Take some friends, a beautiful villa in Camogli, one of the prettiest villages of the Italian Riviera, and an olive grove in the backyard waiting to be harvested: the result is a fantastic olive harvest experience!
Italian olive oil is renowned all over the world, but do you know how it is produced? I didn’t have a clue before last weekend, when I joined some friends in Camogli to take part in my first olive harvest!
The olive-picking season usually starts in late October and continues until December. It can take from one day up to a few weeks, depending on the size of the olive grove. Luckily for me, our grove was quite small and we managed to finish the picking in about 12 hours.
It’s really hard work, but seeing the final product is priceless. Here are a few takeaways:
1- Bring with you the proper tools
First of all, invest in a good pair of working gloves, your hands will thank you for that – especially if they are more accustomed to keyboards rather than trees! Other fundamental tools include nets, jute bags (or crates) and ropes. The latter will be particularly handy when trying to bend the upper branches of the trees – which are usually the most covered in olives. I know what you are thinking – why didn’t we use ladders? I asked the same question, but since the olive grove was on a terraced field, it would have been too dangerous.
2- Be physically (and mentally) prepared
I woke up at dawn full of energy and excitement at the thought of all those olives, but the truth is that I had no idea what to expect and after the first couple of hours I already felt exhausted. In theory, olive harvest is a quite simple process – you pick olives, collect them in bags or baskets, and then bring them to the local olive mill. In practice, it’s hard work. It really is. Especially when you can rely only on your hands and on your agility to climb trees.
After hours spent shaking trees and on your knees to collect fallen olives (we did it the traditional way, no machines involved), you’ll discover muscles you never knew you had, trust me. Oh, and did I mention the need for a good eyesight? I challenge you to spot olives when they are all green and perfectly camouflaged among the leaves…
3- The olive harvest is a fantastic social event
To me, this is perhaps the most special aspect of every harvest. Picking olives requires many hands and this is an occasion for families, friends and neighbours to get together, share hearty meals and celebrate a crop that is a key element of our Mediterranean cuisine.
It’s that sense of community you experience with your fellow pickers – supporting each other through the day and finding ingenious ways to make even the most stubborn olives fall into the nets – that makes the harvest a unique happening.
4- You’ll be amazed by what you can learn at the local “frantoio“
After cleaning the crop from leaves and twigs, we brought it to the nearby oil mill. Quickness is key – it’s important that the olives reach the mill as quickly as possible to preserve the quality of the oil.
Here I had the chance to take a look “behind the scenes” where the machinery involved in the process of squeezing olives and extracting oil is kept. Olives are weighted, crushed into a paste and then sent to the extractor.
The smell of freshly crushed olives fills the place and it’s fascinating to see people waiting in front of the extractor for their oil to start pouring into jerrycans. Leftovers are gathered in big crates and can be used as natural fuel or fertilizer.
At the end of the weekend I was dead tired but deeply satisfied with the final result:
Nowadays we can buy everything online and get it delivered to our door in the blink of an eye, but how many times do we actually think about the hard work behind each product? Being able to see and be part of the full chain of production has been a fascinating experience and I strongly recommend to try it at least once – perhaps on your next trip to Italy!
Until next time,