Jo Thomas on the olive harvest
I first went to Puglia in Southern Italy, because my brother and his wife had a small house out there with four acres of olive grove. I knew nothing about olive oil, how it was grown or made. But what I became fascinated by was how a food product like olive oil actually is part of the areas identity. It’s woven into the weave of everyday life.
There is a buzz, an excitement, an anticipation in the air.
Harvest happens in the late autumn, October and November. According to Frances Jaine from The Oil Merchant Tuscan olives are picked early to avoid the frosts, creating a peppery, bitter flavour. In Umbria a wealth of olive varieties makes for an abundance of styles, generally fruity and softer than Tuscan ones. Puglia oil is rich, often sweet with a peppery finish and Sicily’s oils are leafy and fruity, increasing in intensity from east to west.
In the run up to the harvest the ground around the trees is kept clean and raked regularly so that nets can be laid under the trees when they are ripe and ready to fall. Little fires are built around the trees from twigs and fallen leaves to keep away pests.
I went with my three children, husband and Mum to help my brother and his wife harvest their olives. They pick their olives by hand, known as brucatura. This traditional method means that the olives are less likely to be damaged or bruised as that affects the flavour. More modern methods can mean a tractor that grips the tree and shakes it of its fruit and they fall onto the nets, but not on my brother’s small holding. We had buckets and sore, purple stained hands to show for it as we stripped the branches. The children climbed the trees like monkeys to get to the high olives. My brother and husband worked up the ladder and my Mum and I stuck to the lower branches. When each tree was stripped of its ripe olives, and a slot has been booked at the frantoio, the local press, the olives get loaded into the trailer and driven there by tractor. Time is of the essence. The olives must be pressed straight away as they start to oxidise, affecting the oil’s quality.
The frantoio is open around the clock at this time of year. It’s a hive of activity throughout the day and night.
The olives are weighed. Then they are loaded into a big steel bin at one end of a room full of equipment which looks like something out of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. They are washed and then pressed, ground and the oil and water is separated.
Families stand around waiting for their slot, or their oil, watching the steel pipe at the end of the production line for the first few drops of deep grassy green liquid as it begins to flow. They are all discussing how the harvest has been and how it compares to other years. There are even glasses raised and picnics unpacked as families and neighbours come together and wait and celebrate the rewards of their harvest. The olive oil harvest is so much more than picking the olives from the trees and pressing them. It’s the foundations and the fabric of a community.