It seems that there is more than one way to harvest olives in Italy. Today we spent the morning picking the last olives that will become the 2012 Pascarosa Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil and we were tutored by the best. In the process, we learned that our Sunday harvest idyll last week helping friends with their olives was just dabbling. Today’s harvest was the real thing.
Fresh from our maiden voyage last Sunday, we were far better prepared. Appropriately armed with rubber boots, gloves and the hubris born of one previous harvest experience, we assembled at the frantoio (olive mill) and headed out to the grove to meet the rest of the crew. Orazio Sisto, the frantoiano (miller), has worked with this team for decades and it showed. Unlike us, this was clearly not their first time at the rodeo. In a mix of local dialect, Italian and a few English words for emphasis, we were deployed where we could do the least damage. For me, this meant intensive net spreading.
Before picking can begin, the soil beneath each tree must be carefully covered with huge nets. It seems simple enough: just spread them out and avoid tripping as you tuck the net tightly around the trunk of each tree. Yet every movement is carefully calibrated to speed the process while retaining every lost olive that eventually falls from each tree when pickers descend upon it. In a complicated system of spreading and layering, I found myself working closely with Teresa Sisto, the frantoiano’s wife, spreading, then gathering each net to transfer our olive bounty to the plastic bins that are hauled manually to the waiting ape. If you’re working to capacity, you never really stop spreading, gathering, removing stems and leaves and dumping. So that’s what we did. For hours. Until we had denuded 90 trees before lunch.
Brian was deemed effective enough to wield a long, smooth stick to loosen the olives that remained in the tree after lo scuotitore, the gas-powered shaking tool, did its worst. As the olives rained down into the waiting nets, his team moved from tree to tree and we followed along behind them. Even Tom, our American guest who now lives further north in Umbria, was obliged to earn his keep by pitching in. It seems that Tom’s years of sailing were an unlikely advantage. Who knew he would come to dominate by demonstrating serious olive net-folding skills refined from years of managing unwieldy sailboat sails? He also grabbed a few minutes to take some great photos, which are shared here.
Meanwhile, the team advanced methodically through the grove like a force of nature. Composed of friends and relatives along with paid helpers, they worked with the ease and amazingly good humor born of many such harvests. Their economy of movement ensured a constant pace throughout the day. We, on the other hand, came on strong at the start and were gasping for air by midday. Our noontime panino break couldn’t have come at a better time.
When we heaved the last bin into the truck and folded the last 20 by 40 foot net, we trooped back to the frantoio to begin the milling process. From the first olive picked to the last grind of the granite wheel, no more than five hours had elapsed. For us, time took on a completely different aspect, though. Our heads were spinning as struggled to learn new skills, decipher dialect and render ourselves useful, our bodies working overtime to keep up with it all.
After today’s effort, we know that every olive is precious here. Hand-harvested, cold-extracted olive oil represents a deep commitment to the preservation of a way of life endangered by cheap olive oil imitations that flood the market everywhere. Just watch the olive harvest here, step into a frantoio and see the just-pressed oil drip into the waiting stainless steel fustino. In that moment, it’s confirmed. You’ve never tasted the real thing before.