I was in Campania for about a month. There were two big projects on my last farm stay: working in the vegetable garden and picking olives. Olive picking happened last November. That’s quite some time between then and now – which is good because if I told you what it was like when it was happening I would have probably just talked about what a pain in the neck it was. Literally. That is not a metaphor.
I really looked forward to picking olives. It sounded so romantic to be out in the Italian countryside, enjoying the sunshine while harvesting olives that will be made into olive oil – one of the most fundamental ingredients in the Italian kitchen. I imagined myself wearing some sort of kerchief on my head while picking olives with my face turned into the sun. I fantasized myself right into some Italian pastoral landscape painting – a legitimate one by a master not one of those sold for $20 at the airport Marriot. Folks (obviously non-Italians) I met on my travels, to whom I told about my upcoming olive picking adventure oohed about how fabulous and “Italian” it sounded. Come to think of it now, when I told Anna (on who’s Italian farm in Emilia Romagna I stayed) I was going to be picking olives, she had this look on her face like ‘don’t be so excited.’ And she was right. Why? Because in all of my imaginings, I never pictured at what angle I would need to crane my neck for hours at a time peering up into olive trees looking for all of those little baubles. If I did, all of the romance would have been pushed out the window by what I would call pain and suffering (and what most would call mild discomfort).
Let’s talk olives. Olive trees were everywhere. There were groves and groves of olives up in the hills above the town nearest to the farm where I was staying. That town is San Potito Sannitico, by the way. There were small little olive groves in the backyards of homes in town. You would see a solitary olive tree planted in folks’ yards like we would plant a maple tree. Walking through town or driving up the hills to where the olive grove allotments are, members of the olive picking tribe, of which I was now a card carrying member, were setting to work on their olive trees, laying out their nets or some of them would be well into picking their olives for the day (what time did those people get up?). It was the season to pick olives and everyone was synchronized to tend to their olive groves. Each day as I set to pick olives, I felt a bit clued into the life in this region because I was doing something everyone here did every year at this same time for generations.
Olive picking is a team sport and it requires some gear, too. Olive picking gear includes, aside from a good attitude and occasional bottles of beer, a bunch of small rakes on long sticks, netting to place around the base of the tree to catch the olives when they fall and crates to pile the olives in and transport them home. A crate is called a cassetta (cassetta actually means box but that’s what we called our crates) and every time I heard that word I fondly remembered my tape collection from high school. The net was laid flat around the tree so that the ground underneath the tree’s boughs and branches was covered. If the tree was on a slight incline, we accounted for olives rolling down the hill, so an additional net was laid here or there to extend coverage. No olive left behind! was my mantra. Once the net was in place, our team got to work. There were two or three of us circling the tree, necks craned, long rakes extended, pulling them down to scrape the olives off the branches. A gentle staccato thrrrrrmmpphhh, would be heard when the olives hit the net covered grass. One person would climb into the tree to get to the branches that we couldn’t reach with our rakes. At first there would be a windfall of olives raining down; we would find fat, prolific clusters of olives that came away easily from the branch. After the easy ones were gone, the raking became a bit more difficult. Solo olives or smaller groups were hard to see; we squinted and strained, plucking one here or there tediously until we couldn’t see any left or any within reach. The olives strewn about the net then needed to be corralled. Starting at one end, we grabbed a handful of the net, lifting it up, getting the olives to pool together, then picked up more handful of net, pooling more olives together until we made it all the way to the end of the net and all the olives were in one softly fragrant pile. We tossed out the largest branches and leaves from the olives and then picked up the edges of the net and poured the olives into the crate. Done. We stretched our necks, grabbed the nets and our rakes and headed to the next tree to start all over again.
It took a little over a week to finish that first olive grove. But that wasn’t the end of it for us. There was another olive grove in the larger town, Piedemonte Matese, next to the smaller town, San Potito Sannitico. This olive grove wasn’t in the hills or in some other remote location, it was in the backyard of a large 18th century four story stone house. We were piled into a tiny Fiat with our rakes and nets and crates, when after winding through tiny stone streets of Piedemonte, we pulled onto a dead-end street and parked the car. Our olive picking tribe was a bit flummoxed – no olives or trees to be seen. All we saw were homes made of stone and brick on one side and a high brick wall framing the street on the other side. There was a blue wooden door in the brick wall. Aha. That’s the secret olive grove passageway. It opened and we were led inside. To our right was Snow White and four of her seven dwarfs hanging out on a windowsill – what a pleasant surprise. To our left we could see a hillside dotted with overgrown vegetation including lots olive trees and beyond that, the stone buildings and churches of the town.
This grove looked like it hadn’t been dealt with in years; it was in a feral state, smelling of cat piss here and there and the weeds were thick and knee high. Some of us set to work mowing the grass and cutting out the vines that were slowly taking over the trees. As some of us cleared away the neglect, it allowed the rest of us to begin picking olives. Even though this grove was in a sorry state when we started, it looked so much happier when we left it. Our olive tribe hit a groove when working here. We worked at an easy pace, we had beers and great conversation perched on a hill overlooking a stunning vista. The weather was brilliant and it just felt so good to be outside enjoying the sun. Even the olives were prettier here. They were coloured pink and violet and yellow and plum red instead of green and black like from the other grove. They looked liked Easter candy. I think my neck even got used to being cranked at a 90 degree angle and I don’t remember minding the discomfort so badly. Or maybe the beers helped with that.
So, now with a little time for reflection and my neck being restored to its proper position, I can say that olive picking is not necessarily the best fun but I enjoyed it (especially in retrospect) and I’m seriously glad I got to do it. And the big reward? To taste the olive oil made from the olives I helped pick. The olive oil was fruity and green and vibrant. You could taste how much sunshine was in the olive oil. I know there was tons sunshine in there because I spent just two weeks in those olives groves and you should have seen how much sunshine was absorbed by my face. Imagine a whole season of sun those olives absorbed! I used to think that the term olive-skinned meant your skin had the colouring of an olive but maybe it means you have the tanned skin of an olive picker?
And the biggest reward from picking olives? Getting a bottle of that liquid sunshine to take home with me (check out that bottle!). Like house renovations or child birth you go through a lot of pain and suffering and then once you have something lovely to show for all that stuff you’d rather forget, it’s all worth it in the end. (Please note that I haven’t experienced childbirth but this is what I’ve heard. I have experienced house renovations and I know this comparison to be true.) Anyway, what I’m saying now, is that if asked while on a trip to Italy if I would pick olives again, I would say Yes. But only as long as I got some olive oil out of it to brandish about when I got home.