Friday, November 25, 2011

Harvesting Olives, Part 2

View from Il Bellini

 As we mentioned in part 1, we had arranged as WWOOFers (as volunteers from this organization are affectionately known) to go to Il Bellini, a local farm/agritourismo to assist with the olive harvest.  We had no idea what we were in for.  In the email exchange between Gabriella and Rosanna (the daughter who essentially runs the business), Rosanna had asked us to come for a particular weekend in which she needed help both with the olive harvest and at a local fair where she would be selling olive oil.  Rosanna suggested that since we speak Italian (what, us?) one of us could help her at the fair.  Gabriella was quick to respond saying that we would be happy to help, but we weren’t at all sure our language ability was up to snuff.  Sure, we can write emails in Italian pretty well, but that’s because we have our trusty dictionary and verb book on hand.  Plus we have the time to review what we’ve written before we actually send the message.  Actually SPEAKING to people is a whole different story!   Via email we agreed we’d come for the weekend and once we got there we’d determine what made the most sense.

On a Friday afternoon we took the train to San Giovanni, about ½ hour north of Arezzo, where Rosanna met us at the station.  Apparently she determined that our Italian was just fine because on the drive to the farm she said she wanted Gabriella to help her at the fair the next day, and she asked Henry to stay on the farm and help the others with the harvest.  This was the first time the two of us were going to have our own independent adventures for an entire day.  We were just slightly trepidatious.
The road to the olives groves

Once we arrived at the farm we found the olive harvest in full swing so we changed our clothes and went right to work.  There were three other WWOOFers as well as several family members already hard at work.  You will no doubt be as confused as we initially were by who everyone is:  Anna and Mario, Rosanna’s parents; Maria, Mario’s sister; Maria’s husband, also named Mario; Paulo, brother-in-law to Anna; and Adelita, Anna’s sister.  Dino, a local handyman, was also there for a few days.

This is very much a family operation and very different than our experience before.  The family has over 1,300 trees. They also make their own wine and honey.  The process for harvesting olives was similar to what we had done with Lauro, but on a much grander scale.  The nets are huge, 20’-50’ long, and since the groves are terraced, laying them out properly so that no olives are lost is a lot of work.              

There are usually 2 people working simultaneously on a tree - one on the ground and the other on a ladder getting the higher branches.  Anna also uses the mechanized rake to reach the higher branches - that thing is heavy!  It’s hard to believe she uses it all day long without breaking a sweat.

Anna and her mechanical rake
 Because it is necessary to harvest the olives when they are dry the family has been taking advantage of the unusually sunny weather we’ve been having.  They have been working 7 days a week for nine hours a day since the end of October.  They take about an hour’s break for lunch (which, by the way the women have taken the time to prepare in advance, presumably the evening before – when DO they sleep?!?).  They will do this for 30+ days straight.  We were exhausted after working for 7½ days (we were there for two consecutive 4-day weekends).  We can’t imagine how tired they must be.  Oh yeah, Mario is 75 with emphysema.  Anna, Maria and Adelita are probably in their late 60s, and Paulo is in his 50s. These are no spring chickens.

One of the highlights of this whole experience was lunch, not just for the food but for the whole quintessential Italian experience.  Around 12:30 everyone headed back to the house and sat around a table outside in the courtyard.  There were jugs of olive oil and huge bottles of wine, which Mario brought out from his cantina in the garage.  We all sat together for a meal that always began with pasta followed by some kind of meat, usually pork, salami or pancetta, along with copious amounts of bread. The bread however was a merely a vehicle for consuming olive oil and salt.  None of us could get enough of it!  After the meal we each got a cup of espresso.  This was just the thing to kick us into gear for the afternoon’s work.  Though she is not a coffee drinker, Gabriella grew quite fond of this ritual, and eagerly anticipated her daily shot of espresso.

Mario presides over lunch
The main house and lunch table

Courtyard where lunch is served

Every night we had dinner together with Rosanna, her 4 year old son, and the other volunteers.  The other members of the family don’t actually live on the property – they’re probably sick and tired of it by now and are quite happy to retreat to their homes just a few kilometers away.  Rosanna, or her mother, or one of her aunts, always provided the meals.  Everything was delicious and there were several dishes that we especially liked.  As we try them out at home we’ll post the recipes here.

The bigger highlight of our time at Il Bellini, though, was the connection we made with the family. 
Anna and Rosanna immediately took to Gabriella and both formed a strong bond with her. Meanwhile Henry and Mario, the Babbo (the term for Dad in Tuscany), became very attached.  When we left after our second visit, Anna invited us to come back for a Sunday lunch, which basically means we’re part of the family now.  

The richness of our experience at Il Bellini is something we hoped we would have during our time in Italy, but didn’t really count on happening.  If all this has taken place in our first few weeks here, who knows what else will happen.  We feel immensely grateful, and we’ve already started thinking about making annual trips to come visit our new friends every year, just in time for the harvest.


  1. I love hearing about your adventures. We aren't surprised that you are making new friends. You are both such lovely people. We hope we can make it to Italy before you have to return!

  2. Hi Henry and Gabriella,

    Grazie per le notizie dall 'Italia! Tutti qui nella piovosa Seattle è geloso ...

    Zak forwarded the address to your Italy blog today, so I'm happy to see that I'm number 2 in your comments sections. Thanks for the photos and first person accounts of food, scenery, restaurants, festivals, etc.

    Buon Natale e tanti auguri!

    Bruce Wolcott