Thursday, November 17, 2011

Harvesting Olives, Part 1

One of the main things we wanted to experience in Italy was the annual olive harvest, which takes place in November-December.  In anticipation of this we joined WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) a few months before we left Seattle.  With our membership we received a list of about 600 farms of all kinds all over Italy.  The deal is that members provide volunteer labor in return for food and lodging.  It’s a wonderful arrangement for people who want to travel inexpensively.

We sorted through the list and ended up making contact with a farm called Il Bellini which is located about 30 minutes from Arezzo by train.  Il Bellini is a family-run farm that produces wine and honey in addition to olive oil.  They were eager to have our help.  Gabriella has been emailing with Rosanna, the daughter of the proprietors, to arrange for our visit. (More about our visit to Il Bellini in a later post).

In the meantime, through our landlord, we met a couple who live a few miles outside Arezzo and have about 40 olive trees on their property.  When we mentioned to Lauro and Angioletta that we were interested in learning about harvesting olives they suggested that we come and help them.  We arranged for them to pick us up on Monday morning.  As we drove out to their place they said that we wouldn’t be harvesting that day because it was rainy and the olives need to be dry when they’re picked.  Instead they offered to spend the day chatting with us (hooray – here comes our crash course in Italian language!). 

When we arrived they gave us a tour of their property, and afterwards offered us coffee and cake.  Well, we THOUGHT Angioletta was offering us a piece of cake she had already made, so naturally we said yes, we’d love some.  It turns out she was apparently asking us if we wanted her to make a cake right then and there, which is precisely what she did.  It was a “simple” crostata made with Angioletta’s homemade quince jam, and a lattice top.   By the time the crostata was in the oven it was time to start getting ready for lunch.  Angioletta made a delicious meal of pasta with her homemade tomato sauce, fried eggplant, salad, wine, bread and olive oil.  We finished off the meal with the crostata and home-made vin santo.  Exquisite!  We had a wonderful time and arranged to come back Wednesday when the weather was supposed to be dry. 

Wednesday morning was indeed sunny and dry (in fact we haven’t seen a cloud in the sky since that Monday) and we went right to work.  To harvest olives one literally combs them from the tree using a hand rake called un rastrello.  Nets are spread on the ground below the tree to catch the olives as they fall.  Once all the olives are off the tree, the nets are gathered up and the olives are loaded into cassettas (crates) that are then taken to il frantoio (the olive press)to be processed into oil.

Some of Lauro & Angioletta's trees
The Cottage Gardener hard at work!

Il rastrello

Reaping the harvest
Two trees' worth of olives
Henry & Lauro at the end of the day
Lauro also has a mechanical rake on a long pole that runs on a battery.  It basically gives the trees a gentle beating to knock the olives off the branches.  This is particularly helpful for branches that are too high to reach from the ground, or are too precarious to reach from a ladder.  Harvesting olives is not hard work, but it is steady, and fairly tedious.  For the unaccustomed it’s a bit of a strain on the neck, arms, shoulders and back.  By one o’clock we were eager for our mid-day lunch break!  Because Angioletta is not particularly fond of outdoor work, she stayed in the house and prepared another wonderful meal for us while Lauro and the two of us worked in the groves.  When we came inside we found the table set and we enjoyed another delicious spread of pasta, salad and wine.  And another cake accompanied by vin santo!  This cake was made with ricotta and nutella – YUM!  After lunch we went back to the trees where we worked until dusk.  

Lauro was very happy that we had collected about 100kg of olives (in general the volume of olive oil produced is about 10-15% of the quantity of olives used) and was disappointed that we couldn’t come back the next day  - so were we!  As much as we wanted to help Lauro finish with his harvest, it was time for us to go on to Il Bellini.  Stay tuned!

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