One of the first questions I am asked when I speak to anyone about olives is, ‘Do you grow green or black olives?’ The answer is that all olives start off their life on the tree as green olives and then they turn black when fully mature. I didn’t know that myself until I came here to Italy, I assumed, as do most people that there are two types of olives grown, green or black. If picked in the middle of October, some of the olives will have turned black and some will still be green. I also didn’t know how beautiful olive oil could smell and taste; it was a complete revelation to me. As a young child my mother had put olive oil on my feet, I did a lot of ballet dancing as a child, I’m not sure what the olive oil was supposed to do but what I remember is the smell, ‘Yuk’, is all I can say.
The first time I experienced newly pressed olive oil I was completely overwhelmed with the freshness of the scent. I had been picking for a few days and it was as though the tree, the olives, the leaves, everything I had been working in and around, had been brought together in liquid form. It was amazing and I honestly felt I could just drink a glass of it. I didn’t of course but I did taste it neat from a spoon without any bread, salad or any seasoning. It was delicious. Mild and fruity, there was a slight after burn at the back of the throat after swallowing. Perfect! The great thing is that after five years of harvesting I still get a thrill when I remove the lid from the 50 litre can of fresh virgin oil, breathe in the perfume and get ready to taste the content.
The next question asked is, ‘What is extra-virgin oil?’ Well, as far as I know it’s the oil that comes from the first pressing and when the temperature of the press does not rise above 30deg. In other words the olives are not pressed so hard that machines get hot and the oil is spoiled. A true extra-virgin oil must be tested to prove that it is free from additives and contain no more than 0.8% free acidity (oleic acid)… bla…bla…bla…I don’t really understand any of this so if you want to know more I suggest you Google it. The oil I have is bloody lovely, that’s all I care about!
Raccolta delle olive (Olive harvest)
Each year friends and family help to pick the olives. Whether you’re Italian or stranieri (foreigners) it’s the same. Most Italians families living in the countryside have enough trees to produce sufficient oil to last for the year. They use huge amounts of olive oil, not just for cooking but plenty for eating too. They take it with bread or pour it over salad with a little lemon juice or apple vinegar and seasoning. The average Italian family probably use around 40 litres a year, so I’m told.
Picking starts in the middle of October, although I have heard of some who begin very early in September in order to have very green oil but I find that a little to bitter for my taste. The press normally opens in October and operates until the end of November or perhaps into the early part of December. At the height of the season the press will be open for 24hours a day.
A large net (or two) is placed under the tree and then everyone scrapes the olives from the branches either with their hands or with a short or long handled rake. It is difficult sometimes to reach the very top branches but The Man usually gets up the tree with the clippers or a saw and prunes the tree (drastically!). The branches that are cut off can then be conveniently stripped on the ground; onto the net of course. It takes quite a long time and any newcomers are very keen at the start of the day but after about four hours picking the enthusiasm wanes. It makes your back, shoulder, wrists and legs ache and you find muscles where you never knew they existed! Coffee, tea and snacks are provided and then pickers are rewarded with a large lunch and lashings of wine! So it’s not all bad.
There are a few dangers associated with olive picking, falling out of the tree and being stabbed in the eye by the very sharp olive leaf. It happened to me a couple of years ago. It makes sense to wear eye protection. It’s also important to take care when climbing the tree, as the older branches can be quite brittle and not able to take too much weight. Take note, The Man.
Phew! Finished picking now until next year! Plenty of work left to do with tidying up and more pruning etc., Think I’ll leave that the The Man…and his dog.