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Thanks so much to Fiona, whose idea this was. Here are her reflections on the best time of year.
October is my favourite month in Italy. Warm days of sunshine perfect for outdoor activities, followed by cool, clear evenings sat around the log fire. The tourist hordes have gone, Rome is bathed in golden light, and the Autumn season ushers in the taste of truffles, pumpkin and the ‘green gold’ of newly pressed olive oil.
October is also the start of La Raccolta, the annual olive harvest. This year we joined Scott and Emma as volunteer ‘contadini’ at their farm Olive Hill, deep in the Sabina countryside. After a delicious morning cappuccino at the local Bar Tartaruga, we set off down the hill from the house, past the chickens, the citrus trees, through the upper olive grove, descending into the valley to the lower olive grove, overlooking the vineyard. It’s a good 5-10 minute walk, so best to ensure you have everything you need in your day bag as it’s a slower climb back up the hill if you’ve forgotten anything! Having arrived at the harvest site, we unrolled fifty metre long nets alongside the trees, occasionally ‘helped’ by the friendly family dogs Holly and Bella, who liked to sit on the nets as they were being unravelled.
To harvest olives from the trees involves use of a plastic hand rake, which you ‘comb’ through the leaves and branches as the olives tumble onto the nets below. You can do this from the ground, or you can channel your inner child and climb into the trees to get at the higher branches. My husband Giles spent most of his day up in the trees – and didn’t seem to want to come down except when finally tempted by the delicious lunch Emma and Scott had prepared for us. Now with 400 trees to harvest each season you will have guessed this is a slow process, so Scott had a mechanical rake to assist him whilst the rest of us teamed up around particular trees, which is far more sociable. And for us volunteers, who have mostly come from more frenetic lives, the slowness of hand harvesting the olives is the point. It allows the space for calm, to absorb the magnificent landscapes around you, to sense the leaves of the trees through your hands, to reconnect with something fundamental.
Towards the end of the day, Scott and Giles loaded up the tractor with full crates of olives destined for the frantoio, leaving Emma and I down in the field to stow the nets and gather up the equipment. Suddenly, we were both compelled to stop to take in what was around us. It was 5pm, the golden hour. We were surrounded by birdsong as the light began to fade and the sun set behind Monte Soratte. It felt like we were being given a warm and gentle embrace by nature, by the enchanted land of Sabina itself. As we walked slowly back up the hill to the house, where a cold beer and an aperitivo were awaiting us, we kept pausing to admire the views again, as the last of the daylight disappeared. “I’ll never get tired of this beautiful landscape no matter how long I live here” said Emma.
That night I experienced the most restful sleep in months. The combination of fresh air, gentle physical work, good food and glorious sunshine no doubt contributed. But above all, the feeling of calmness, of being grounded, connected to the earth again was even more restorative, particularly in the unusual year of 2020.