In the early spring of Puglia, the buds on the olive trees blossom, forming tiny white-petaled flowers. As the petals fall from the trees, they cover the landscape as though a dusting of snow had just fallen. In fact, there are actually road signs that warn of compromised visibility due to the windblown flowers. By May, the buds have grown to form hard, green nodules that will eventually become olives. That was the state of things when we left Puglia in June to come back to the States. Our next trip back to the heel of the boot was timed to coincide with the olive harvest, our first since acquiring Villa Tutto.
I claim no expertise when it comes to olive growing, but here’s what I think I know:
- The olive harvest, at least the harvest in the south, typically occurs sometime between early-November and late-January.
- The two biggest variables are the weather (Even I knew that one.) and the desired ripeness of the olive when it’s picked.
- Green olives are just less ripe than black olives, not necessarily a different variety.
- The riper the olive, the more oil it will yield, but the quality of less-ripe olives is higher.
- You only eat a just-picked olive once. They are horrible tasting unless they are first cured.
- Olive oil does not get better with age. It is at its best the moment it is pressed from the olive.
- “Extra Virgin” and “First Cold Pressed,” practically speaking, mean nothing. No one enforces the “extra virgin” standards and all oil today is cold pressed. Give no credence to these label phrases.
- No matter how hard you try, you cannot get olive stains out of your jeans.
What didn’t we know? A lot.
Aside from watching a You Tube video of olive harvesting techniques, I had no idea how olives were picked. We definitely needed the assistance of someone with experience in this endeavor and Colleen and Francesco wisely recommended Francesco’s father, Andrea. We would arrive on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, spend Sunday working on our own around the property, then meet Andrea on Monday morning to begin the harvest. Perfetto. Until…
Colleen called with some bad news about three weeks before we were to arrive in Puglia. The first regrettable item was that it appeared that the olives were not going to wait for us. Andrea checked on their progress and reported that they would be at their prime for producing the highest quality oil in the following ten days or so. The second, and more serious problem was that Andrea had hurt his neck and was not likely going to be able to help with the harvest.
“I’m trying to find someone else who can do it,” said Colleen, “but everyone here has olives to pick already. It will be hard.” So, this was what being a farmer is like, I thought.
Jessica and I reconciled to the fact that we would not be participating in our first harvest by reminding ourselves of the luscious, pungent, rich olive oil that would greet us on our arrival at Villa Tutto. Much has been written on the subject of olive oil and much of that has focused on its adulteration throughout the world. A bottle of “Extra Virgin Italian Olive Oil” on a grocery store shelf might contain Greek, Spanish, and/or Moroccan olive oils and perhaps even hazelnut, walnut or other nut oils, the addition of any of which violates Italian law governing the use of the “extra virgin” moniker. Some violators have gone to prison for passing off inferior oil as extra virgin, but most have been spared prosecution for reasons having more to do with their friends in government than their innocence.
There are two significant results from this mass corruption of olive oil. The first is that the legitimate producers, those who produce olive oil according to the standards set forth in the Italian code, cannot compete with the cheap, diluted stuff in the supermarkets. Based on my experience, the “real deal” costs between three and five times more to make than what the grocery stores sell it for. The second result of the dilution of the oil is that the counterfeiters have trained the world’s palates to accept the adulterated oil as “olive oil.” True, fresh extra virgin olive oil is pungent, earthy and almost astringent, too much so for people used to the watered-down version we’ve become used to. It is difficult, then, for the producers who play by the rules to sell oil that the market doesn’t appreciate for prices high enough for the effort to be profitable. That is the state of the olive oil market today.
Fortunately for us, within a few days of Colleen’s call, the weather turned decidedly cool in Puglia. This slowed the ripening process down which, in turn, pushed the optimum harvest date out. It also gave Andrea some time to heal his injured neck. In addition, the rains came and further delayed the harvest. All of these things conspired to put the picking of the olives right back on our schedule.
Monday morning, before Andrea’s arrival at Villa Tutto, Jessica and I got up and went to the local agricultural supplier located on the road between Cisternino and Locorotondo. We had a general idea about what equipment we needed based on our internet research so we bought some large pieces of nylon netting, some buckets and two sets of rollers that would be used to scrape the olives from the branches. We hurried home with our booty, excited to put the items to work in the olive grove.
Andrea is a bit shorter than my 5’10” height and he probably carries a few years more than I do, but I don’t know that I’ve met a more vital man than he. He is as fit as any athlete his age, with strong, gnarled hands and a barrell-chest that give evidence to a life of physical labor. He also has a wonderful singing voice and a quick laugh, a laugh that I am thankful he held back when he saw us standing in the driveway with our harvesting equipment when he pulled in. I’m sure that we looked like this to him.
Andrea sported a neck brace and, despite doctor’s orders to not engage in more than light physical activity, proceeded to unload the “real” equipment from the rear of his hatchback car. It consisted of large tan, olive-stained nets, hand-rakes for clawing the olives from the branches, and large, white sacks. For the next six straight hours, in silence (since Andrea speaks no English and we could never seem to catch on to his Italian) and without so much as a pee break, the three of us picked olives.
It worked this way: Andrea would spread the nets under a tree and begin hacking branches off with a handsaw while Jessica and I used the hand rakes to remove the olives from the branches, both the ones Andrea had cut down and the ones he left on the tree. While he waited for us to finish the scraping, Andrea took a thick stick that he had fashioned from an olive branch and used it to beat the olive-laden branches so that the olives fell into the nets. Using this method, Andrea gathered about three times as many olives as Jessica and I combined.
When the tree was picked clean, the edges of the nets were rolled up until the olives were gathered into a pile in the center of the net.
Most of the leaves and branches were removed by hand, leaving only the multi-colored olives in the pile.Next, the net was rolled up so that the pile was moved to the edge of the net and funneled into a large bucket. From there it was transferred into one of the large white sacks.
The three of us got about half of the harvest done on that first day, thanks to Andrea. The plan was to get up the next morning and start again. Of course, like many of our plans, this one would be disrupted.
Next: Our First Harvest – Part 2