What a glorious experience from start to finish!
When I’d taken a closer look at our trees back in late summer, I knew this year’s olive harvest would mean a bumper crop. Mind you, this is after at least four rather unproductive years. In two previous years, high winds blew blossoms off the trees at a crucial juncture in pollination. Another year was so dry the trees produced a sparse crop. And, another year, which had looked promising, fell prey to a pesky fly that invaded and destroyed much of the fruit (that year my olive harvest was tiny—just enough to cure one large jar of olives).
So, imagine my delight anticipating a bountiful olive harvest. My dear friend, David Spagnolo, an incredibly gifted photographer in fashion, beauty, and sports, quickly accepted my invitation to come to Umbria to harvest olives with me. He arrived in early November and we plotted our strategy for tackling the trees and dealing with sketchy weather. We dedicated ourselves to at least three days of the olive harvest, working side-by-side at a steady but unhurried pace. After all, this was also a golden opportunity to get caught up (we hadn’t seen each other in years) and muse about life. And, when we crossed the finish line of harvesting olives, we’d had an experience that fired on all cylinders.
Dodging the rain.
This was the only difficult part of the process. You’re inviting trouble if you harvest when the trees, olives and ground are wet. They all need to be reasonably dry so as to not invite mold, mildew, and rot. And, especially since we knew our lot would be small and set aside for adding to a later pressing of additional smaller lots, this is something we couldn’t risk. So, we patiently waited for windows of opportunity when the rain had abated for at least several hours. We were “on it” as soon as conditions presented themselves, but several times we had to retreat indoors and wait yet again. Our three days of the olive harvest were dotted with such pauses, though the last day was pretty much sunny all day.
An olive harvesting strategy.
A plan of attack is crucial when tackling olive trees. First, we pulled the olive crates and nets out of the basement and gave them a good cleaning. Then we surveyed my twenty-one trees to determine 1) Which had the most fruit. 2) Which were most easily accessible. We determined the trees that would be a waste of time and which would invite injury.
We started with our next door neighbor’s’ tree. They’d invited me to harvest their olives since they had already relocated to Rome for the colder weather months. This tree was on level ground, had been nicely pruned, was easily accessible. So, we broke ourselves in with the easiest of all trees. Then we methodically worked our way through fourteen of twenty-one trees. There was so much fruit on the trees that stripping the trees of their fruit by hand was a bit more time intensive.
The following video chronicles the entirety of our olive harvest experience:
Knowing when to call it quits.
We could’ve kept at it another day or two but by 1 pm. on day three we had filled our four crates and we knew we’d have ample olive oil as a result. This was quality fruit! So, we folded up the net, packed the car, and headed over the opposing mountain range to take the road over to then Cortona frantoio—about a forty-five-minute drives, which was only broken by an hour’s stop (around 3 p.m.) at an amazing roadside bar/cafe/osteria for a spectacular plate of cured meats and artisanal cheeses and a couple self-congratulatory glasses of Prosecco.
Yes, the moment of truth had arrived. We hauled our crates in from the car to the large scale in the frantoio. One-hundred kilos of olives on the nose. That’s 220 pounds of olives. The olives were added to a batch of other small lots and our crates were returned to us. I was given a receipt that showed the weight minus a five percent reduction for debris like leaves and twigs. You see, most of the olives that arrive at the communal press have been harvested mechanically and such lots end up with more debris due to the lack of dexterity of the mechanical hands. People like me who deliver rather pristine olives are penalized because of this. Oh well.
I returned to the frantoio three weeks later because I had to go back to Treviso in the meantime. When I returned in December, the mechanical olive press, which had been running 24/7 just weeks before, was silent. The olive harvest window had closed. I handed in my receipt and my extra virgin olive oil, the last of the small lot pressing, was poured and drained from the designated stainless-steel drum. My yield was a healthy almost-twelve liters. I couldn’t wait to get home to pour a small tumbler of this golden elixir, add a touch of salt, and taste it.
Boy, did this stuff knock my socks off! I did a happy dance all alone in the kitchen of our Umbria home knowing we’d be well set for over a year with this delicious liquid.
The memories linger.
Every time I will pour this olive oil I will remember, with great fondness, three amazing days of hard work, camaraderie and the kind of rich, soulful conversations that come with deep friendships.