PICKING OLIVES 2007
We helped Belinda and Giacomo pick their olives last weekend. We should have picked them a few weeks earlier, but events conspired against us, so we picked them as soon as we could. Most yields are down this year due the dry weather we had last winter. For Giacomo and Belinda this problem was compounded by the fact that many of their older trees were moved last spring to make way for a new building project. Although all the moved trees seem to have survived the process, as you might expect they didn’t produce much (if any) fruit this year. On the good side, the younger trees produced exceptionally well, but of course still didn’t equal what an older larger tree would have. Additionally, I would expect that last year’s bumper crop might be followed by a lean year. In the in we ended up with half the olives we had last year.
We had beautiful weather for picking the olives…always a blessing. With shorter days and cooler temperatures, having a sunny day makes all the difference in the world. As we picked we could hear the neighbors in the next field talking and laughing as they too finished up their raccolta (olive harvest).
Giacomo had to make a quick trip to Amsterdam to see his children, so on Monday we helped Belinda load the car with our six crates of olives and take them to our local frantoio near Collelungo. Once there the crates were sent upstairs on a conveyor belt where they were weighed and transferred to large wooden trays. This is the process used for those who don’t have enough olives for their own pressing. These small groups will eventually be combined and pressed together, with each person getting their percentage.
I don’t know how many olives (by weight) are needed to have your own press. Last year the twelve crates we had were enough, but the six crates this year were not. Additionally you must make an appointment to have your olives pressed, and when you make the appointment you must estimate how many olives you’ll be bringing in order to help estimate how long each pressing will take.
Once the olives were weighed, trayed and labeled, we went into the office to see when they could be pressed. The rather impatient woman in the office told Belinda that her olives could be pressed “maybe on Friday”. Since many of the olives were VERY ripe, we all knew that they should be pressed as soon as possible. The woman insisted to Belinda that this was impossible! Impossible! But of course this is Italy, and nothing is impossible, you simply have to find a way around the problem.
Belinda asked if any of her neighbors had pressings scheduled. Alberto had an appointment on Friday, but another neighbor, Daniele, had an appointment on Tuesday afternoon. Could we possibly combine our olives with his? The woman at the mill said as long as Daniele agreed, it would be fine with them. We left for home, and Belinda called Daniele to see if she’d let her add her small harvest with his. Daniele, a friendly, smiling, guy told Belinda of course she could add her olives to his, so we arranged to meet on Tuesday afternoon.
Once we arrived at the frantoio none of us were surprised to find out that they were running behind. You’d think after years of doing this that both the frantoio and the farmers would have figured out a better system, but for some reason people seem to underestimate their yield, meaning that their press takes longer than expected…and throwing the schedule completely off.
We took the opportunity to drive Belinda into Ripavella, just down the road. Our friend Wendy has a lovely house listed there, and Belinda and Giacomo have a client who’s searching for the perfect property. We hoped we’d be able to help all our friends do some business and make some money. We’d seen the property just outside of Ripavella about a year ago with some friends from Poland. The house is beautiful and the land has over 300 olive trees. The clincher for us was the pool, with it’s amazing view of Montecastello di Vibio.
We then drove into Ripavella, a tiny little place, to have a coffee. I think Ripavella has one bar and one tiny grocery store, and because it was barely 3 o’clock, we weren’t sure if the bar would be open. Normally bars do stay open during the afternoon, but in such a tiny village things might be different.
Luckily we’d been here before and knew that the bar was around the back of one of the buildings. As we walked down the hill we saw a woman on the balcony above and asked if the bar was open. “Certamente!” she said, but when we tried the door it was locked. She told us to wait, and just then a man came around the corner to unlock the door. Art and Belinda ordered coffee, I had a bottle of water, and we sat at the table chatting.
Belinda asked the man behind the bar a question, and of course he could tell that none of us were Italian. He told us that an American couple had bought an apartment in Ripavella, but that they didn’t live there fulltime. Another man entered the bar and he too joined in our conversation about the many ‘stranieri’ (foreigners) in the area. He told us that his cousin had been married to an American, and I immediately said “Frank!” “Yes”, he said in English!, “my cousin was married to Frank.”
Of course that led to a conversation about our friend Frank, who died last November. Although he had continuing heart problems, Frank continued to smoke, and eventually his heart gave out. It wasn't surprising to find a relative of his in this area...Frank's wife was bron in Ripavella and most of her family lives in San Venanzo.
We decided we’d better get back to the frantoio to see if Daniele had arrived, and if by chance they might be ready to begin pressing our olives. When we arrived we saw that Daniele had arrived with his cousin, and they were getting ready to empty their crates into the huge hopper. Belinda’s olives were dumped down a chute, and the olives gradually began their journey into the frantoio. Out of the hopper they sent via a short conveyor belt and were sucked into a long tube. This tube took the olives to the inside of the building where they were washed, and where many of the larger leaves and stems were separated. After this they were sent to large stainless steel vats were they were crushed into a red looking mush. As you can see in the slide who, one of the vats was overfilled, and the mash (and eventually it’s oil) oozed out.
The olives filled up four of these vats…well, three and a half… and they churned away in the vats while the olives of the person before us were processed. Once it was our turn the valve was opened and Daniele and Belinda’s olives began the final step. The liquid was extracted and the semi-solid waste was removed. A centrifuge separated the water from the oil, and eventually the oil began to flow! We all ran a finger through the stream of oil to have our first taste! The oil was thick and silky, but with a nice spicy taste.
The oil was then sent via a tube to the lower level where it collected in a large tub. The residual scum was skimmed off the top, then a pump was hooked up to send the oil to the containers. Each container was set on the scale and weighed before it was filled so that the weight of the oil could be determined.
We knew that Belinda’s olives weighed 117 kilos, about 10% of the total. Last year’s olives had yielded about 14% oil, and of course we were all curious to see what this year’s yield would be. Belinda thought she’d be lucky to get ten liters, but once the numbers were crunched the yield was 17.7%, and Belinda’s share was 22 liters….probably enough to last them the whole year.
It was around seven o’clock by the time we left the frantoio, and we stopped at the store on the way home to buy some bread for bruschetta. I opened some cannellini beans too….another perfect food for drizzling the new oil! Of course it was delicious, and knowing that we’d all worked hard for this oil made it taste even better. The three of us toasted the new oil, and enjoyed a well-earned dinner at last.