We’re Thankful for Olives
Thanksgiving in Martina Franca came and went quickly. Since Americans are pretty thin on the ground here, it was just another day for our Italian friends and neighbors. For us, though, it was a little strange to experience a holiday that no one else is celebrating. The positive aspects? No waiting at the butcher shop to claim our turkey, food vendors were open for business all day long and there was a marked absence of football (the American kind). Okay, maybe that’s not a positive for everyone but it worked for us. We celebrated with Italian and American friends with all the usual Thanksgiving accompaniments, but we drew the line at candied yams and marshmallow fluff. Our minds, though, were firmly focused on the overarching seasonal business at hand here—the olive harvest.
Now that we have selected the organic extra virgin olive oil we will import in our new business under the Pascarosa label, we’ve started to harvest olives. In the process, we’ve learned that harvesting is not a single event in Italy. Instead, the raccolta or harvest typically begins in late October to early November, continuing right through to Christmas and into the next year. All kinds of variables come into play: olive cultivars, grove location, weather, anticipated size of the harvest and the flavors each farmer wants to emphasize in the resulting oil. Early harvesting is desirable for increased antioxidant levels, but oil yields are considerably lower. Weather plays a big role, too, since olive harvesting here is extremely labor intensive. We’re learning this the hard way, with all the sore muscles and olive-stained hands to prove it. And as our American friend Tom can attest, visiting guests are more than welcome to join in.
We lucked out on day one. We had glorious, sunny skies, expert harvest tutors and really great tools. We were introduced to lo scuotitore, a long tube with two oscillating, hand-like combs made of rubber. You fire up the scuotitore, or shaker, with a gas-powered compressor, then reach for the highest olive tree limbs possible, gently combing the branches to shake the olives loose. They rain down onto the huge green nets you have cleverly spread underneath the tree, gathering in gratifying little clumps of olives, leaves and twigs.
Our harvest tutors, Davide and Domenico Argentieri and Katia Grilleti, were incredibly patient as we moved from awkward observers to enthusiastic, if really, really green participants. Helpful advice was freely dispensed—don’t step on the olives as you move around the base of tree shaking away with your scuotitore, don’t grab the branches too vigorously and caress—don’t stir—the olives to remove unwanted debris. When watching us stumble around got to be too much for Davide’s father, Domenico, he would disappear for a few minutes to hunt mushrooms in the secret spots on his property, returning minutes later with an impressive bounty.
Daylight is precious at this time of year, so although we stopped to enjoy an absolutely amazing lunch all’aperto, we were back at it, scuotitori in hand, to finish just a few more trees before the sun descended for good. Friends who dropped by for dessert were pressed into service—Sunday best attire with heels notwithstanding. Then it was off to the frantoio to weigh and press the olives, sneaking glances at everyone else’s raccolta to see if we measured up.
The harvest will continue for months and we’ll be out in the grove every step of the way. But today we learned that extra virgin olive oil is all about human engagement. From planting and pruning the trees, gathering and cleaning the olives with friends and family to chatting with neighbors at the olive mill, the very best extra virgin olive oil is derived from nature and infused with the hopes and dreams of the people who made it. Year after year, century after century, very little has changed about the essential elements of the raccolta. As we launch Pascarosa, these are the values we aim to respect.