We’re getting ready for the olive harvest, but I’m still reeling from our previous harvest effort just a few weeks ago. While having dinner at a neighbor’s house, we found ourselves offering to help with their vendemmia, which was exploding all around us. So that’s what we did one morning in early October and it was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I’m still recovering.
Due to a spate of hot, dry September weather, conventional wisdom pegged harvest to begin around the 21st of September or so, but the process can linger on as families club together by picking grapes at one another’s campagne (country properties). We turned up as promised at the appointed hour, meeting our neighbor, Tonino, and his wife, Anna, at their house almost at first light and heading out to one of his vineyards together. When we got there, the crew was already assembled. Various cousins, brothers and sisters-in-law, aunts and uncles were massing in a charming little vineyard down a bumpy, stone wall-lined track, grape clippers in hand and kerchiefs on heads. A tractor with a huge bin stood by at the ready to transport our yield to the nearby wine cooperative. Introductions were made, buckets and clippers were distributed and we were in business.
There wasn’t much training; this was a total immersion experience. We found ourselves paired with seasoned veterans, probably to reduce the error factor, then we got to work with what was the first of about 5,000 deep squats I completed that day. We grasped bunch after bunch of juicy white grapes, feeling through the leaves for their point of attachment to the vines. Our buckets filled quickly, and just as quickly were emptied into larger black plastic tubs with handles called tine. Every so often, one of the men would shoulder a tina and haul it to the bin, heaving the grapes into the growing pile on the tractor.
We finished a row flushed with the boundless enthusiasm of the neophyte. The vineyard was relatively small, there were about twelve or more of us, the sun was shining and we were having a lot of fun. We could do this all day! Our fellow harvesters were incredibly entertaining, holding forth mostly about food (What was for lunch?), the finer points of making pepper relish (What? Of course you have to add a hot pepper or two in with the sweet red peppers!) and who had a bigger pancia or stomach. And that was just the men. All of the chatter—and there was a lot of chatter—was conducted in Cistranese, the local Cisternino dialect, so I felt incredibly gratified that I followed the conversational thread at all. As the sun rose and our rows of vines seemed to grow longer, we focused on the task at hand and turned our thoughts pleasantly to lunch, which we understood would be substantial.
In no time at all, we were finished. The vineyard was fully harvested. The tractor was fired up and driven away to the winery. This vendemmia thing is a piece of cake, we agreed. In that moment, things became quite a bit more intense. It turns out we had only just gotten started. There was another entire vineyard to harvest, which is where we all went, piling into our
Fiat Pandas, Puntos and the ubiquitous three-wheeled, motorcycle-engined vehicles called apes.
Our hearts sunk when we arrived at the new vineyard, a vast expanse of acres of 100-year-old vines, low to the ground with infrequent bunches of grapes twisted around the few wire trellises that held the entire affair together. We began as before, clumped together in a convivial little group, although this time, my thighs were starting to protest and the first of the sharp, needle-like spasms in my shoulder blades made themselves known. Yet our harvest companions were just getting warmed up.
Have I said that the median age of our merry group was about 70? As they became a little less restrained in our presence, we learned that they had been harvesting grapes together since they were about ten years old. The jokes, songs and rhymes started to flow, each slightly more outrageous than the one before, with a helpful interpreter who would translate dialect into Italian so I didn’t miss a beat. Then I’d transmit the highlights in English to Brian, racing to keep up before the punchlines, when everyone dissolved into wild cackling.
And then, when I was sure that the last squat would leave me immobile on the ground, unable to lift my clipper-filled hand, it was time for lunch. I rallied as we
made our way to a stone hut in the middle of the vineyard, where Anna, Tonino’s wife and a few of her friends had prepared a classic vendemmia lunch. My hands were black with dirt and so sticky that I had to peel my clippers out of them, but we all washed in a few water buckets that had been filled by lowering them deep into the cistern beneath the stone hut. We sank gratefully into chairs gathered around a cloth-covered table and tucked into our pasta.
If we were having fun out in the vineyard, the fun really started at lunch as last year’s cold Verdeca, Bianco d’Alessano and Fiano white wine blend was poured. Anna, who had harvested at least as much as any of us that morning (and far, far more than me) remained on her feet, serving us plate after plate of Pugliese specialties from pasta al ragù to roasted meats to preserved eggplant, peppers and more. Raw cocomeri (a Pugliese oddity that is a cross between a cucumber and a melon), carrots, fennel and chicory provided a fresh interlude between the courses, then cheeses, cured meats and friselle (crunchy, twice-baked bread rounds dipped in tomatoes and olive oil) followed. We all reveled in the camaraderie, not to mention the respite from the heavy grape bins and all that squatting. After our espresso—yes, in the middle of the vineyard without a stove or running water, we all enjoyed a post-prandial espresso—we faced the inevitable return to the vineyard. And it was so very much more painful than I can begin to describe.
And so it went for another four or more hours. Row after row, bin after bin, joke after joke, we inched down the vines. I succeeded in tipping over my bin, cutting the flesh of my palm and missing the odd bunch or two hidden from view by some especially large grape leaves. No matter. Our helpful teammates cheerfully—and loudly for the amusement of the group—pointed out our transgressions. No grape was too small to waste, so we chased every runaway, sometimes on hands and knees. That’s when I started hissing at Brian. “I might die here. I can’t move my legs. There is a hatchet between my shoulder blades. We’ve got to stop RIGHT NOW.”
Mercifully, while just on the verge of making a supremely brutta figura (show of bad form) and announcing that I was done for the day, Tonino let us know that we had finished. I almost wept. I would have wept, but I was too tired to summon up the energy. We stumbled to our car, but not before helping Anna load up the lunch detritus and tidy the stone shelter. Then we drove home, only to suffer real doubt about our ability to climb the stairs to our home in our severely weakened condition. As we lay prone on the floor—too much energy required to actually sit in a chair—we wondered if we might actually not survive our day at the vendemmia. Dinner was takeout roasted chicken and a great deal of wine, strictly for medicinal purposes. We were in bed shortly thereafter, too sore to speak.
Brian, champion that he is, was back at it the next day with the team, finishing off the vineyard and feasting once more. I could barely get out of bed. Anna telephoned to make sure I was still alive, confirming my dilettante status. She couldn’t have been kinder, saying that I just wasn’t used to the work like they were. Indeed.
So it is with some trepidation that we face the olive harvest. Although we harvested last year, our yield this year is quite a bit greater. We’re also facing a weather window that makes it pretty important to finish all of our picking within a week or so. The good news? While picking, there’s no squatting. But if I get assigned to net management again this year, all bets are off. Nets require a great deal of bending at the waist while lifting, spreading and gathering heavy 16 by 32 foot swathes of cloth, carefully tipping fallen olives into small ventilated boxes for transport to the mill. But there’s always the lunch break . . . .