Friday was a “strike day” in Rome: a regular event in which the operators of public transport decide that they would prefer to take a long weekend over a day’s pay. This caused the Grande Raccordo Annulare to be even busier than normal, leading to various accidents, and grid lock. Eventually we gave up on trying to leave the capital, and resigned ourselves to a Friday night in Rome. Life is tough sometimes …
After our night of “hardship”, we were up bright and early for a meeting at The Olive Hill with our geometra, to discuss renovations and log cabins. But mostly, we discussed olives, because our geometra has a sideline as the owner of our frantoio, or olive mill.
Declaring himself most impressed with the work that our Proper Agricultural Workers had done clearing and pruning the 150 or so trees nearest the house, we all agreed that the olives from these trees would, in a year or two, be of the “highest quality”. By the by, he agreed that the site we had chosen for the log cabin (part of our future agriturismo business) would provide guests with beautiful views of beautiful trees, beautiful hills and beautiful sunsets. I noted to myself at this point that we needed to find some more adjectives to describe the beauty of our surroundings.
But then we returned to olives. Slowly but surely, all conversations we have end up being about olives and wine …
Our latest calamity, and one that we have been fearing for months, is the arrival of The Dreaded Olive Fly, simply referred to as La Mosca, but always in hushed tones. This ghastly creature is a form of fruit fly (remember those drosophila from your biology lessons?) that feeds exclusively on olives. They are less than five millimetres long, but once in a grove, they wreak absolute havoc. Mummy fly makes a little hole in an olive (lots of olives, actually), and the egg becomes a pupa, which eats the olive. Best case scenario is that you will harvest before the egg hatches. In this case, all that will happen is that bacteria will colonise the hole in your olive, causing it, and consequently your oil, to taste rancid. Extra virgin olive oil is not permitted to taste rancid. Option two is that the pupa will eat your olive, hatch, become a fly, and lay its own eggs, thus infesting more olives. There is, of course also the option to leave your olives on the tree once infested, but then the fly will really go for it. Pupae will hatch, multiply and infest even more trees, and those olives that fall to the ground will provide the perfect habitat for pupae to survive the winter, so that they can come back in even greater numbers next year, in the hope of scoffing your entire crop.
Our geometra reminded us, not that we needed reminding, that even before the arrival of La Mosca, this had been a truly dreadful year for olive growers. The winter was long and wet, and then we were hit with temperatures of -14 degrees just as people had commenced the annual spring pruning. Snow followed, then numerous storms with golf ball sized hail stones while the trees were in flower, and finally a mild, damp summer. La Mosca loves mild, damp summers. Our geomotra’s own crop had also been struck by La Mosca the previous week, and so he had opened the frantoio early and milled his own fruit immediately. He urged us to harvest straight away, and under no circumstances to allow the fruit to hit the ground.
Thoughts of log cabins, en-suite bathrooms, and open plan kitchens were swiftly abandoned, and we went into Emergency Harvest Preparedness mode. With only thirty (yes, out of 400) trees bearing fruit, the afternoon was arduous, but we managed to get everything ready by dusk.
We climbed into bed exhausted.
Sunday morning, we limped into action, rakes in hand, ready to collect a minimum of 150kg of fruit to take to the mill. A decent crop to expect would be 20 or so kilos per tree, so we felt sure the task ahead would be easy enough, and perhaps even fun; after all we are literally on the cusp of quitting our jobs to be olive farmers… How hard could it be?
Tree number one provided us with around 1kg. Trees number two and three had entirely dropped their crop, which was lying on the ground being eaten by ants. Tree number four had a couple of olives left, but they looked awful. And so it went on. By early afternoon it was clear to even optimistic fools such as us, that we were not making any oil this year. Worse, we still needed to clear the entire crop, and remove it from the property, to prevent the dratted fly from getting an easy “in” to our olive hill next year.
What a day. And at the end of it, we were still prospective olive farmers, rather than actual olive farmers. But hey, at least we have learned about the fecklessness of the weather and about blighted crops, so I guess that we are one step closer to being proper farmers? And nobody said it would be easy.
So we will spend our winter making plans for bed and breakfast clients, and building a log cabin or three. And if you’ve read this to the end, maybe you’d like to book a holiday on our prospective farm, to benefit from all its beautiful views of beautiful trees and beautiful hills and beautiful sunsets, and maybe one day, to taste our beautiful extra virgin olive oil!