After harvesting, the olives are taken to the local olive mill where they are washed to remove leaves, twigs or earth, and crushed to produce a homogeneous mixture from which the liquid can be extracted. There are two basic methods of extraction. The first is called traditional and involves the crushing of the olives and their pits. The pits are important: the broken parts help to channel the oil when the paste is pressed. The milling process continues for about half an hour. During this time the cells of the fruit start to break down and release the oil. The paste is then spread evenly over small round woven mats which are piled up in batches of 30 or 40 on the hydraulic press. The mats are designed to allow the oil to trickle out and down the stack and collect at the bottom of the press. The presses produce a reddish-brown liquid which is part oil and part natural vegetable water. The two are separated in a centrifuge. In the past this process was carried out by slowly decanting the oil into troughs. The oil was then skimmed off as it rose to the surface. Some estate producers still like to use this method today, in which case the oil may be labeled Affiorato. It is important to note that very little olive oil today is produced using the “traditional method” mainly because of the higher costs involved.
The second and most widely used method is called continuous where extraction is entirely by centrifuge. Here the olives are crushed by mechanical crushers and the resulting paste is spun at high speed to separate the flesh and the oil. The main drawback of this modern method is that the mechanical crushers involve high temperatures and the hot water often added to the centrifugal phase to extract more oil contributes to washing out precious vitamins and nutrients from the oil.
Production of olive oil in Greece fluctuates between 300 and 400 thousand tonnes. About 2/3 of domestic production is covered by Crete and the Peloponnese and especially by the counties of Heraklion and Messinia. The olive presses in Greece are small-sized family run businesses, which are set up in oil producing areas. There are approximately 3,000 of these mills in operation throughout Greece! The olive oil is either offered directly for consumption, or further processed and/or bottled. Most companies which process and/or bottle olive oil are also involved in its distribution in bulk, while there are also other trading companies (wholesale) dealing exclusively with sales within Greece and abroad. Moreover, a number of cooperatives are involved not only in the production, but also in trading and bottling of their oil.
About one half of the annual olive oil production in Greece is exported. Average yearly Greek olive oil exports amount to 140,000 tons per year, while only seven to ten thousand tons reflect the bottled product. Greek exports primarily target countries of the European Union, the main recipient being Italy, which receives about three quarters of Greece’s total exports. Due to the superior quality and excellent organoleptic properties of Greek olive oil it is not surprising that bulk exports quietly sneak into bottles and cans packaged and sold elsewhere. For this reason it is more than likely that a regular olive oil consumer has tasted Greek olive oil at least once. The average annual domestic olive oil consumption of Greeks is estimated to be around 170,000 tons. The largest part of that (42%) relates to personal consumption (Greeks consume more olive oil per capita than any other people in the world at almost 16 kilos annually!), the quantities of bulk olive oil which is traded by producers themselves comes up to 33%, while bottled olive oil covers just about 25% of total domestic consumption.