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Olive oil pressing in Bidnija

Olive oil pressing in Bidnija

Before moving to Malta, it never ever occurred to me to look at my bottles of olive oil to find out if the olives were of a single variety or blend, or even where they came from. I once attended a course about olive oil, led by a well-known doctor in America. In a nutshell, he told us not to bother buying any olive oils manufactured in America and to stick with Italian or Spanish oils. He also said, the greener the oil, the higher the quality. Those are the two nuggets of wisdom that stuck with me from the course.

Now that I’m focusing on local, fresh and seasonal in all things food-related, naturally, the olives found in Malta have become significantly more interesting to me. My limited research would suggest that the best olives for olive oil come from Mediterranean countries such as Italy, Spain, Greece and as you may have guessed, my beloved Malta.

A brand new interest

Around six months ago, I asked my gardener to plant some olive trees in my yard. He asked me if I wanted olives to eat straight off the tree or if I preferred olives that could be used to make olive oil. I opted for the latter. I had heard of a local priest located in Marsaxlokk, to whom you could bring your olives and he would press them into oil for you. Spoiler alert: I did go meet him and can confirm that he is absolutely lovely).

This was the start of my new interest in olive oil. The gardener ended up planting two olive trees, both of which had a tag labelled ‘Leecino’. I’m embarrassed to admit that until I met Malta’s premier olive-presser, Sam Cremona, I had never noticed the tags. I Never once did I stop to read or take the time to learn about what kind of olives my trees might produce.

Olive variations on the island

I did a little digging. When I met Sam Cremona, he described a myriad of varieties of olives, and even showed me the olive trees in his gardens, as well as the process in which the olives are pressed. Most importantly, he taught me about the most treasured olives, native to Malta, called the bidni. The bidni olive is low in acid and high in polyphenols, and is considered to produce one of the healthiest and finest olive oils in the world. The trees can be traced back to more than 2,000 years and even have links to the Roman Empire.

Other olives present here in Malta include il-Malti, the Maltese olive, il-Ħelwa ta’ Sqallija, the sweet Sicilian olive, L-imrajja ta’ Marsala, the Marsala olive and il-Bajda, the white olive. The local olive fruit ripens mid to late October into early November.

Meeting the Godfather of olive oil

There is a reason why any and all olive oil connoisseurs are familiar with the name Sam Cremona. This is because is the master of olive oil, not to mention the warmest, most inviting man you could ever meet. Even the renowned chef Jamie Oliver paid him a visit a few years ago to learn more about the sacred white olives that Sam has on his property, as well as the bidni olive oil. Jamie Oliver also nicknamed Sam the ‘Godfather of Olive Oil!’

Maltese oils, according to Sam, are greener, stronger and more bitter in taste. The white olive trees on his property in Bidnija were first given to him by local nuns, who were growing the olives on their land and came to Sam to have them pressed. The year 2021 was the first year that his white olives were finally able to produce enough to harvest and though he does not sell the white olive oils yet, he did let me take a big sniff off one of his containers, and it smelled absolutely divine.

When I arrived at Sam’s place for the interview, he reminded me of Willy Wonka, but instead of chocolate, it’s all olives. Everywhere you look are olive trees for different varieties to grow. There were also cases upon cases of freshly-picked olives ready to be placed onto the press. When I asked Sam which olives are the best, he said, “there is no best. There is just preference and you need to learn which olive oils you prefer.”

According to Sam, the greener, bitter oil is high in antioxidants and can remain fresh for threw years. However, the lighter oils in colour usually remain fresh for around a year. That being said, many olive oils are blends of different olive varieties, of which there are at least 40!

The method Sam Cremona uses to press olives is called cold pressing, to produce what is, in my opinion, the purest olive oil in the world, made right here in Malta. The perfect ending to an already perfect day featured Sam pouring the brightest, neon-green coloured olive oil possible into bottles.

What I’ve learnt

I learned a lot from my visit with Sam and from now on, I will look for where my olive oil comes from. If it comes from a local farmer, I’ll ask which olive varieties are in the bottle. I will also look for particular words, most notably: Cold Pressed Extra Virgin Olive Oil. I will also make an effort to identify the colour of my olive oil. Lastly, I will not start to look for olive oil producers here on the island that I can buy directly from, so I can know exactly where the olives were grown and harvested, and what kind of olives made it into the bottle that is currently sitting on my kitchen table. In doing so, I will not only be supporting local farmers, but I will also be guaranteeing a better quality of olive oil that what I have spent my life buying in bulk.

If you want to use olive oil the way that the true Mediterranean diet suggests, you cannot skimp on the price. When it comes to olive oil, you really do get what you pay for.