Blog No. 1 - The Olive Harvest
The olive harvest symbolizes so much of what is wonderful about Italians and life in Italy:
Respect for nature, food, and the Italians penchant for wasting nothing.
The importance above all of family; represented by the sharing of the oil that takes place after the harvest.
Focus on health, with everyone recognizing the importance of having pure, extra virgin olive oil as part of his or her daily life.
After our neighbors made us the offer we couldn’t refuse in 2006 and sold us some land surrounding our Casa Gialla, we are now the proud owners of 35 olive trees. In the dozen years we have been harvesting, our typical yield is 50 – 60 liters of oil. But this year (2018) the moon and the stars must have been aligned because we came home from the frantoio (the mill) with 108 liters of spicy, peppery, shiny green oil which tastes like nothing you have ever bought at a grocery store. It is squisito!
We hauled almost 600 kilos (1,300 pounds) of olives to the mill. When it’s our turn, the forklift driver takes our giant bins of olives and dumps them into the receiving hopper. From there they are transported up a conveyor belt where air-jets blow away the leaves and sticks that we have invariably missed. The olives get washed, crushed (pits and all) and your mash gets piped into one of six holding tanks. It resembles thick porridge at this point. The color ranges from light, greenish brown to dark brown and there is frequently a hint of red in the mix. Giant blades gently turn the mash and the holding tank heats the mixture to kill any bacteria.
The excitement begins to build as you see the person’s tank in front of yours start to empty. We move closer to the spigot where we watch the family in front of us move aside to make room for us. The master controller nods at me. It’s our turn. Everyone who has helped us pick is with us. We’re excited.
He clicks a few icons on his computer screen and our mash is pumped out of our holding tank into a centrifuge. The mash is spun at high speed and behind the scenes, the water is separated and goes down the drain. The pit, which has been crushed and now looks like fine black sand, is spun off and piped outside the mill into giant holding tanks. This will be trucked away and spun again to get more oil; then the residue will be fed to the pigs. The Italians waste nothing.
We are standing at the spigot, the first of our 30-litre cans is in position. Then, with an opening glug, the first of our oil spurts out. This moment is always emotional for me. The oil is green, shiny and almost iridescent some years. It’s a slightly different color from year to year. It is cloudy at this point but after weeks in the stainless steel container, it becomes a bit more clear, while still retaining its sharp green color.
But that isn’t why it’s an emotional moment for me. It’s what the oil represents. Our muscles ache from climbing up and down the hills. We are tired. I think about the suckers that I have trimmed from the tree during the year so that more energy can go to the olives. I think about all the times I went out to inspect the olives, hoping that the fruit flies have chosen to pass us by. I worry weeks in advance that the week we have chosen to harvest might be a total washout due to rain.
Mostly, I think about the joy of tasting our new oil at our celebratory dinner that night, where every course features our new oil. Homemade bread to dip, cannellini bean salad, lettuce salad, pasta and more will elicit oohs and ahs all evening long. It’s one of my favorite nights of the year.