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OLIVES IN TUSCANY
By Sarah Brannen

"Go ahead!" we say. "Try one!"

But something in our faces warns the novice olive-pickers and they take only the merest, tiniest nibble of the luscious-looking purple fruit; it's almost unbelievably bitter. They complain and make horrible faces while we hang from the branches and laugh.

By the time they sit down to lunch on the terrace though, eating trofie (twisty little pasta) drowned in pesto and drinking pale yellow Sorbus wine, they've forgiven us. We soak up the November sun and tell stories of earlier harvests before heading back to the groves to pick another sixty kilos.

Olive Groves

Eight years ago, my family bought a ruined farmhouse on a steep hillside in northern Tuscany. It came with six acres of rolling brambles and ivy, which turned out to be an olive grove that had been abandoned for thirty years. At the time, we barely gave the trees a thought. We hired a crew to build a road through the groves and rip out the undergrowth. When the ivy was gone, we discovered horribly overgrown and neglected olive trees forty feet tall, desperately trying to find the sun. The men hacked at them with chainsaws, and we turned our attention to the renovations of the house and terraces and forgot about the trees until the following November.

Then the poor trees put forth olives in surprising numbers. Our Italian friends and neighbors showed us how to pick them, and we carried a few bags down to the local olive mill. That night, when we first tasted the bright green, peppery, intense oil, thin and not at all "oily," an obsession was born.

Now as many of us who can find the time make the pilgrimage to Campitino each November. We rope in various unsuspecting friends and relatives who think that picking olives in Tuscany sounds like a relaxing vacation. We always know the true olive-pickers when they ask to come back next year! (We've reached the point of having to turn people away).

Olives

Olive trees are evergreen, with leaves that are gray-green on top and silvery pale green below. When it's cold, the trees turn the dark side up to absorb the heat of the sun, and when it's hot, they turn the light side up to reflect it and the groves gleam in the sun. The branches fruit on second-year growth; the olives either run the length of the branch or cluster at the end, depending on the kind of tree. There are hundreds of varieties of olive trees throughout the Mediterranean. Some are grown for eating, others for pressing into oil. In Tuscany, most trees are either the frantoio or leccino variety; we also planted an eating olive, Santa Caterina, last year.

Like most Americans, I used to imagine that green olives grew on one kind of tree and black on another. In fact, all olives start green and turn black or purple when ripe. Then they dry and shrivel a bit, at which time they yield the most oil. But the flavor is more intense when the olives are not completely ripe, so the earlier one picks the stronger the flavor.

In Tuscany, people tend to harvest earlier than in other Mediterranean areas. We like our oil strong so we usually start picking in the last week of October.

Picking Olives

We dress in old clothes and boots and wear leather gloves. If you accidentally sit on a drift of olives, the oil in the fruit squashes out and stains your pants pretty thoroughly. When the olives are not completely ripe, they have to be stripped off the branches with a motion called "milking." It can be hard on your hands. We spread a big, fine-meshed net below the tree we're going to pick, and lift the edges on stakes to make a basket. Each spring we try to prune the trees down to a reasonable height so that some people can pick from the ground at harvest time. Others climb the trees and pick from within, or go up ladders to reach the highest fruit. We strip the olives off the branches and knock the unreachable ones down with bamboo poles. They fall on the net, (and down our necks) and when we're done with a tree we gather up the net and pour the olives into stacking crates.

Gathering Olives

We used to gather them in heavy burlap bags which were a lot more picturesque, but last year we caved in to the modern era and bought eighteen plastic crates. I'm a tree-climber. I'm never happier than when I'm high in an olive tree, looking across the Tuscan landscape and listening to the birds singing. (I have been known to sing too). On the other hand, there are also ants in some of the older trees, and I've been bitten enough to name one tree "Ant." The ants are small, and when they get riled up they raise their abdomens over their heads, like tiny scorpions. And they hurt when they bite! Other people can pick Ant from now on.

Yes, I'm afraid we name our trees. I'm not sure how it started, but every picker now gets naming privileges for one tree. "Sarah" is my favorite tree to climb, with branches like stairs to the top and a sort of branch armchair to relax in when you get there. "Buz," my father's big tree, is named in commemoration of a famous fall he took a few years ago, which was acted out later, with a chair, at holiday gatherings. "Turkey-lurkey" is named after one of our neighbors, I'm afraid. Another neighbor, the Rabbit Man, will no doubt have his own tree eventually.

At the end of a day's picking, we carry the olives up to the cleaned and swept garage and spread them on another net. Olives, although they seem hard and firm, are fragile. If they are left in the crates, they would bruise and rot. Finally we head to the house for showers, usually discovering another dozen olives in our clothes and boots.

The local olive mills require between 250 and 350 kilos of olives each time they send a batch through the press. With five or six people picking it usually takes us three days to gather enough for a pressing. On the last day, when the garage floor is filled with olives, we loiter around admiring them. The colors range from pale green to luscious reddish purple to black with a bluish bloom. Although one olive doesn't have a perceptible smell, en masse they have a thrilling spicy scent, similar to the smell of fresh olive wood.

Olive Mill

We load them in the car and take them to the olive mill at the bottom of the hill. In the old days, a donkey pulled two enormous grinding stones to crush the olives. Although electricity provides the power now, the stones are virtually identical to those of a thousand years ago. In every other way though, modern ways have eclipsed the old. The regulations for the traditional "cold press" method, in which the ground olives are spread on a tower of mats, with the oil squeezed out by a hydraulic press and skimmed by hand, have become so stringent that most mills have switched to using a centrifuge-driven, closed system. It's not as picturesque, but it's more hygienic and frankly I can't taste any difference in the oil. And the smell in the mill is the same as it's always been, overpowering, intense, and somehow green.

We're very proud of our olives. Our groves are situated perfectly, as it happens, high enough but not too high, facing south, close enough to the ocean but not too close. Our olives are usually spectacular, free of the dread olive-fly larva, fat and perfect. The other farmers waiting at the mill run their fingers through them and talk about them, and ask us where they're from.

We usually get between thirty and thirty-five liters of oil from each pressing. In our best year we picked 1360 kilos of olives, about a ton and a half, and got 172 liters of oil. And we couldn't pick them all that year, not even close. We're still not sure how much oil we would end up with if we picked every olive.

Back at Campitino we indulge ourselves, dipping bread in bowls of oil, comparing different pressings. The oil is at its strongest for the first month; after that it's good, but never the same. We make zuppa frantoiana,"olive-mill" soup with garlic toast floating on top amid droplets of the new oil, made everywhere in Tuscany during the olive harvest and at no other time.

Don't let me mislead you; it's not always as good as it sounds. Sometimes we have weeks of t-shirt weather when we eat lunch outside on the terrace every day. But November is a rainy month in Tuscany, and sometimes we have to spend time shopping and museum-going instead of picking.

The infernally hot summer of 2003 led to our first olive-fly infestation. The crop was poor and every olive had a little white resident. (Apparently the weather was extremely good for the grapes, so there may be future compensation in the wine cellar).

Somehow, though, we always remember the good things. Pecorino cheese, cinghiale salame, Il Trovatore in the opera house in Lucca, walks in the chestnut woods. The time always seems to have evaporated as we drive down the hill for the last time toward the airport in Florence, lugging five-liter jugs of oil to explain through security. At home that night, in my own bed again, I close my eyes and see olives.

View from the Terrace


 

 
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