My partner and I were on our way to Bellaspetto in Tuscany, Italy where Oliver, a retired English Doctor, had planted about half of the 200 odd trees for his small olive oil business run from the farm. Sadly, Oliver had died several years ago, and as I text my friends and family that I was off to pick his olives, the predict setting on my mobile phone preferred the word Oliver, making me smile. He became very present during the time we were there, pleased that we were involved and keeping a watchful eye on the proceedings.
Around the beginning of November it is olive picking session in Tuscany. The trees in the groves are laden down with green and black olives, which have grown by absorbed the sunshine of the Italian summer and the early autumn rain. The green olives are the unripe fruit and black fully ripened, with the flavours of the green and black varying. For a good quality Tuscan olive oil you need a blend of both, in addition to a mix of four local varieties of olives.
Olive picking is very labour intensive, once the dew has dried in the morning an individual tree has a net laid down for the olives to fall on to. The lower branches are picked from the ground and then ladders brought in for the more difficult to reach. Each tree has its own individuality and sometimes climbing the trees to the topmost, thinnest branches is more efficient, and a fun picking technique. This tree hopping brought to mind, the scene of jumping through the bamboo in the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (Crouching Panda, Hidden Olive!). With this repetitive process you can see that the mind can wander into realms of its imagination.
The olives are picked by hand or with a small hand held rake to sweep down the branches, causing the olives to fall onto the net. Sometimes the olives are satisfyingly clustered on the branches and a whole little heap can be pulled off in one sweep, at other times it is painstaking as each olive is individually plucked. Once the whole tree has been picked the net is lifted from one side to roll the olives into a pile, which is then transferred into a crate. The process is then repeated with the next tree.
In the evening our hands and arms were dry, rough and a little scratched and of course the best antidote to the condition proved to be a couple of applications of last years deeply nourishing Bellaspetto olive oil, leaving our hands smooth and plump again; like curing like. This made me realise that olive oil was such an important ingredient in a thick hand cream and that I really wanted to make a big batch once the oil was extracted.
Over a week and a half the trees were slowly picked, with the help of family and local people and large lunches of soup, bread, cheese and salad with evenings of socialising and drinking the ruby red Chianti, the local Tuscan wine. The continued practice of small-scale olive farming still honours the traditions and the people that have lived and worked in that beautiful land. With the empty trees brought the quality of a released burden, the yearly cycle being completed brought a sense of quiet and rest into the misty groves.
The olives are stored in the workshop to wait a time to be crushed in a local cooperative mill. If there are over 100 kilograms of olives the mill processes the oil as an individual batch and you can watch as the olives turn to golden green oil, satisfyingly wholesome, deliciously fresh and spicy ready to use and to store for the coming year.