In France and Italy, olive season is coming to a close. It usually begins in October and runs through November. In some parts of Tuscany though, it can begin as early as September. It all depends on the weather and conditions of the season.
I think I have read too many books and seen too many movies about olives. I conjure up all these images and fantasies about olives, olive oil, olive trees and the like. I guess I am just O-O, olive obsessed! I love the knotted, gnarled tree trunks, the graceful branches, the shimmery silvery grayish-greenish leaves, that remind me of sage; the fat, plump fruit that is just bursting with golden, nutty, juicy nectar.
For some reason I have this burning desire to be part of the harvesting process. There is nothing I would like better than to be driving through the Tuscan hills of Italy or Provence in the south of France and happen upon rows and rows of beautiful terraced olive trees propping up wooden ladders, with miles of netting strewn about below catching the ripe fruit. I would gladly swerve my car to the side of the road, run up to the grove and excitedly offer my inexperienced help! I am sure at this point, the local police would be summoned to remove the crazy American from their land and I would be carted away quicker than a rancid olive, mixed in with the otherwise perfect bunch.
If I was lucky enough to find an agriturismo to stay in during my next visit, I could become a farmer for a week and stay with a family in their home. Never-mind the image of me in my overalls or the scratches, bruises and blisters that would cover my body. I imagine sitting down at a large communal table after a hard days work and eating dinner with my fellow olive pickers, my family. Our meal would consist of a hearty helping of country bread, drizzled with the freshly pressed oil, right from the mill that day! I wonder, would the flavor be grassy, nutty, peppery or lemony? And would they give me bottles of it to take home at the end of my stay (provided I left, of course) to share with my own friends and family? Oh, if only *sigh*.
There is a mystery to this olive harvesting. Everyone has a different spin on it. Call it superstition, or years of local tradition passed from generation to generation. Lets take the picking itself. Some encourage the use your hands to pick, like milking a cow. Others will swat you off your ladder sending you crashing to the ground, which would be followed by a tongue lashing of historic proportion if they saw you even touch the olive. Instead, a bamboo pole is used to beat the branches until the ripe olives fall from the tree and tumble onto the netting, which is placed on the ground under the olives to act as a barrier and a collection tool. Many feel that an olive that touches the ground is, well, spoiled. How is one to know what is best?
The other thing everyone agrees on is timing. Timing of the picking and the pressing. You have to wait for just the right moment to pick. To soon and the olive doesn’t yield enough oil, to late and the oil will be bitter and not a good flavor. Don’t pick in the rain or when there is dew or there will be too much moisture in the oil. Remember, that saying oil and water don’t mix? I knew I would need that info someday! Don’t get me started on the color of the olive. Thats a whole other set of rules!
The olives must be pressed as soon after they are picked as possible, to avoid mildew and for the best taste. Often this means driving crates of them straight to the mill the same day, to have them pressed. If you are lucky enough to have the required kilos of your own olives, you will have pure oil that is only from your trees. If you have less, yours will be combined with others that are below the minimum, and you will have community oil to share! There are so many different kinds of pressing, but the best remains first cold pressing. It is the first pressing, with no heat, which breaks down the delicate flavors. It is the purest, best tasting, most sought after and therefore…most expensive oil.
Maybe it is the history of these trees that fascinates me. One of the oldest trees, called the Olivier Millenaire, is in Roquebrune, France. It is over 1000 years old. To stand there in the grace of that beauty and history and wonder, how many hands have touched that tree? How many olives have weighted down its branches? What did the oil taste of and how many thousands of kilos has it produced? How many have taken care to prune it and tend the fruit it would bare? Who were those special gardeners and what was their preferred method? I would stand in awe.
So, if you live in olive country in France or Italy and are out in your olive grove, minding your own business, and are startled at the sight of a lunatic women, running full bore, arms flailing, yelling something that resembles, " I want to pick your olives"…well, um, it will be me. And please, I beg of you, do not call the local authorities or you will be crushing a girls hopes and dreams. And we don’t want that now do we?
Photo courtesy of Beyond Provence