It’s Autumn in Tuscany, and time to harvest the olives!
It’s autumn in Tuscany and, once again, time to get the nets out and prepare for La Raccolta – the olive harvest.
La Raccolta in Tuscany normally takes place between October and December, before the olives fall from the trees, but it is vital to get the timing right, in order to ensure the olives are as ripe as possible, but do not suffer from too much rain, wind or cold. Strong winds, sharp frosts or too much rain can all cause havoc.
All colours of olives needed
In my partner Isacco’s family, we usually start gathering the olives at the end of October, when the olives are turning from green to purple, and then black. Black olives are fully ripe but all the colours are needed to make the best oil. Greener olives make oil that’s usually more herbaceous or grassy in aroma and flavour but have higher levels of bitterness and taste more peppery. Black olives generally produce milder oils and have riper fruit flavours.
So next time you are liberally drizzling olive oil over your salad, spare a thought for the lowly olive pickers who have toiled under the sun – and sometimes, rain – harvesting the olives to produce the oil. Some larger producers use tractors and mechanical tree shakers, but the majority of olives are still picked by hand, using traditional methods, which ensures a better quality of oil. It takes around 4 or 5 kilos of olives to make a litre of oil and an average harvester can pick around seven kilos of olives per hour by hand.
Nets are not just for fishing
Harvesting equipment consists of huge nets, long rakes, plastic combs, metal pinchers, plastic crates and maybe a couple of sacks, buckets or baskets. Once we have lugged all the equipment to a tree, we get started. Firstly, at least 2 people spread the nets put around the trunk of the tree, covering the areas where the olives may fall, and ensuring the two ends of the net overlap. Naturally, the terrain is often far from flat, so the nets need to be propped up with sticks or branches, to stop the precious crop from rolling away.
When the nets are in place, serious picking can commence. Plastic combs, metal pincers or hands can be used to pluck the olives from lower branches.
Personally, I prefer using my hands and really savouring the scent of the olives…”
Long rakes are used to reap the fruit at the top of the trees. Something I have never volunteered for is climbing the trees, or going up a ladder to reach the very highest olives. Trees can be brittle and slippery and it is best to leave such athletics to the experts. Harvesters at the top often cut branches and throw them down to those below. When bare, the branches can be used to prop up the nets on the next tree.
Cleaning the olives (while leaving some for the birds)
After as many olives as possible have been picked from the tree, usually leaving a few inaccessible specimens “for the birds”, the fruit is rolled into the middle of the nets to be cleaned. This is one of my favourite parts of the process, when you can really appreciate the colours and textures of the fruit.
Basically, you need to run your hands through the, hopefully huge, pile of olives and remove as many leaves, twigs, insects and other debris as possible. Once the majority have been removed, the olives are carefully transferred into crates or sacks and the gear is all moved on to the next tree. Low trees can be single-handedly harvested without nets, using buckets or baskets to collect the crop.
Isacco sometimes makes use of the “oliviero”, which is a mechanical tree-shaking device. This can be quite an efficient way of removing olives, however it tends to get rather heavy. The family own 80 trees and it normally takes 2 or 3 full weekends, with the help of relatives and friends, to get the crop in.
Dress like an onion, toil in the sun – or rain!
On a bright, crisp autumn day, this is a fine way to spend your time, chatting to family and friends while working away. It is advisable to dress “like an onion” since the early morning and late afternoon can be rather chilly but once the sun comes out, sweat starts to break out and we strip down to short-sleeves.
There is no guarantee of good weather, of course, and the olives must be brought in rain or shine. Dewy ground in the morning, or caused by the rain, can be rather slippery and it is essential to watch where you put your feet, also because you must be careful not to squash the olives as they roll down around you.
Standing on uneven ground, raking away at high branches is rather tiring and after a while, even the toughest harvester needs sustenance. In our case, this is usually provided by Aunt Vanda, who produces huge sandwiches, crammed with pecorino cheese and Parma ham, or salami, a bottle of fine Chianti, and of course a flask of espresso coffee to keep us going through the afternoon.
No more hand presses, the Frantoio makes olive pressing easy!
Once two or three days worth of olives have been gathered, they are taken to the “frantoio”, the olive pressing mill, to be processed. The olives need to be pressed fairly quickly to stop them from rotting. At the frantoio, the olives are first washed, to remove dirt and any stray leaves.
After washing, the olives are then mixed, pressed and transformed into olive oil. The yield depends on many factors including the weather, the maturity of the olives and if the olives have been infested by the dreaded “mosca”, the olive fruit fly, which is capable of devastating entire crops.
Gold!, Gold! Liquid Gold (if a bit green)…
The oil is siphoned into huge metal canisters, which are brought home and then bottling begins. The initial oil is usually bright green, rather bitter and has a distinctive taste, which fades with time.
Harvesting the olives in the traditional way may be a labour intensive process, and certainly takes up plenty of time, but in the chill of an autumn evening, it is all worthwhile for that first taste of exquisite “liquid gold”, as Homer called it, soaked into crisp, garlic-rubbed toasted bread, in front of a warm, open fire.
Some Interesting Olive Oil Facts You May Not Know…
- Many different uses: Olive oil has numerous well-known health benefits including reducing heart disease, risk of strokes, diabetes and some cancers, and lowering cholesterol. However, olive oil is extremely versatile and can also be used as a moisturizer, make-up remover, lip balm, massage oil and effective treatment for sunburn. You can even use it to waterproof shoes and leather and polish wooden furniture.
- The classic Italian way of consuming olive oil is the “fettunta“, literally “greasy slice“, which consists of toasted bread rubbed with garlic and smothered in olive oil.
- Traditional uses of olive oil include being added to pasta sauces and drizzled on salads, but olive oil gelato is now becoming popular. Don’t forget that olive oil is a healthy fat, and can be used instead of butter with potatoes, corn on the cob, or even in cakes.
- Every April in New York, a panel of inter nation experts sample olive oil from all around the world and award prizes to superior oils. Naturally, Italian oils are always winners.