Olives

Sorry for the lack of a Saturday post but the olive harvesting has begun and after a day bashing trees with a stick I found myself quickly out to dinner with no time to type a few words.

Today followed a similar pattern except that work stopped at lunchtime to enjoy a long lunch and then while the others went hunting I retired to rest.  Olive picking is no joy to be frank especially as the trees I help harvest are organic in that nothing is ever sprayed on them and we use sticks rather than anything modern to get the olives off the trees.

We start at 8 a.m. three of us form the picking party. Pasquale who owns the trees selects one to start with and Franco and I head off to get the nets which we spread under the tree.  The idea is to have enough net to catch all the olives as they fly off the tree so they need to be spread on the ground from the tree truck out in a vague circle for about 4-5 metres depending on the size of the tree.  Each person selects their stick and area of attack and then  with a downward motion you hit the tree stripping it of it’s olives. These cascade off along with leaves and bits of twig onto the net. Once you are up and running and the nets start to fill you have to both aim your stick at the tree and watch where you are standing lest you crush the olives already on the ground. No easy task believe you me especially as you begin to tire. Once the low hanging olives are dispensed with one of us heads up the tree into the branches to attack the inside of the tree and the other two pick up longer sticks to hit the living daylights out of the topmost branches. This is when you start to resemble a soldier in full camouflage as foliage begins to gather on your head and shoulders. Olives of course find their way down you shirt front into your pockets and down the back of your neck. You are now trying to bash the tree with a 12 foot pole, not step on olives on the ground, not hit your other worker on the ground and not hit the man in the tree . So you rather resemble morris dancers as you hit the tree and jump around the olives on the ground

It takes about 10 minutes or so to strip a tree and Pasquale then wanders around finding places we have missed and improves my knowledge of Italian swearwords as he describes my efforts.  Eventually he is satisfied and we head off to get the boxes to put the olives in.

So now you lift the outside of a net and maneuver the olives slowly but surely into a large pile in the middle of your chosen net. On hands and knees you now sift out the twigs and leaves and toss them to one side before placing the olives into the box. Lots of leaves manage to get into the box so you sift those again before picking up the corner of another net to repeat the process.  Eventually the nets are empty and the boxes full. However foreman Pasquale then inspects the boxes and always finds yet more leaves but woe betide you if he finds a twig. Again your Italian swear word vocabulary is improved so best to make a good job of it the first time.

After about 5 trees you break for a glass of water and at some stage in the morning coffee is served, but just like at the bar your two Italian co-workers down theirs in about 20 seconds and you are back at it. I tried them with the idea of a tea break but the suggestion fell on stoney ground.

It takes about 1,000 olives or about 6 kilos in weight to make just one litre of olive oil and we get about 20-30 kilos of olives off each tree so you can begin to see why olive oil costs so much these days given the cost of labour in most Mediterranean countries.

Of course there are labour saving devices,. The big farms shake the trees with machines like those in gyms from movies of yesteryear where the person trying to lose weight from their rear has a large rubber band around their rump which vibrates the fat away. Most other producers now use electric rakes which “comb” the trees and shake the olives off. However we still do ours the old way and believe the oil tastes better for it.

Hopefully you can now see there is no romance in olive picking and people who tell you otherwise either have never done it or have been part of a tourist party that does it for a few minutes and then is back on the bus and on their way to see another relic. When you are doing this for 8 hours a day for a week, your shoulders, back and legs spend a great deal of time telling you you are too old to being doing it. However you certainly feel you have earned your beer in the evening.

Like wine though the finished product tastes great and all those hours in the field with a stick seems very worth while as you pour some on a salad for a friend you can say “try some of my olive oil, I made this in October”.

About hereinpuglia

Retired to Puglia after some 40 years in the travel industry working for P&O Lines, British Airways, Alamo rent-a-car,Abercrombie&Kent, owner of Quest Tours and Travel and finally Thomas Cook. Married to Geraldine we now have a small house with too much land near the town of Martina Franca in Puglia. Two kids one married and living in Hong Kong and the other single and living in London. No dogs, no cats no animals.
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5 Responses to Olives

  1. Jaynie says:

    I know the olives look as if they are going to be ready for picking early this year – mine are usually December. Is it usually this early in Martina – is it the higher ground and cooler climate, or a different species of tree?

    • RP says:

      Jaynie, we are as high as Martina and as a general rule we aim to pick between 15Nov & 15 Dec. The earlier you pick the lower the yield BUT the antioxidant levels are higher so we now tend to go earlier. We also find we prefer the ‘greener’ peppery taste.

    • hereinpuglia says:

      We have picked some this weekend but will do more later this month. Several trees get left till December which I had assumed were from another species but it seems it has to do with more olives being gathered from the ground giving the oil a different flavour. Lots of folklore methinks

  2. RP says:

    Having now completed five harvests, I can’t agree with you there Mike. When you have your own trees the picking is the culmination of a year long love affair, where you have pruned, nurtured and even talked to your olive trees. The harvest and how you approach it, is like making love – You sound like you went for the fast and furious approach, over way too quick and not truly satisfying – take your time, enjoy it and reap the rewards

    • hereinpuglia says:

      Quite an analogy olive picking compared to love making. Mind you quite a lot of wham bam with the stick yesterday.I will mention it to my fellow workers but hope they don’t send me off to beat by myself !!

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