Olive Oil: It’s in their blood
The once quite Puglian countryside, is now alive with the satisfying sounds of olives dropping to the ground (albeit with a little help!) and the sound of tractors up and down the lanes, transporting olives to the press, as the olive harvest season is well underway.
This time of year I often remember, with fondness, a very sweet and charming neighbour, Nino. He was in his late eighties when I first met him and our initial encounter was, let’s just say a little tense. I had literally just moved in and my oversized removal truck was trying to exit my driveway and negotiate the very tight right-angle onto the single track lane. After what seemed like 20 point shuffle, back and forth, the driver nudged the wall and fence opposite. “Oh, no!” (perhaps they weren’t quite the words I used! Feel free to insert your own words instead!).
Nino was waiting to pass to reach his land further up the lane, when the ‘incident’ happened. But by this time he was already out of his car, ‘supervising’ the situation and was now yelling something in dialect! I apologised to him as best I could with the hand full of Italian words I had in my arsenal at that time. Welcome to the neighbourhood! I thought to myself. How to make friends with the locals…crash into their wall! Not exactly the introduction to the neighbourhood I was hoping for. Eventually the truck made its way around the corner and exited the ‘contrada‘ (neighbourhood) without further incident. Once the truck had moved on I inspected the damage, phew, nothing to write home about and if it wasn’t for Nino being present, the other neighbours might not have even noticed! I apologised as best as I could to Nino (even though it wasn’t his land) and hoped this wouldn’t oust me from the small, tight-knitt community into which I had just moved to.
A month went by and I was still trying to find my feet in this strange land; the language, culture and pace of life here was completely different and I felt like a fish out of water. But with my dictionary in hand I managed to get by. Then, oneday out-of-the-blue, Nino appeared at my gate, with some fresh flowers, hand-picked from his garden. How sweet of him, I thought. Again, he spoke to me in dialect and I struggled to understand but with a few hand gestures, I gathered he was talking about the olives and pointed out that they are ready for harvesting and that he wanted to help. Fantastic, I would have my very own olive oil. What could be better than that! A few days later, Nino turned up at my gate once again, this time with nets, plastic rakes and containers. “Today, we harvest the olives” he said. Today? But I’ve just showered and planned on going out. But I didn’t want to offend him, so let him in.
He got to work straightaway, laying the nets, then handed each one of us a plastic rake. I enlisted a couple of British friends to help; not only with the harvest but also with translating. This is when I learnt that Nino was a ‘maestro‘ (an expert) in this field and that he had been tending to the olive groves all his life. Puglia was in his heart, his soul and his blood. His father, grandfather and father before that, were all ‘contadini‘ (farmers). They respected the land, nurtured and cared for it, and believed that you reep what you saw.
Although he was in his late 80s he was still fit and nimble, climbing the trees to get the precious fruit at the top of the my young olive trees (approximately 10-15 years old). He demonstrated, with gusto, the ‘technique’ to release the olives from the branches and we worked tirelessly on each tree. We weren’t allowed to move onto the next tree until it was completely stripped of olives.
A couple of years ago, Nino had a tragic accident whilst trimming the olive trees which he loved so dearly. He was found by one of the neighbours, dangling upside down by one leg, chainsaw in hand, still running. Nobody knows how long he was in this state but sadly this was his demise and approximately 6 months later he passed away.
So, I dedicate this piece of writing to Nino Palmisano; a much loved Puglian gentleman whose love for this land, and inparticular, the sacred olive trees and the liquid gold which was his passion and livelyhood, never diminished. I thank you from the bottom of heart for everything you have taught me about tending to, nuturing and reaping the rewards of harvesting the precious olives. May you rest in peace Nino. x