Italy’s Olive Harvest: It’s Not Just About Oil

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Fiama: our official olive harvest overseer

This past week, my husband and I made it through our fourth official olive harvest. Each year we learn more about olives trees, olive oil and olives than we ever thought possible. We’ve learned about pruning trees – or not pruning trees. We’ve learned about tilling the soil – or not tilling the soil. We’ve learned about harvesting by hand – or not harvesting by hand. Are we noticing a pattern here?

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The thing about taking part in the olive harvest is that it’s not just about olives – or olive oil. The raccolta is an intensely social event that – in small communities, such as ours – becomes virtually the only topic of conversation for 2-3 weeks.

When we stopped by the local hardware store the other day, the place was buzzing (mostly with opinions) about this year’s harvest. Don’t harvest yet – or, then again, maybe you should start today. There’s been too much rain, but then again last year we didn’t have any. The olives are too small, but many are too big. Even people who don’t have olive trees have opinions about the olive harvest.

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Luigi and our dear friend, Alberto

Opinions aside, there’s a strong sense of community among those who grow and harvest olives … because they know.

They know that the olive tree has a mind of its own – sometimes laden with fruit, sometimes sparse. They know about worrying through droughts and freezes and hailstorms. They know about the particular, finicky pruning process. They know about commitment and dedication and hard work. And they know the inexplicable joy of pressing their own olives into oil.

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Birba (official harvest overseer #2) with Luigi

They also know the joy of just hanging out in the groves together with family and friends – and so do we. Helping our friends, Anna Maria and Alberto, harvest each year is one of our favorite times together. Sure, we pick and rake lots of olives, and drag those big nets from tree to tree, and muddy our boots (and fill them with stray olives). But mostly we talk and we laugh – and we laugh some more.

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Riccardo’s Vecchio Frantoio

Then we head to the frantoio (olive press) together  (it always seems to be dark by then) and we watch our friend, Riccardo, weigh our olives. It’s a moment that’s exciting for everyone who takes their olives to be pressed, and for those who make their living selling oil, it’s both exciting and tense.

I love atmosphere of the frantoio at night. The big doors in front stand wide open during pressing time, and there’s excitement in the air. People are coming and going, dropping off their olives, watching their oil be processed or just hanging out to chat.

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Our olives on the scale

This year, we dropped off our olives and Riccardo pressed them the following day. The process takes about 45 minutes to an hour – depending on this and that. And then the gorgeous green oil appears, spurting its way out of the centrifuge. I’ve watched hardened, local farmers break out into big grins when that happens.

Then containers (in our case, stainless steel) with the new, freshly pressed olive oil are loaded into vehicles for the trip to the house. Hard work and worry – and certainly some expense – traded for your very own olive oil. Something that countless others have been doing for thousands of years. I’m so happy to have joined them. 🙂

Of course everyone knows what happens next … and, yes, your oil is always always the absolute best.

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