If you would have told me three years ago that we would be harvesting olives in Tuscany for several weeks, I’m not sure I would have believed you. Yet, here we are.
It’s early, it’s cold and we are buzzing with anticipation. Troy and I pile into Guido’s truck with olive crates, harvesting tools and head to the grove.
Throughout the days of harvesting olives, we learn about Guido’s farm. It has been registered organic since 2008. There are no pesticides, and the only treatment used on the olive trees is copper/chalk which is used to protect plants against fungi and certain bacteria.
There are 450 olive trees in Guido’s grove consisting of the Moraiolo, Frantoio, Piangente, Pendolino, Canino, Leccino, Razzo and Lazzaro varieties. The majority of his varieties, however, are Moraiolo and Frantoio.
Frantoio olives are native to Tuscany and have that grassy, spicy flavour that is widely recognized in Tuscan olive oil. The branches of these trees point slightly upward which require harvesting by hand. Troy and I found these trees to have fewer olives per tree and to be more cumbersome to harvest. These olives are round in shape.
Moraiolo olives are also native to Tuscany and are one of the most highly acclaimed olive varieties in the world. They are small to mid-sized, oval in shape and tend to be purple-black when mature. These olives add a fruity quality to the oil and taste nutty when pickled. These tree branches face downward and therefore are much easier to harvest.
Back to the grove. Guido gives us a quick tutorial before we get to work. Below are the steps of harvesting olives as we learned them.
Step 1: Lay the Nets
It is important to lay the nets under the olive trees to both capture all of the olives and to keep them from getting dirty (which would increase the acidity of the oil). We have two long nets, each about 10 feet wide and several hundred feet long. We lay the nets under a row of trees, one on either side of the tree trunks and make sure to secure the nets along the center. The nets span about 10 trees in length.
Step 2: Rake the Olives
It’s picking time. We pick the olives with tools that look like children’s sandbox rakes. Troy’s rake is attached to a long stick. I have a short rake. Since Troy is taller than I am, he uses the long rake to comb the olives from the top layers of the trees. I use the short rake to comb the olives off of the lower branches. We rake the branches free of olives. As we rake, it literally rains olives. It takes a couple of hours to rake about 10 trees.
Step 3: Gather the Olives
Once the trees are cleared, we gather the nets and roll the olives into piles. We usually make four piles of olives per 10 trees. By the way, the photo below shows a small amount of olives. The piles we collect are much bigger.
Step 4: Clean Olives
Next we remove the branches and large leaves from the piles of olives. This takes about 5-10 minutes per pile. I have to say, it is so nice to sit down.
Step 5: Load Olives
Now we load the olives in the crates. The goal for the four of us (Troy, me and two Romanian workers) is to load 15 crates with olives in the morning and 15 crates in the afternoon. On average we work for about 10 hours per day. There is no chance we would make these numbers without the help of our Romanian friends.
Step 6: Haul Crates to Storage or Truck
If the weather is nice, Guido drives the truck down into the grove to meet us for the crates. If it rains, Troy and Guido haul the crates up the huge hill to the storage area. Each crate is probably 50 pounds, but they may as well weigh 100 pounds when traversing up the hills. Our quads, hamstrings and shoulders are getting a good workout and our hands are getting a bit ripped up, too.
This work is both peaceful and difficult. My favorite part is raking the olives—especially when the weather is nice. My least favorite part is laying/gathering the nets under low lying branches and obviously hauling the crates.
Guido says that harvesting grapes is about 10 times harder than harvesting olives (because of the hot sun, insects and volume of crates to haul when harvesting grapes).
This experience has given us an enormous appreciation for the work of farmers. The work is physical, hard and constant.
As Troy and I take a break, we talk about how these trees have been harvested for centuries. We think about all of the men who have done this work over the years—their joy, their sorrow, their families and their lives. My hat goes off to each one of them.
We now give even more thanks for the food that we eat, and the work that it takes to bring it to the table.
We are so thrilled to have this opportunity to work these fields and truly understand what is involved in making olive oil.
This post is the first of a three part series. Each title below includes a detailed blog post as well as a ChopSizzlePop! TV mini-webisode:
Part I – Harvesting Olives in the Grove
Part II – At the Press, Turning Olives into Olive Oil
Part III – Bottling Olive Oil by Hand
Now… Tune-in to our Harvesting Olives webisode on the CSP-TV tab to watch us harvest these olives in person!