My arms ache as I hold my fingers up to type this and I can feel my face glowing from the day’s sun and wind. It’s a good feeling, made even more satisfying by the sight of the mass of olives – 483 kg in all – which we’ve collected in the last day and a half!
For the past two weeks we’ve been part of the team at the agroturismo Terra Selvatica. The farm is tucked high up in the folds of the Umbrian hills, with the Apennines rising abruptly behind.
There are 16 of us here in total, all working to strip the trees of their green and black bounty. We attack as a group – armed with the red and yellow plastic rakes you would find in a child’s sandpit – and set about methodically combing the fruit from the branches. The olives clinging to the highest branches always seem to be the juiciest; dangling like plump bunches of grapes, temptingly just out of reach.
However, we are a pack of very determined olive pickers and have been re-acquainting ourselves with our tree-climbing skills (for some long forgotten, for others hidden just below the surface!). Monkey-like, we clamber through the branches, freeing the olives from their stalks and shaking them into the nets below.
It takes us anywhere between half an hour to half a day to complete a tree before we haul in our nets to examine our catch. Needless to say we were a little daunted when we learnt there are 500 olive trees on the farm in total but fortunately we’re not harvesting them all!
Once the olives are off the tree they need to be pressed as soon as possible to achieve the best quality oil. So, after a quick quality-control check at the farm, we head down to the nearby olive mill.
The mill has the appearance of a small aeroplane hanger, with a gleaming Wallace and Gromit-style machine taking up the whole of one side, the rich smell of fresh olive oil hanging thick in the air. We unloaded our 483 kilograms and, hard work done, sat back to enjoy the show!
The olives go into one end of the machine where they are washed before being processed by a giant mincer. Once crushed to a tapenade-like pulp.
The resulting mush is passed into a centrifuge, which separates out the oil from the residue waste. This waste pulp is then unceremoniously spat out of the mill before being sold on to produce low-grade, non-extra-virgin olive oil using intensified processes.
It’s a tense few hours waiting for the first of this year’s oil to run out of the machine. All the farmers here have suffered from a poor crop this year as the “mosca,” or olive fly, plagued the crop – apparently the result of a warmer winter which the flies survived. At last, the vibrant green liquid flows out of the tap; the colour and viscosity of some dangerously healthy super-smoothie.
Peter scrutinises it for colour, smell and taste before relaxing into his usual smile. Thankfully, our hard work has been worthwhile as it’s a good oil again this year – very buttery with a kick of pepper.