There is something surprisingly modest about olive trees, given their noble history and legendary reputation, going back far before biblical times. For an American, the first time you meet the tree in person, you may well be shocked by the extraordinary ordinariness of it. Its shape and proportions are remarkably reminiscent of a dowdy, good-natured housewife – the kind who greets you in a tattered apron, with a disarming smile. Quite often, there is nothing particularly breathtaking or impressive about the tree’s height or girth; nothing striking or exotic about its leaves or fragrance. And if you ever get a chance to climb one to pick its fruit – which is remarkably easy to do, given how short and accommodating the younger trees are – the feeling will no doubt remind you of climbing into the lap of a favorite old aunt, the one who’d benignly allow you to yank at her necklace without a hint of protest or resistance.
But for an Italian, as for most Mediterranean people, the olive tree has been seen throughout history as almost holy – a symbol of peace, victory, and the endurance of life itself – evoking feelings of bonhomie, vitality, and health. The ancient trees grow in wondrous, tangled ways, with trunks resembling characters in fairy tales. The olive tree is one of the heartiest of all trees on the planet: able to survive salt water, adapting itself to almost any sunny and temperate environment, able to thrive in most soils, retaining its leaves year round, and living in some cases more than a thousand years, occasionally bearing fruit for centuries. In Greek mythology, Zeus pronounced Athena the victor in a competition because it was she who had bestowed upon mankind the most useful plant of all: the olive tree. These ancient trees, which originated in the region that is today called Turkey, have had a huge impact on all the important civilizations of the Mediterranean for at least 4000 years – providing food, medicinal potions, and the most nourishing of oils. Today there are 500 different “cultivars” or varieties of olives. Italy is the world’s second largest producer of extra virgin olive oil, with 35 different geographical denominations recognized by the European Union. In terms of quality, Italy is considered the world leader.
Like Italy’s beloved wine grapes, olives do not go well with mechanization. It’s a fact that the quality of the oil decreases with the increase of mechanization and electric tools because the more gently the olives are treated the better the resulting oil. The high quality oils normally are obtained by hand picking the olives directly into a basket (brucatura) – the best method of all but the least efficient and so the most costly. Picking “by hand with a net” (a mano con telo) is the next best method, with 50% more production resulting than when just a basket is used. By hand with a net, with the help of plastic rakes (pettini) and sometimes long wooden sticks, is probably the most common method. Electric-powered tools for harvesting olives do exist, but the branches and olives can suffer. In some flat areas which have huge olive trees, special large machines that shake the trees are sometimes used. There are also monstrous machines that work something like a car wash, enveloping the whole tree and then actually sucking off all the olives. But in Italy, most harvests by hand with the help of nets, ladders and rakes.
The weather at the time of harvest is of great importance, and experienced farmers know when it’s the right moment to start – before the wet, cold days of fall set in. It’s impossible to pick olives in rain, wind, or fog for many reasons: besides the obvious dangers and difficulties of climbing trees and ladders in wind and rain, moisture can cause the olives to spoil in their crates before they are taken to the mill, or frantoio, for pressing. Fortunately, Italy is usually blessed with many splendid, sunny fall days for harvesting olives, and this year was no exception.
Generally, one to three people work on a tree, first laying down the net, which is slit in the middle, like a pair of pants, so that it fits nicely around the base of the tree, like a bib. Nowadays the nets are made of nylon, but years ago, burlap was used. One person starts on the upper branches, while the other(s) work on the lower ones. With your hands – you slide the olives gently down the branch, as if sliding beads off a necklace, and just allow them to drop where they may onto the net below. Both the green and the black are harvested; a mix of the two makes for the most flavorful olive oil. The tree offers no resistance – no thorns, no tug of war – there is an almost effortless, childlike easiness to the process. The day’s work progresses amidst gossip, jokes, and the pleasant sound of olives plopping onto the net below in a soft rain of purple, black, yellow and green – sometimes falling at an impressive pace, gently bouncing off your head, rolling down your shirt, or into your pockets. Of course, some – well, many really – do get away, bouncing outside the net, seemingly happy to roll away down the yellow hills on a gorgeous November day.
Olive harvesting for those who have a few hundred trees or less is a family affair in much of Italy. Hiring workers is difficult due to the endemic lack of young people in rural areas nowadays and strict labor and immigration laws. So, it is often family members or friends living in cities who come to help pick the olives by hand. It’s a great way to get together and give a hand to the farmers, who are often elderly and proud and very attached to their beloved olive trees. People from other countries, many with second homes in Italy, love this experience and help vigorously and whole-heartedly, often with more enthusiasm than the locals. These gatherings are usually filled with warmth and joy – especially during lunches, where, depending on the weather, cured meats such as salsicce, capocollo, lombetto and prosciutto crudo, and pecorino (cheese) are served, with plenty of local wine and delicious bread. On cold days, a warm “zuppa di farro” (spelt soup), “zuppa di ceci” (garbanzo bean soup) or “pasta e fagioli” (cannellini or borlotti bean soup) regenerates the old and the young. Nobody gets paid here; the reward is the joy of being in nature and a part of the magnificent countryside, having some fun (attested to by the cuts and bruises that you would normally expect only to see on seven-year-olds) and eventually, after the pressing, collecting at least a few bottles of that green elixir that everybody here simply calls… olio.
Ideally, after they are harvested, the olives will be stored in their crates for just a day before they are brought to the frantoio. At the mill, local farmers, friends and helpers meet and chat about their yield, the weather and how this year’s harvest compares with last. But, everyone is very concerned about their olives and often stays there during the whole process out of eagerness and anticipation, and just to ensure that the olive oil they end up with is indeed from their batch of olives. Mills are operated during the day and sometimes part of the night to accommodate the need of farmers to press the olives as fast as possible; people must book in advance. The scene is reminiscent of a busy copy shop at mid-term when papers are due – an excited tension fills the place, people comparing their olives with others, and watching over things to make sure there are no snags or mix-ups.
Two things are of primary concern for every farmer when taking the olives to the frantoio: the yield of oil obtained per quintal (100 kg, or 220 lbs) of olives, which varies every year, and the percent of acidity – lower than .8% classifies it as extra virgin. The entire milling process must be done at a very low temperature, in order that the nutritious elements, color and flavor are preserved. So, the mills – which are often quite spacious as ventilation is needed – are not exactly warm places to hang out. It’s usually cold outside, and just as cold inside, but nonetheless the mood is usually festive and friendly.
The olives go through a few basic processes at the frantoio, all done mechanically – washing, grinding, mixing, pressing, separation and stocking. First the olives are washed, eliminating all the stray leaves and stems. Next comes grinding or hammering (martellatura, this is the step when the olives, including their pits, are crushed into an olive paste. Next comes mixing, a crucial phase that must be done slowly and well to ensure the ultimate uniformity of the oil. This is the moment in which the air is filled with a wonderful fragrance and aroma. After the mixing, comes the pressing,the juices are separated into three parts: oil, vegetable water and pomace (sansa), which is ejected into the outer part of the decanter. There is a further centrifugal process of separation in which the heavier water is removed from the oil. Finally, the precious, unfiltered extra-virgin olive oil pours out of a tube that drains into a steel container where it will be stocked in a cool place before bottling.
Extra–virgin olive oil is the oil that comes out of the first pressing. It is considered one of the few truly healthy oils because it is a mono-unsaturated fat with high amounts of potent anti-oxidants, and a low content of cholesterol. Eating it regularly is now believed to actually reduce the risk of coronary heart disease; the lower incidence of heart disease associated with the Mediterranean diet is attributed to the consumption of olive oil in that region. Pouring the oil directly over food – such as salads, vegetables, pasta, bread – as well as cooking with it, and even rubbing it directly into the skin produces many health benefits.
But, the best thing about olive oil is its taste – which is utterly unique, giving Italian regional cuisine its distinctive character. The ways it is used in the Italian cucina (kitchen) are seemingly endless – whether crudo (uncooked) or as the basis for an infinite number of antipasti, sauces and pasta preparations, and main courses. Olive oil enhances the taste of just about anything it accompanies, lending its own flavor to any dish in which it is used – sometimes imperceptively. In central and southern Italy, and also in Liguria and around Garda Lake, every region, every piece of land – almost every hill! – has its own particular olio: some have a delicate taste, some are corposi (full-bodied), and some could almost be described as tangy or spicy. For most Italians, olive oil is as essential to their diet, their lives and sense of well-being as wine and pasta. Today with the availability of products that once could only be found locally, it’s possible to recreate the same unforgettable dishes found in Italy in your own kitchen.
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