‘Olives are ready for harvesting’ was the voice in the air. Tractors of all ages, strange shaped trailers loaded with plastic containers, nets, floor hoovers, etc, were mobilised all over the Puglian countryside. The weather was good to us with blue skies and temperatures climbing into the early twenties.
My appointment was with newly found British friends just 25 minutes away from home – deep in the countryside near Latiano. I knew I found it because (having passed several fields of olive trees, each being mobbed by a squad of friends and family) I saw my host mounted on a 2 metre high step ladder, in the road, swatting the trees and then collecting olives one by one from the road before they got squashed by passing traffic. True love in action!
A second friend was in a safer place, in the field, performing squash racquet-type, overhead swings, on the low hanging ‘fruit’, with some success. He was using a purpose-built plastic rake-sort-of-thing which had 4 inch long teeth that were separated sufficiently to capture olives between, thus releasing them from the tree.
The trees were beasts, well over 15 metres high and at least 8 metres wide, with trunks about half a metre wide (probably around 60 years old, quite young but they had plenty of bounty on board). We used three 10×5 metre rectangular heavy nets and laid them more or less under the tree being attacked (oh yes, three of the trees spilt over into the road, so that by necessity became a boundary for the nets).
Just to complete the picture. Our weaponry was the aforementioned olive rake, two garden rakes, a floor brush (which had seen better days), a three metre white plastic rigid hose, (which did change shape with every swipe into the unforgiving trees), and what our host stated as the best buy of the month, a 3 metre bamboo spear – a real devil of a weapon!
So let the work continue!
The olives were not giving up their freedom easily but we ploughed on. The air was filled with the sounds of swishing, cursing and the occasional scream of success, as it rained olives. I attempted to use the ladder to climb into the centre of the tree but the lowest branch was two metres high and I am not as nimble as I was, once upon a time. So, lifting my leg up to my waist then leveraging onto a safe haven in the centre of the tree, wasn’t that much fun! However, once cradled into the tree I was able to use one hand with a sweeping action to release the olives, like taking a bunch of blackberries, and stripping off the fruit. The other hand/arm, of course, was always locked around a branch with stranglehold pressure to help me stay alive!
The sweet sound of olives hitting the ground nets was our music for the next couple of hours. Our concentration being disturbed regularly by passing cars, tractors, lorries, all slowing down with passengers giving us a wave and a hoot, and clearly making comments to one another whilst watching these three Brits caressing a proud tree into submission. No matter, we had given our first tree a good beating and were rewarded with clean, fresh, greeny-black olives.
Several hours had now passed; refreshments arrived; beer, orange squash, water and some leftover birthday cake, to give us more energy. What was the time? I had lost track.
Oh no another passer-by has stopped and is getting out of his car. More advice? No, this is an angel in disguise. This gentleman announces that he owns many of the olive orchards in this area and that his son will come along and help, if we wish, we will have to do nothing but watch! With very uncharacteristic efficiency, son (Antonio) duly arrives sitting on a gleaming new tractor of enormous proportions which has a sort of extending, hydraulic crane arm mounted on the front (a pneumatic harvester). Antonio wealds this tractor around like a wild bronco, targeting the first tree that we had just ‘stripped’. This intrusive arm extends into the middle of the tree, about 20 feet off the ground. Then a large collar at the top end wraps itself the tree and strangles it. A few levers are pulled and toggled, then all of a sudden our first tree is being shaken vigorously, every leaf shuddering. It’s raining olives!!! This storm of olives hits our nets covering them, putting our earlier efforts to shame. Olives strewn all over the road and into the grass where our neatly placed nets didn’t reach. Quick collect the wayward olives! The abused broom comes into its own as we frantically race to safe the olives from being crushed by oncoming traffic.
Panic, this one load will more than fill all the plastic containers our host has bought. Oh no, Antonio is untangling this mighty arm and looks like he is going to the next tree. We don’t have another set of nets and it will take some time to clear the abundance of olives. We try, desperately, to do the fishing net motion of trawling in our load. Maybe we can move the laden nets onto the next tree. No, too heavy.
OK, I calmly walk over to Antonio and ask if he has time to wait for us while we get some order into this spillage and prepare the next tree. He is a young impatient Italian but politely accedes to our begging motions and noises.
Antonio dismounts his mighty steed and makes a call. Yep, five minutes later a car arrives laden with big nets. Ok let’s get this show on the road. We Brits raced around placing a carpet of nets on the ground for Antonio to bury in olives and tree excrement (leaves, twigs, etc).
Twenty minutes later, exhausted Brits, smooth Antonio (and his demolishing machine), look at the spoils of war from just five trees. Our manual ‘day’s catch’ of 20 kilos of olives had been multiplied by 10! Olives scattered far and wide.
‘Phone a friend’ time! Chris arrives with a 2 metre-long trailer to take the goods to the press. It’s now 4pm. We empty our mini-loads into their large 200 kilo capacity crates (no.30 & 94). They are weighed and we are told we have amassed 310 kilos of olives. What success!
The following day at 10 a.m. precisely, our bounty is emptied into a large machine where the leaves, dirt and olives are separated. The olives are then on their way up the conveyor belt and lowered into ‘bath’; washed, cleaned, then passed through a mechanical device which ‘hammers’ the olives before the, now olive paste, is deposited in the cold press process, where it is churned for approximately 20-30 minutes,. The temperature is carefully controlled, and must not exceed 27c. Then it is put through a spinning process which separates oil, water and the olive pasta (malaxation) using a centrifuge. Eventually, oil is deposited into our hosts new, shining 50 litre stainless steel ‘urn’. Our result, just over 30 litres of extra virgin olive oil with a grade of 0.3 (free fatty acid content at 0.3%), the best quality oil! (Virgin olive oil being defined as less than 2% acidity).
This Puglian nectar will give at least 18 months of service once bottled.
Written by my guest blogger Richard Watkins. Thanks Richard! x
A few facts on olive trees in Italy
The olive tree, Olea europaea, is very hardy: drought, disease and fire-resistant, it can live to a great age. Its root system is robust and capable of regenerating the tree even if the above-ground structure is destroyed. The older the olive tree, the broader and more gnarled the trunk becomes. Many olive trees in the groves around the Mediterranean are said to be hundreds of years old, while an age of 2,000 years is claimed for a number of individual trees; in some cases, this has been scientifically verified ”Ecosfera”, Público, May 13, 2010
Italy is the second largest producer of olive oil in the world. Its annual production varies between 500,000 and 700,000 metric tonnes, with 40% coming from Puglia in the south. Other major areas of production include Calabria, Sicily and Campania. Italy has a rich heritage of olive cultivation with over 700 different olive varieties. The most popular olive used for making oil is the Cortina olive that is used in the largest Italian olive growing region of Puglia. The two cultivars that are particularly prevalent in the centre of Italy are Leccino and Frantoio both of these varieties originate from Tuscany and are extremely hardy.
Today, Italian olive production covers approximately 1,700,000 ha predominantly located in Southern Italy which accounts for almost 79% of the country’s olive oil production. The remaining oil comes from the Centralregions (almost 19%) and the North (just over 2%).
Italy is the world leader in olive oil consumption with an annual usage of 650 000 tonnes, about 12 kg per head of population, consequently it is not surprising to note that Italy actually imports more olive oil than it produces; olive oil imports to Italy commonly exceed 500 000 tonnes/year.