In our area, northern Lazio, busy season is October into November. The weather is cooling off as we head into autumn and there’s satisfaction to be had from the last burst of hard work for the year.
If you’re planning a trip to Italy, or anywhere in the Mediterranean for that matter, olive harvest is a prime time to be here. So – heads up: October / November. Get your butts into an agriturismo and have an Italian experience you’ll never forget.
Olives: Ancient Doesn’t get any Better Than This
Raccogliere: to Harvest or Gather. A smooth word for one of the most back-breaking but soul-satisfying things you might ever do. The strange thing is – if you’re anything like me – you’ll want to do it all over again as soon as you’ve recovered.
Olive harvesting owns a magic other forms of hard work lack. Maybe it’s the romance of becoming, all too briefly, part of the seven thousand year-old saga that is man’s relationship with olive trees.
According to some sources, the Phoenicians introduced olive trees and their produce to the people of the Mediterranean in 3500 BC. Greek Mythology attributes the arrival of olive trees in Greece to a showdown between Poseidon and Athena. Zeus had decreed that Athens be given to one or the other. The people got to decide, based on what each had to offer.
In the end it was a no-brainer: Poseidon offered a large salt-water spring; Athena offered the olive tree. Endless supply of brackish water versus trees producing oil, food and firewood: Athena took it – hands down.
Harvesting – The Nuts and Bolts
There’s just something about gathering the thousands of tiny fruit which become a torrent that eventually ends up in a crusher to yield the amazing, golden-green, spicy oil so cherished by mankind.
It would be nice to say harvesting methods have evolved over the millennia; they haven’t. Well not much.
The average small farmer will harvest olives the old-fashioned way, pulling the fruit off the trees with small olive rakes or combs. These are either hand-held or mounted on sticks for better reach.
Check out the pics to spot the difference. One is from an ancient Greek amphora. The other is yet to make it onto any sort of vase.
Mechanisation has happened. Advanced methods of gathering and sorting are available, but money is always a factor. Mechanical clappers speed things up tremendously and the really big commercial outfits have tree shaking kit. But still, a huge portion of the harvesting is done by hand.
The average family-owned grove usually has between twenty and a hundred trees, often more. Lots of help from friends and relatives makes up for a lack of technology.
People time their harvest to suit their needs. Early harvest: richer oil, but not as many litres. Later harvest: more oil but not quite so much character.
When the day of the harvest dawns, helpers gather from all corners of the country. We’ve met people from Venice, Genoa and Rome; all taking a break to help out.
Harvest time presents a wonderful opportunity to hook up with long-lost friends and family and spend a few days in the country. School friends, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents all weigh in to make the process as quick as possible.
For the week we harvested our small grove and moved on to help with others, friends brought friends who came from villages several hours drive away. The harvest is a mammoth physical job made light by a spirit of energy and enthusiasm that is awesome to be a part of.
As soon as it’s sure the day will be sunny, the attack begins. Nets are laid under the first trees, empty crates readied and the task of raking and coaxing every single olive from each tree begins.
It’s a detailed and seemingly never-ending job, but one develops an obsessive need to nail every last olive.
At the end of the day, there is an intense satisfaction in seeing the full crates lined up ready for the frantoia – the olive mill.
The mills or frantoias are, for the most part, highly mechanised, modern facilities. That being said, many offer a choice between the new, super-efficient extraction method and the old stone wheel mills which still use the centuries-old methods for a traditional pressing.
Arriving at the frantoia puts you into a queue of vehicles comprising intrepid Apes, trucks, vans, tractor drawn trailers and the occasional family car all bulging with their owner’s harvest.
Each load is weighed in, dumped into a hopper, allocated a press and processed.
At the start, leaves and sticks are blown out of the mix before the fruit is crushed and centrifuged. As much water and sediment as possible is extracted and bang: the real deal, first cold pressing, extra virgin olive oil comes pouring out.
The liquid gold people pay a fortune for around the world.
For the people, it’s a time of easy socialising, meeting up with old friends and comparing growing, pruning and harvesting methods. It’s a wonderful, relaxed feeling.
Like the end of any saga, it’s a time to chat about what the year did to your olive trees: The heat making for extra spice in the oil; the hail storm that took out twenty five percent of your nascent olives all those months ago. There’s agony and ecstasy to be had at every frantoia the length and breadth of Italy.
The Final Act
Back home, a party is in the offing.
When the oil arrives, a celebration of a job well done is a must. The oil has to be sampled by those who helped with the gathering.
Bruschetta, lightly toasted pane senza sale (Italian bread without salt) is produced at a dizzying rate, wine is poured and a can of the new oil is cracked open.
As the toast comes off the fire, or out of the toaster, olive oil is applied and the verdict is seconds away. The discussion on how the oil will mature rages until the next round of bruschetta is ready and then the party is on.
With the harvest properly saluted, the process is at an end for another year.
Post-Harvest Anxiety Syndrome
There is always a hole in your heart when the harvest is done.
It’s a bitter sweet yearning for the rush of seeing how many crates your team fills up and how many litres of oil comes out the other end, balanced by the need to never really work that hard again – if you can help it.
The net result: you can’t wait for next year and the chance to do it all over again.
Come and Get the Experience First-hand
Here is what I would suggest for first time visitors to Italy (and repeat offenders).
Find out when the harvest happens in your region of choice and then time your trip accordingly. Try for a four to five week stay. Longer is always better where Italy’s concerned.
Spend the first two weeks seeing the sights: Rome, Florence, the Chianti region – whatever your Italy magnet dictates. Do the tourist traps and then drop off the radar.
For two or three weeks, come and experience the Italy tourists never get to see; the Italy that happens in the towns and villages; the Italy that you only get to see in the local piazzas, market places, country lanes and most importantly, olive groves at harvest time. Beyond the tourist maelstrom, you get to meet Italians without their tourist radars in the “On” position.
Once you’ve worked side by side with a family through an olive harvest, you will never want to go home again. There will forever be an empty place in your soul only this amazing country can fill – no matter how many gallons of olive oil you consume when you get home.
So get planning.
Search “olive harvest holidays”.
Get here – you will never regret it!