Now we understand why our Pugliese neighbors don’t start harvesting their olives until the end of October at the very earliest. They need at least that long to recover from the rigor of la vendemmia, the grape harvest, which wraps up by the first of the month. You might think that olive ripeness has something to do with it, but we’re learning that olives are considerably less finicky than wine grapes and are reasonably happy to hang out on their trees, basking in the late autumn sun. When the raccolta (olive harvest) begins is subject to an array of factors, some more obscure than others. So much to learn . . . .
Like all agricultural endeavors, weather plays a huge role in setting the olive harvest date. But this is just the beginning of the discussion. If it’s been a wet spring but an especially dry summer and fall like this year, the olives might have started developing beautifully but have built up a healthy thirst. The resulting olives might be small, with less oil to yield at press time. And strong winds can serve to knock them off their branches, which means they’ll have to be collected within 24 hours and taken to the olive mill to avoid acidity development in the oil.
But harvesting early also brings its own series of issues. Olives picked especially early by hand are less likely to separate easily from their branches, making harvesting a time-consuming, tedious operation. When olives are slightly immature at harvest, they release less oil in the milling process. For producers who are concerned about bringing oil to market at a low price point, the resa or yield is the preeminent issue. These producers will almost always harvest late, letting the olives drop onto nets and collecting all of them at the end of the harvest season in February. Early harvest oil is likely to have higher antioxidant levels—a good thing—along with a pronounced pizzica, the slight burn at the back of the throat that alerts you to the presence of healthy polyphenols. These antioxidants also help preserve the oil longer, keeping it fresh and deeply flavorful for a longer period of time if you can manage to hang on to it that long.
So after a few weeks getting our harvest gear together after the vendemmia, we set out for our olive grove in mid-October, nets, crates and olive rakes in hand. We’ve had a southerly wind here recently, so the red earth, now covered in a fine new growth of volunteer wheat and field greens, was damp with a humid dew brought by strong winds from Africa that collect moisture as they cross the sea to us. Without a well-developed strategy in mind, we selected the most promising tree, a huge ogliarola cultivar more than 25 feet tall dripping with just barely ripe olives. Spreading our nets carefully beneath, we reached our rakes high up into the branches. The harvest had begun.
Olives rained down around us, making it challenging to maneuver around them as we worked our way through the branches. Soon I abandoned the rake and used my hands, since the olives were just a little reluctant to spring forth. We stripped the branches much like the way you might comb very long, very matted hair. And little by little, our nets were dotted with green and black olives along with a startling amount of leaves, twigs and branches.
Once we had picked the limit of what we could reach, we stood on opposite sides of the 16 by 32 foot olive nets and gently nudged the olives toward the center, taking care not to lose even one. Then the real fun began. To ensure that the resulting oil is as low as possible in acidity, it’s advisable to remove as much dry and dead wood from the collected olives as possible. Leaves don’t present much of a problem—they add a powerful antioxidant component along with a green, grassy element—but dry wood can impact flavor and longevity. If your olive trees haven’t been pruned recently (ahem . . .), more time is spent culling the olives than picking them.
After what seemed like a very, very long time, we had collected one cassette, or about 23 kilos of olives. About four and a half of these are needed for a minimum olive oil processing cycle on the linea continua or continuous line. And three times this amount is the minimum accepted on most traditional stone presses. Since olives must be processed within 24-48 hours of picking for the very best extra virgin olive oil, the pressure begins the moment you pull the first olive from the tree. If you have only two harvesters, what might be a lovely, leisurely activity becomes a race against time to meet the required quota.
It didn’t take long to figure out that reinforcements were necessary. But all of our friends were harvesting, too, so extra pairs of hands were in short supply. A friend took pity and loaned us his scuotitore, a hand-held, Italian-designed implement powered by gas or electricity that extends high into the olive tree’s branches to comb them with two opposing, finger-like attachments. After charging up its battery and resuming the picking process, we felt like we had leapt into the modern world. Olives rained down around us to the nets below like particularly heavy hail pellets, invariably finding our eyes, ears and open shirtfronts. Happily, our yield increased exponentially and we rolled up to the olive mill in our friends’ motocarro with a respectable raccolta before we set off for Saturday lunch with their relatives.
Just like wine, though, I’ll never look at top quality extra virgin olive oil in quite the same way after working through our grove harvesting olives for weeks straight. It takes about 220 pounds of olives to make between 12 and 14 liters of olive oil. And it takes two people, picking by hand, about two days to gather that many olives. Modern hand-harvesting techniques speed the process up considerably without sacrificing flavor and acidity, but the yield is still incredibly low for the effort required. And although we returned home each night with lovely, soft hands from constant contact with olive skins, it was all we could do to feed ourselves and drop into bed before we woke up at dawn and did it again (and again and again).
The next time you see a bottle of extra virgin olive oil selling for $5.99 on a supermarket shelf, be very, very suspicious about its origin. That olive oil, if it even contains olive oil, was undoubtedly made from the second pressing of olive pulp, chemically treated to remove acidity and mixed with a very small ratio of real extra virgin olive oil to escape detection in testing. It may also be altered with flavor additives to fool you into thinking it’s the real thing. This oil doesn’t have any healthy polyphenols left, let alone the intoxicating aroma and rich, olive flavor that bona fide extra virgin olive oil should have. It’s been reduced to little more than a lubricant.
Buy your olive from a trusted supplier, ask to see a chemical analysis and trust your nose and your palate. Real extra virgin olive oil should never smell or taste rancid or old. It should have a fruity aroma, often with notes of artichokes, newly cut grass, green apples and almonds. When you drizzle the oil on a bowl of hot soup or a toasted piece of country bread, its flavor and aroma should fairly burst forth, filling your sense with a lush, heavenly scent. So that’s why we keep going out to the olive grove each morning. It’s the promise of that indescribable moment with the new oil drips off the linea continua into the waiting container, its iridescent green viscosity enveloping our senses, that makes us forget all about our aching limbs, sun-burned faces and utter exhaustion. And it’s the pride that comes with doing it right, every step of the way, that makes it worth the effort.