harvest the ripe olives from the tree. In Cyprus, this typically takes place during the months of October and November.
After the olives are hand-picked from the tree, sometimes they are left to lie exposed in the sun for a period of time (it can be several days).
The next step is to introduce the olives to a circular stone trough with a large round millstone usually made of limestone. I was lucky enough to witness this, and all the subsequent steps in traditional olive oil production, during the late 1980’s, just outside Kannaviou Village in the upper Ezousas river valley. A man named Yiannos Dhimitriou, who at various stages of his life was butcher, tavern-owner, “Mukhtaris” (Mayor) and (most important!) regional representative for Carlsberg Beer, agreed to demonstrate the entire process along with some of his sons. Olives ready for processing were poured into the round olive mill and the large, heavy millstone was then turned repeatedly over the olives, crushing the skins and grinding up the olives into a rough, course state. Right away, an oily substance started to exude from the crushed skins, and semi-broken pits were visible sticking through the lacerations in the olive skins.
Once the grinding process was complete, the crushed olives were loaded into circular containers known as “zymbilia” made of woven hemp. There were many porous holes across the woven surface of these zymbelia, which allowed the oil to ooze out during the pressing stage (see photo at top of page).
During the pressing process, the liquid material coming out through the gaps or porous holes was referred to as leromeno ladi (“dirty oil”) because it contained lots of solid debris from the skins and crushed pits. A final process involved placing the dirty oil in a container and extracting the pure or “clean” oil by mixing it with water, which would force the unwanted detritus to the bottom of the container, leaving the desired finished product, the clean oil, to float on top.
The whole demonstration of traditional olive oil production, from the grinding in the mill, to the loading of the zymbilia to the stacking and pressing of the oil, right through all the stages, was carried out by Yiannos of Kannaviou Village with help from several members of his family, including his children. They all proudly gathered for a family portrait at the end of the the demonstration.