Picking grapes and chestnuts was a fairly simple process from the picker’s perspective: clip or pick up and drop in little container, when container is full, empty into larger container, repeat.
Things get a bit more interesting with olives. The exact method for olive growing and harvesting of course varies depending on the size of the olivi/ulivi* (olive trees) and the owner’s preference. For starters, Le Serre is biologico aka organic, which means no scary chemicals are used on the olives. All trees need to be pruned, or clipped down a bit, in the winter. Snipping away a few branches actually helps keep the plants healthy and their olive yield and quality high (if you know how to prune properly; something I’m interested to learn more about).
*I heard and read “olive words” starting with both ‘o’s and ‘u’s in Italy. When I asked people, I always got different answers. Upon further research, it seems that indeed both forms are used today and both correct.
Enrico explained that it’s best to pick when the olives are just ripening, so we started to harvest when most of the olives were turning from green to brown. We’d place large nets beneath the trees, clipping the nets to each other and making sure they hugged the tree trunks leaving no gaps for the olives to fall through. Enrico’s not big on killing all the plants around the trees, so there were lots of weeds to navigate our way around with the nets.
We used a ladder only for one very tall tree. For the rest of them, one or two of us would duck under the leaves and climb up on the trunk to pick the inner ulivi/olivi. Most of us would pick by hand or using a little yellow comb that always made me think of a dinglehopper. Meanwhile, a couple of people would use machines resembling motorized, vibrating rakes to shake most the olives from the trees and reach the highest ones.
After all the trees above a net were picked, we’d unclip, gather the olives, pick out any big branches or leaves, pour the olives into a cassetta, move the nets and re-clip. When a lot of people are working quickly, there’s almost a constant need to be gathering olives and moving nets. Like many, I preferred picking. It was fun, therapeutic even, to pick while chatting, humming or basking in a moment of silence with a view the sea in the distance. To go for the low-hanging fruit, I’d sometimes sit beneath the tree, hidden in my own little canopy of leaves, olives and branches. The harvest is really a beautiful balance between physical work, socializing and having your own private peace.
Side Note: It’s a pretty tame job, but naturally, I made good on any potential dangers involved…
1) Falling out of trees: One morning, I got a bit overzealous in the tree and slipped off the branch, falling onto another on my way down. It hurt a bit, but my ego was far more bruised than my bum; I felt a slight breeze and realized I’d actually managed to rip a few holes in the back of my pants during the fall.
2) Leaf Eye: If you stand near the guys with the auto-rakes, it basically rains olives on your head, an experience I didn’t mind. A greater hazard than the olives themselves are the leaves. Olive leaves are constantly flying off the tree and snapped your way when your neighbor releases a branch. I got a leaf in the eye on one of my first mornings at Le Serre. It stung a bit, but I threw on a pair of inappropriately-large-for-manual-labor sunglasses and figured I’d get over it. That night, conditions worsened. It burned to open my eye all the way and the skin around it was red and swollen. Despite criticism, I continued to don oversized glasses at dinner. By morning, I couldn’t open my eye. This alongside the cold and stomach bug I was quietly fighting made for a painful combination. With one nostril curiously stuffed and one eye watering, I was looking pretty pathetic. It was Sunday, and all the WWOOFers had planned to visit nearby thermal springs for the day. Enrico took me to the nearby pharmacy (run by COOP!) on the way to the station. There, the pharmacist understood that I’d spliced my eye with a piece of paper (foglio) rather than a leaf (foglia) and insisted I go to the emergency room. Eventually, I convinced her to let me first buy some eye drops. The eye drops and the fresh water helped immensely, and I was back in the oliveto/uliveto (olive grove), armed with protective sunglasses, the next day.
From Graft to Glass
Enrico’s olives are a mix of frantoio, moraiolo, leccino, and pendolino. He prefers to mix them all up, producing a well-balanced oil with hints of fruit and spice. I’ve talked to others who prefer to stick to one type of olive, many claiming the flavorful frantoio is the best.
Most of the trees at Le Serre are about twenty years old; big enough to hold a couple of grown male climbers, but without the gnarly, thick trunks of 200-year old trees. It takes about eight years for a new olive tree to bear a significant amount of fruit, though there’s not as strong a correlation between age and quality with olive trees as there is with vines. Likewise, olive oil doesn’t grow better with age; it softens up a bit after the first few months when the oil is bright green and tastes as spunky as it looks, and is best consumed within a year of bottling.
Many things surprised me about the ways of olive and their trees. Here are just a few:
1. All wild olive trees produce small fruit or none at all, and you can’t grow the cultivated varieties by seed. They must be “grafted” or “budded.” Federico told us a thing or two about grafting, the process of fusing the bark of one (cultivated) tree with that of another (wild) tree. Apparently, there are just a few pro-grafters in Italy. By keeping their methods secret, they keep grafting a high-paying gig.
2. There’s a natural cycle with olive trees by which a tree produces a lot of fruit every two years. I found that this can help keep a positive attitude, as each tree that had only a few olives this year was just a promise for more olives next year. Pruning can help to maintain a balance and avoid the alternate bearing effect.
3. Fresh olives are rancid. This is probably not a surprise to most of you, but I had no idea exactly how bitter olives are before they’re pressed, cured or otherwise processed. By the time I’d been in Varenna for a week, I’d developed a dangerous habit of picking and eating fruits familiar and foreign. It seemed natural to pluck an olive off the tree in the backyard and test it out. After all, no pesticides, no problem, right? Wrong. I spat it out, scraped my tongue and gargled some water. I wondered if maybe Sandra and Gigi were organic with everything except their olives, which they sprayed with poison. After experiencing no symptoms of impending death, I asked them about table olive prep. Table olives need to be fermented or cured before consumption. There are lots of methods for curing; like most people I met, Sandra and Gigi, soak the olives in brine (a salt-water solution) for at least one month, changing the water about every ten days.
Once you make it through the perils of picking, it’s time to take the olives to the frantoio (Note: frantoio is both a type of olive and the olive oil “factory” or press). Enrico would take the olives to the frantoio within 24 hours of picking, usually sooner. For top quality oil, it’s important to limit both the time and distance between picking and processing. The longer you wait, the more the olives oxidize immediately, increasing their acidity. The farther you go, the more likely you are to bump and bruise the delicate olives. The frantoio charges the oil makers by kilo of olives, not the actual oil produced. I heard tales of less discriminating producers who would leave their olives out to dry for a week before taking them to the press to lighten the bill.
Enrico let me tag along on a trip to the frantoio. The first thing that struck me when I entered the frantoio was THAT SMELL. It was so incredible I thought I might pass out. I don’t know how to describe it other than to say the air was thick with oil, and when I inhaled it was like being cocooned by olive oil. There’s nothing like a powerful scent coming from fresh vegetables, fruits or herbs that are simply releasing their essence without any cooking involved. It’s something so earthy it’s feels…unearthly?
Olives arrive at the frantoio in a covered loading dock, where they’re poured into a machine that weeds out leaves and other unwanted debris. This carries them into the main room, where they are first washed and then crushed into an aromatic paste. A rotation device known as a decanter crushes the olives and mixes the paste for a half hour or longer. The centrifugal rotation encourages droplets of oil to form, preparing the olives for the next phase: separation. The pulp and oil go to another decanter, where another clever centrifugal system separates oil, pulp and water. The oil comes out of a pipe popping bright green, poured immediately into barrels. The pulp is sucked into a tube and sent to a big pile outside, where Enrico claims passerbys flick their cigarettes and animals do their thing. This is the stuff your dirty, un-virgin olive oil is extracted from.
All the while, a few old men stand there watching. They seem to do nothing except give visitors and the young workers knowing looks that you’d steal a few barrels if at any moment unmonitored. Enrico located his barrels and checked out his stats: 14% oil yield. He was relatively pleased. I’ve read that a low yield is 10% and a very high yield 20%, but 10-15% seems more realistic based on my conversations around Italy. I took in a last whiff of olio air (Olio2?) and the silent guards watched as Enrico and I loaded up the tractor with fresh oil ready for bottling…and dinner.