I had never tasted olive oil that just minutes ago was part of the fruit until our second harvest. The experience is almost religious when one considers that, for millennia, olive trees, oil and the fruit itself have been the staples of cultures such as Greek, Roman and those of the Middle East. The oil of the olive was used as currency in Roman times and was critical to trade in the Mediterranean region. And, I can say that growing olives, pressing them and enjoying an olive oil that few people ever get to taste makes me feel a part of something important and natural.
Jessica and I were worried that the rains that delayed the harvest for a week would affect the quality of the oil. It seems that the window of opportunity to make the best quality oil is not open for very long and we were intent on producing the best oil possible. If the olives stay on the trees for too long, the olives get bigger by taking on more water. This results in a higher yield, but at the cost of a lower quality of oil. Then there was the matter of booking the frantoio, the place where the olives are taken and pressed. With 60 million olive trees in Puglia and a harvest window of approximately three months, the frantoii open in early November and run virtually non-stop (well, as non-stop as it goes in Italy) until January, so we could not assume that our olives would be pressed within the 24-hour, self-imposed window we wanted unless we had a confirmed date at a frantoio called Frantoio Oleario. We watched the weather forecast devotedly but it never quite cooperated. We finally accepted a “60 percent chance of rain” day, scheduled the crew and confirmed that the frantoio could accommodate us.
Mino’s Ragazzi (Donato, Piero and Francesco) arrived at Trullo nella Pineta at 8:00 a.m. and began immediately to lay down the nets. Though there are many methods for gathering olives, the one constant is getting them into nets that are rolled up so that the olives can then be transferred into buckets, sacks or plastic containers. Properly setting the nets is, in itself, an art. Typically, two nets are used for each tree–one on each side–and overlapped. Strategically, they are positioned, not only to catch the olives of that particular tree, but in such a way as to be easily moved to the next tree. Donato, the most experienced of the crew, constantly corrected our lame efforts to position the nets and managed that part of the process in a commanding way.
Most producers of quality oil (including us) use only freshly picked olives that are separated from the tree by hand picking or the use of mechanical devices used to knock or shake the olives from the tree and into the nets. In our case, our friend Francesco, Jessica and I used short-handled hand rakes to comb the olives from the lower branches while Mino’s Boys, using vibrating jaw-like devices on long poles knocked the olives off of the higher parts of the trees. I should point out here that these gadgets are capable of dropping large numbers of olives onto those who are working on the lower branches and of flinging them some distance and with some velocity. I might also mention that olives are typically not as soft as the pimento-filled ones you have in the fridge. They are more like nuts in that sense. I have bruises to show for it from the beanings.
A cassetta (a plastic case approximated 2 feet wide, 3 feet long and 2 feet deep) holds approximately 30 kilos (66 pounds) of olives. Francesco’s car could handle 10 cassette at a time so, once we had filled 10 with freshly-picked olives, Francesco and I drove to the frantoio to deliver them. Not bad, we thought, since it was only 11:00 a.m. The process at the frantoio went like this:
First, the olives were dumped from the cassette into a large plastic container that holds 300 (661 pounds) kilos. A forklift took the container to the scale where the olives were weighed and we were given a receipt for 594 kilos (1,309 pounds). This was when the drama began. I guess we assumed that the frantoio would operate all that day but Rossella informed us that they would close for the day as soon as they ran out of olives to press and, because it had rained all week, they didn’t have a big backlog. Francesco asked her to call him with a half-hour’s notice before they closed so that we could get all of the harvested olives to them to press that day. Otherwise, they would not press until Monday and we would not be within our 24-hour window. In the meantime, we had to go to Villa Tutto to pick up bidoni (50-kilo stainless steel tanks) into which the pressed oil would be put, go back to Pineta to collect the rest of the harvest and hope to get back to the frantoio before it closed. But I left my keys with Jessica who was still picking olives at Pineta so we first had to drive into Cisternino, to Francesco’s office, to get another set of keys so that I could get the bidoni. We were on our way to Pineta to get the next batch of olives when Francesco’s phone rang. We had a half-hour to pick up the olives, grab the bidoni and get to the frantoio. The fact is that, if we stopped the car at that moment, turned the car around and driven directly to the frantoio, we could hardly have made it in 30 minutes.
Francesco showed his true Italian roots and began to drive like Mario Andretti on performance enhancing petrol. We got to Pineta in record time, loaded the 10 cassette of olives into the car, and drove at maximum velocity for Villa Tutto to pick up the bidoni. The next leg of the trip was the most challenging since the olives took up all of the interior of Francesco’s car except for the front seats. Since he was driving, the only option, was to rest the two large stainless steel tanks on top of me for the fifteen-minute drive to the press. The first one sat on my legs and went against the glove compartment door; the second rested partly on the first bidone and partly on my chest. From the front of the car, none of me could be seen. Breathing came with an effort with the heavy metal object pressed against my chest (Yes, those suckers are heavy even when empty.), but this was about olive oil so some sacrifice should be expected, relished in fact.
We arrived at the frantoio an hour late but the dear people at Frantoio Oleario had been waiting for us, knowing how important it was to us to press the olives that day. Immediately we began emptying the cassette into the large container which was taken to the scale. The total for the two deliveries: 594 kilos (1,309 pounds).
By the time the olives were pressed and the oil was in the bidoni (More on that later.), the rains had returned and the harvest was interrupted. At least the trees of Trullo nella Pineta had been picked clean. There was now only Villa Tutto to do and we agreed to meet there the next morning, collect the olives and deliver them to the frantoio for pressing the next morning.
Sunday began with clear skies and comfortable temperatures. I finished my coffee before Jessica had, walked out to the olive grove, spread nets under the nearest tree and, alone and left with my own thoughts, began to rake olives from the lower branches into the net. There is something very zen in picking olives for me. The entirety of my intellect (underwhelming though it may be) is devoted to the act of scraping olive branches clean. It’s a cathartic act, therapeutic and spiritual. And, as the cassette fill with the plucked fruit, I get the instant gratification of seeing the results of my labors. I only regret that the harvest comes only once a year.
The week of rain blessed the grove with a layer of sticky mud inches thick so that the red clay adhered intractably to our shoes. But, despite the challenge, once Mino’s Ragazzi and Francesco arrived, we moved quickly from tree to tree, leaving each one fruitless. Within just a few hours, the grove was picked clean and 26 cassette containing 627 kilos (1,382 pounds) were delivered to the frantoio, bringing the two-day total to 1,221 kilos or 2,686 pounds.
The next morning, Colleen, Francesco, Jessica and I met at Frantoio Oleario to watch our oil being coaxed from the olives we had worked so hard to deliver and taste olive oil just minutes from its release from the fruit. Stay tuned to Soul of the Heel for our stories from the frantoio.
Next: Green Gold