An Extra Virgin Harvest

According to The University of Google, a healthy olive tree, well pruned to the correct size and shape, should take no more than an hour to harvest, and produce around 25kg of fruit. An olive box holds 25kg of fruit. One olive box should make around 5 litres of oil. Our car will comfortably carry ten olive boxes, as well as a 50 litre sansone – the olive oil version of a milk churn. Next year, with the help of a couple of battery powered rakes, we will be quickly and efficiently harvesting ten trees a day, and home from the mill with a sansone full of delicious olio nuovo in time for prosecco and bruschetta …

This year is not quite like that. This year, we have only around 120 of our 400 olive trees to harvest, and we’re doing it by hand. Harvesting olives by hand is the best fun …

The area in which we are working was literally a forest six months ago, and in photos, the trees may now look neat and tidy, but looks can be deceiving.

A well pruned tree should be a similar shape to a wine glass, with its central core completely free of vegetation; allowing air to circulate, and making for easy access to the olive bearing external branches. Our trees are not yet well pruned, and harvesting by hand means using little tiny rakes on the end of poles, to stroke the olives out of the branches, which should be no taller than the height of Scott plus his rake, or, even better, me plus my rake. On well pruned trees, scenes like this should never be required:

Next year, our trees will be perfect.

This year, we planned to start harvesting last Monday, intending to hand pick and hand sort 150kg of our little olives, pack them into olive boxes, bung them in the car and pop to the mill with them Wednesday morning.

We started the harvest late, on Thursday lunch time, to be precise, due to a series of unfortunate events.

Harvest Day One, therefore, was not fun. It was actually rather shouty and stressful, but having warned my Darling Husband that even the tiniest amount of stress would absolutely definitely result in me keeling over with a further attack of shingles, he successfully internalised his fury at my inability to arrange olive nets in military style straight lines. Mostly.

Harvest Day One was hot. Blooming hot. And I’m still a bit poorly. And the trees are tall. And they don’t seem to be holding anything like 25kg of fruit. And they have far too many branches. And olive knot. And dead branches. And, of course, The Dreaded Fly.

Harvesting by hand means raking every olive on every tree onto the olive nets that one has spread beneath the tree. Once the olives are on the nets, we hand sort them, discarding any fruits that are fly damaged, squished, or yucky looking.

Our lovely olives, waiting to be checked over, and put in an olive box

Every tree has taken an age to harvest, and by midday on Saturday, we still only had 120kg of fruit on arrival at the mill. Which was insufficient. So Giorgio sent us home to gather more, and to return no later than 4pm.

We returned home, and stumbled back into the grove as fast as our aching limbs would carry us. Somehow, miraculously, we managed to gather another 40kg of fruit, crawled up the hill with our laden olive boxes, and made it back to the mill with minutes to spare before the 4pm deadline. I was so tired I couldn’t even speak English, let alone Italian. Noticing that I was disheveled to the point of near collapse, Giorgio kindly delivered a lecture on how much harder we’d have found the afternoon if we’d been hand picking, alone.

As I had been struck dumb, Scott explained, without resorting to swearing, that we had indeed been hand picking alone. I like to think that Giorgio was impressed, but I was too tired to notice.

So, into the vat went our olives:

Then up the little conveyor belt and into the olive bath, to get them nice and clean. Then up another little conveyor belt to get squished, ground and churned into a mushy paste, which smells DELICIOUS. Then through the centrifuge, then, finally, out of a spout, and into our sansone.

And lo. We had made extra virgin olive oil from Sabina.

Other customers staring in wonder as their oil arrives

Giorgio, Giorgio’s brother, a random little boy, and Giorgio’s mum gathered round, and declared our oil buono. We, however, think that it’s the best olive oil that we have ever made.