Harvesting olives in Tuscany - where else?
By Rhea Wessel | Special to The Christian Science Monitor
ITALY - Two Germans, a Norwegian, an American, and an Englishman recently
joined forces to help an Italian friend pluck green gold from his 200-plus
olive trees. The olive groves had been abandoned for many seasons before Guido
Gualandi bought the 10-acre estate a year and a half ago. He wanted to settle
not far from where he grew up in Florence.
from home as an editor for an American market-research company. Between
conference calls and interviews, he can be found up in a tree, pulling olives
toward the ground. Guido estimates working 300 hours last year clearing,
pruning, and picking the trees - and that was before dozens of friends
descended to help.
On a foggy Saturday morning, the first day of a
two-day harvest party, the American and a German lifted harnesses over their
heads and strapped brown wicker baskets in front. They were charged with
picking a row of sparsely fruitful trees on an embankment. The remaining
helpers spread used parachutes around tree bases, ascended the trunks, and
tugged on black or green olives until they fell neatly onto the tarpaulin.
Occasionally, olives that were combed from trees with plastic hand rakes bopped
a picker on the nose or slid down a blouse.
In the background, Tuscan
hunters could be seen and heard as they fired at pheasants resting in trees.
Guido's children, Sarah and Rebecca, joined in and offered their
expertise. The girls were adept at hanging from small limbs like monkeys and
stretching to grab that one last fruit, just out of reach. Olive trees are
surprisingly resilient and acrobatic. Bend them forwards; bend them backwards.
They seldom break.
Five people worked for five hours picking a line of
trees in the grove and a few wild ones nearly grown over with weeds. The wild
trees were hardly accessible because of the underbrush and a lack of pruning.
An olive tree can grow between 10 and 23 feet high. Cultivated trees are pruned
each year so their limbs grow outward and the trees stay manageably short.
The Norwegian guest, who is training as a cook in Oslo, was so
excited by the opportunity to harvest that she set aside her fear of heights
for a few days. That first day of work - 25 man and woman hours - netted two
crates of olives, enough for only 6 liters (about 6 quarts) of extra-virgin,
cold-pressed, chemical-free oil.
The cultivation of olives
and olive oil hold a special place in the history of Mediterranean Europe.
Olives were first grown between 5,000 and 3,000 B.C. in Crete, later spreading
to Egypt, Greece, Palestine, and Asia Minor. Scientists believe they arrived in
Italy 2,500 years ago.
Symbol of peace
The olive branch symbolizes peace, and the tree represents wisdom and
immortality. In the Bible story of the flood, a dove brought back a freshly
plucked olive leaf as news of receding waters. Olive oil was used for the
ritual anointing of priests, kings, and honored guests, and for ceremonial
In Greek mythology, the olive tree was created during
a disagreement between Athena and Poseidon. Zeus was called in as a referee and
said the winner would be the one who presented him with the most useful
invention. Athena then commanded Mother Earth to grow a new and exceptional
tree, and the olive tree appeared. Zeus declared her the winner. In other
stories, the winners of battles are crowned with a wreath of olive branches.
For hundreds of years, olive cultivation was the primary source of
income for entire populations. Oil was used for lighting and medicinal purposes
as well as for food. Still today, it accounts for a large portion of the
agricultural output of Mediterranean countries, which grow 50 percent of the
world's olives. The European Union subsidizes olive growers to the tune of
about $2 billion a year.
In Tuscany, the Medici
family first encouraged cultivation of the trees. The merchant family ruled
Florence for nearly 300 years. They allowed farmers to purchase land cheaply if
they grew only grapes and olives. This policy was so effective that Tuscany had
plenty of oil in the early-16th century and began to export it to other
Olive oil deeply rooted in Italian psyche
The love of
olive oil is rooted deeply in the Italian psyche. Many traditional dishes are
or impossible without olive oil. Consider pesto, a
tomato-mozzarella salad, or bruschetta made with corn oil? At a meal, Guido
assured us that only a well-trained palette can distinguish between a passable
oil and an impeccable one. He has switched the oil on unsuspecting guests.
|Not included in the Christian Science Monitor article.
olive tree is a lesson in patience. A freshly planted tree reaches maturity
after 35 years and can live for 500 to 1,000 years. Some limbs may die during
hard frosts, but trunks can survive, allowing the tree to regenerate.
Olive trees awake from their winter hibernation in March and sprout
small white blossoms in May. Harvests begin in September and can last until
February, depending on how ripe an owner wants his olives. Green olives are
unripe, and black ones are ripe. Both keep their color during pickling. They
are inedible until they are pickled.
With each fruit harvested,
one acquires a greater appreciation of the time and work that goes into a liter
of olive oil. A few hundred olives make less than a liter of oil. The fruits
contain about 20 percent oil.
On the last day of the
party, some 20 people representing an additional half-dozen countries plucked
olives for another six hours.
The party drew to a close in the afternoon, and a small
group of hard-core olive enthusiasts accompanied Guido to the press. Oil that
is pressed immediately after picking is best, so the group didn't waste any
time getting to Frantoio Goccia d' Oro in nearby Castelfiorentino. It
specializes in the Sinolea method, which extracts olive oil through natural
cold dripping. The brightly lit, family-owned mill in an industrial area is
open 24 hours a day during harvest season. Guido put his olives in line and
waited his turn. Finally, around 9 p.m., they were sent up the conveyer belt.
About two hours later, he had the results of this year's harvest. All in all,
Guido's 200 trees produced 100 kilos (about 220 pounds) of olive oil from the
Moraiolo, Leccino, Frantoio, and Pendolino varieties.
|Not included in the Christian Science Monitor article.
In Tuscany, many farmers
struggle to make a living from olive oil, so they often "pay" helpers by giving
them oil. This old tradition is called mezzadria. In honor of this and as a
thank-you to his international guests, Guido sent pickers home with one liter
of olive oil, and the whole group left with a harvest of good memories.
Bruschetta (pronounced broo-SKEH-tah)
4 slices good bread,
preferably cut from a large, crusty, Italian loaf
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, halved
Preheat the broiler or grill and adjust the rack so
that it is at least 4 inches from the heat source. Brush the bread on one or
both sides with a little olive oil and rub one or both sides of each slice with
the garlic, letting the garlic disintegrate into the bread. Sprinkle with a
Broil or grill the bread until lightly browned on both
sides, taking care not to burn it or toast it all the way through. If you like,
drizzle with a little more olive oil and rub with more garlic. Serve
immediately. Makes 4 appetizer servings.
Note: Bruscetta can be
topped with a variety of additions, including diced plum tomatoes and fresh
basil, prosciutto, or freshly grated Parmesan.
- From 'How to Cook
Everything' by Mark Bittman (John Wiley & Sons)
- Photos taken by Rhea Wessel. Photos did not appear
in the Christian Science Monitor.