‘Tis the season to be harvesting olives. All around us the hills are festooned with colorful nets, principally orange and yellow. They are wrapped around the trees and are attached one to the next making the steep terraces look like a brightly colored slopes. The olives drop into pockets in the low parts of the nets, whence they are easily collected.
Our friends T and J have 51 trees which have been beautifully pruned and cared for. They do not use nets, but instead hand-pick the olives, which is easy to do with their trees, none of which is much taller than we are. The pruned and umbrella-shaped trees are much more productive than trees which are ‘let go.’
Our trees are in the latter category, very much in need of a pruning, which they will receive this winter. They had been untended for at least 20 years when we bought our place. Just after we moved in a friend sent a friend over who pruned some of the trees, but none of them very dramatically, and we’ve done nothing about it since. This means the trees are huge.
We use a system that falls somewhere between the Old-Timers’ and T and J’s. We have one net, which we carry from tree to tree (we have only about 15 trees). Then we spend a very long time positioning poles to hold the net in place and form a bowl under the tree we’re working on. There’s usually a fair amount of good-natured discussion about the placement of the poles, but eventually the net is positioned in a more or less stable way. Then the Captain takes a long, thick bamboo stick and whacks the trees to make the fruit fall. This is a time-honored way of removing fruit, but it’s fallen out of favor with modern olive-culturists. The preferred method for removing fruit these days is the olive rake, a plastic rake with tines spaced just less than the average olive. You attach the rake to the weapon of your choice (bamboo stick for us, this year as in photo) and comb out the branches. The tines pull the olives off and send them spraying all over the place. With luck a large percentage of them end up in the net. The Captain alternates whacking with a stout stick and whacking with the rake on a long pole. Meanwhile I use a rake on a small pole and wander around looking for low branches to strip. I’m also crazy about finding olives on the ground and putting them in my basket – treasures!
This year the weather has not co-operated with many Ligurian harvesters. We’ve had heavy rains and very strong winds, the heaviest since the great storm of 2000. A lot of olives have come down, and the weather for several days was just too nasty for gathering those that are still on trees. Those who got their nets up in a timely fashion are doing very well (it’s a stand-out olive year). Those who waited will have lost a lot of the crop unless, like me, they like to creep around on their hands and knees under the trees – not an efficient way to gather.
Once the olives are collected it’s good to get them to the mill, the ‘frantoio’, within three days. Our favorite frantoio over the mountain in Val Fontanabuona went out of business while we weren’t looking last year (there was no olive harvest for anyone in Liguria last year – no olives). So instead yesterday we went to a different mill here in Rapallo. Stay tuned for the report. In past years we’ve gotten a liter of oil for each 7 or 8 kg of olives. We had 111 kg this year (we also didn’t get all of our fruit picked before the weather turned on us).
If you’re really interested in olives, Mort Rosenblum has written a delightful book called ‘Olives’ and subtitled “The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit,” which is stuffed with history, culture and even some recipes. If you enjoy Life-in-Italy tales, Extra Virgin by the Englishwoman Annie Hawes is an engaging account of her purchase of a rustico and grove of olive trees above Imperia some twenty years ago; she writes appealingly and amusingly of her neighbors and of the land itself.