Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Fruits of Our Labor: Olive Harvest Time in Umbria

Raw olives taste horrible, but they sure are pretty.
People like to say that the Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa holidays are the most wonderful time of the year, but in Umbria, we beg to differ. Or at least I do. My most wonderful time of the year is the olive harvest. It’s more work than the vendemmia, and the weather is often less agreeable. It’s not followed by a huge, satisfying meal, because our family cook, Franca, is out picking with us. But being that I am a fan of instant gratification and all, picking our olives, taking them to the mill a few days later and then dining that night on bruschetta drowned in our new oil—our oil—is a singular pleasure that Paolo and I both relish in every year.

So for those curious as to where that olive oil comes from, here’s our version of the olive harvest, which, I’m pretty sure doesn’t differ too much from non-commercial olive harvests taking place anywhere in Italy.

Paolo and Nonno Gino start checking out the olives around the first of November, and assess when they might be ready to pick. It’s a risk-reward gambit. The longer you wait, the riper the olives and the more mellow and abundant the oil. But a Wrath of God wind and rainstorm could come along and blow all your olives off the trees. Plus, you can’t pick the olives when they’re wet, because they’ll get moldy in just the couple of days they sit in wooden boxes or canvas bags, waiting to go to the mill. Like so much in Umbria, it’s all about the weather.

So usually a week in advance, Paolo announces, “This weekend we pick olives.” That’s our cue to don rubber boots, old jeans and jackets—which we usually shed by about 10 a.m., dig out the nets from last year, and get busy.

That's Paolo up in the tree, and our friend Matteo
wielding the olive picker.
The first step is to spread out huge nets under the trees. If two or more trees are close enough together and a net is big enough, it can be placed to catch the olives under that whole group of trees. Most of our tress are on a hill—would that they were not!—so we have to prop up the edges of the nets with wooden stakes, circus-tent style, so that the olives don’t all roll away.

Though traditionalists shun such modern implements, Paolo, and the majority of others with more than a few olive trees, uses an electric picker. It looks like a big, multi-tined fork with a long, extendable arm, and it plugs into a car battery, or in Paolo’s case, his truck battery. When turned on, it makes a noise somewhat similar to an electric hand mixer. The tines waves back and forth in the high branches of the trees, and knock the olives loose, along with a lot of leaves and small twigs.

The olives fall into nets spread beneath the trees...
While Paolo works in the nether regions of the tree, we work on the lower part, raking our hands down the pliable branches and pulling the olives off in the process. It’s hard on your hands, and I suppose we could wear gloves—I guess some people do. But there’s something about the tactile sensation of hands raking the branches, touching every olive as they pop off, that would be lost with gloves.

All of the olives fall onto the net below. When one tree is picked clean and it’s time to move to the next, we gather the ends of the nets and start rolling all the olives to the middle. Once they’re in a heap, we lift them into plastic bins, usually a little at a time because they olives weigh so much. Then we carry and drag the nets to the next tree, and the process repeats. Usually, while Paolo is working on the upper branches, Franca and I dig our hands through the bins of picked olives and toss out as many of the leaves and branches as we can. (Because the mill weighs the olives when we bring them in, we don’t want twigs and branches, which will get sorted out by machine, adding to the total weight.) Then we’re off to pick more olives off the lower branches.

Paolo's mother, Franca, cleaning out twigs & leaves

So it’s spread the nets, pick the olives, gather the nets, dump the olives, repeat. This process goes on for several days, until we've picked everything and we're ready to go to the mill—tired and achy, but ready for our oil!

The mill has a vehicle scale, and customers first park their loaded down truck, car or tractor there, where the total vehicle weight, olives and all, is recorded. Then the bins, crates and bags of olives are off-loaded, and the vehicle is weighed again. This is how the mill decides how much oil we get—the difference in the before and after weight is the total weight of our olives, from which they calculate the yield of oil.
Ready for the mill!

When it’s our turn, we dump our olives into a big, dumpster-like container in the ground. From there, they are brought up a conveyor belt into a machine that separates the olives from remaining stems and leaves. The olives then go into their first mashing process, which in turn spits out olive pits into a bin and olive paste onto another conveyor belt and into a waiting press. The hot water press begins to churn out the first oil, which goes through another filtering stage until it’s ready to dispense into the 50 liter stainless steel containers that we've brought with us. It’s a long process from start to finish; I don’t think we've ever gotten in and out of the mill in fewer than three hours.
Our olives, after being separated from leaves & stems

The mill doesn't take money for the process. Instead, they take a small percentage of oil, which they sell retail and wholesale. And the truth is, we don’t have to wait three hours while our oil is milled. We could just show up at the mill, get our olives weighed, and pick up the equivalent amount of pressed oil. Since everyone has the same trees and cultivates their olives in the same manner, there’s really no difference between our oil and that of the guy down the hill from us.

But neither Paolo nor I would ever consider such a blasphemous shortcut. With achy backs, bruised  knees, sore arms and chapped, raw hands from days of picking and hauling, there’s no way we’d ever take home anything but our oil, the fruit of our labors. It doesn't matter if the neighbor’s oil tastes exactly the same; it’s just not the same.
Hot off the presses, indeed! Photo is hazy because the
mill is filled with olive-tinged steam.

When we get home from the mill, always well after dark and usually paste dinnertime, we feast on a one course meal of bruschetta—not fancy bruschetta with tomatoes or cheese or any accouterments, but plain old bruschetta simplice, made with bread, garlic, salt, and our spicy, peppery oil, which never has so much flavor as it does on that first night.

For those of you who've not heard me wax orgasmic about bruschetta simplice, click here and scroll down for the recipe.  
Bruschetta! It's what's for dinner. 

Paolo and I don’t do much goodnight kissing the evening we bring home the oil, but we sure do go to bed satisfied. (And really, with orgasmic bruschetta, how could we not?) We have our own extra virgin olive oil to last us the year, and we earned ever drop of it—truly the fruit of our labors.  

Gratuitous cute baby photo
More of the gratuitously cute baby

Gratuitous cute husband photo

Nonno Gino, laying down on the job - AGAIN