Thanks to a friend who goes to the same spot in Italy every year, I was able to see the harvest at La Montagnola, an olive farm that also rents out really nice rooms and apartments to tourists (= Agriturismo) that is about 10 miles from Perugia in central Italy. This was an opportunity I was not going to pass up!
Once upon a time, olives were plucked from the trees manually using what’s essentially a small hand rake. But now it’s mostly mechanical, at least in this part of the world. It goes like this:
Think of an upside-down umbrella attached to a tractor that envelopes the skinny base of the tree. The tree then gets a good shake for 5-6 seconds, and the olives fall into the umbrella:
But not all olives are ready to fall. To get at the many that are still clinging to a branch, the next step uses a gadget (powered by something) with rake-like tines that loosens them, and in they fall into the inverted umbrella.
The other half of the two-person team uses an orange hand rake. It’s different from trying to detangle long hair in that you start at the top, hold on to the branch a bit up from the bottom to protect the newest growth, and work fast, rather than painstakingly attacking each knot (olive) gently.
The olives eventually all end up in the container attached to the umbrella, and it’s time to move on to the next tree.
Overall, the workers told me, it takes 5-6 minutes, maybe 10 minutes, to do one tree.
La Montagnola has 6,000 olive trees (and several varieties) in the various groves on the hills, so the harvest takes six weeks. Vittoria, the owner of La Montagnola, says each tree on average produces three liters of olive oil.
By the way, here’s the view from the part of the farm where I stayed:
Before the advent of the machines, the harvest was done by hand. And Vittoria did let us try the old-fashioned way: Clambering up a ladder with rounded steps, grasping a branch and raking out the olives with that orange hand rake. A tarp replaces the mechanized umbrella.
Vittoria told us that the harvest can be done differently in other parts of Italy. In Puglia, down in Italy’s boot heel, it is much warmer, and olives can be left to fall naturally to the tarp below. Because they are on the tree for longer, the taste and chemical breakdown of the oil is different.
Harvesting of course is just the first part. The olives (and the bits of leaves and branches that some are still attached to) get dumped into a giant wheelbarrow-like dumpster and then into big crates, where they are then screened to get rid of the biggest pieces of debris, then washed and screened some more.
Only then does the pressing begin. The olives turn into a paste and then the liquid is extracted. The paste gets reused as a form of compost, oil and water are separated again, and you end up with a really nice olive oil:
Here’s my video of the harvest.
We also did an olive-oil tasting. I admit that I don’t have the sophisticated nose to distinguish subtleties (same with wine!), but there was no missing the difference between store-bought, mass-produced oil oil and its solvent-like smell and the smell of olives in Vittoria’s olive oil. Vittoria also helps evaluate olive oils so she knows how to spot the tricks and even which olive oils really can’t be from the area.
Just as with wine and grapes (or anything from your garden!), the soil and temperatures influence the final taste. Olive oils, like wine, can be a mish-mash of oil from everywhere (and as long as it’s bottled in Italy, it’s Italian, even if the olives come from elsewhere). Or it can be from one small region, with its own Denominazione D’Origine Controllata, and even be a single variety of olives, just as with wine.
One difference with wine, though, is that you want to use your olive oil when it’s young and fresh. You don’t age fancy olive oil the way you wage a fine wine. The oil I brought home is best when used by Dec. 15, 2014. (Stamped by hand on the label too!). Somehow I don’t think the olive oil on our supermarket shelves is anywhere near that fresh.