The glorious colorful fall season is one of my favorite times in Central Italy. The countryside reawakens after what can often be a long dry summer. Sunny fall days with little humidity are a prelude to nights that are refreshingly cool, crisp and clear.
I can tell that the time for the olive harvest is rapidly approaching when the Sagratino grape vine leaves change color from their vibrant summer green to a riotous deep beet red. The vineyards seem to burst with anticipation, and they beckon you to beautiful leisurely drives in the country.
Sagratino Grape Vines In The Fall
For several years now, I have enjoyed working hands-on during the olive harvest. My good friend Filippo always welcomes extra help at his oliveto (olive grove). He has 70 trees, and he prefers to harvest his olives using a gentle, time-honored and labor-intensive process.
Filippo usually harvests his olives early in the season when the weather is still very enjoyable and nearly perfect. Harvesting olives early -- when they are not fully ripe -- produces olive oil with the light peppery taste that I love. Like many Italian farmers, Filippo does not pay his workers in cash. He pays them in olive oil. It’s an attractive arrangement for an olive oil lover like me.
A Tractor Travels Along A Backroad
To Pick Up Olives To Take To The Co-Op
Italians are well-loved for being passionate about many things, including food, wine, and yes, olive oil. This can sometimes include heated arguments about the optimal time to harvest olives.
Unlike Filippo, many families delay their harvest until later in the fall. When the olives are riper, they produce a larger amount of olive oil. The tradeoff with a late harvest is that the weather gets colder, rainy and generally less predictable. This is how I learned that I am a fair-weather olive harvester.
A Family Using Large Nets To Collect Olives
Olives And Types Of Olive Oil
The major producers of olive oil in Western Europe are found in Spain, Italy and Greece. These three countries produce two-thirds of all Extra Virgin Olive Oil, known as EVOO.
EVOO is the least processed olive oil. This oil is “cold processed”, meaning that no heat is involved in extracting the oil from the olives. It is also the highest, best quality oil and it retains more of its numerous natural antioxidants and healthy nutrients due to cold pressing.
The flavor of olive oil varies widely around the world. The flavor and consistency depend on the type of soil, climate and variety of olives used.
Spanish olive oil tends to be golden in color with a fruity and nutty flavor, whereas Greek olive oil tends to have a strong aroma with a more peppery flavor.
Italian olive oil is often characterized by a medium green color with an earthy, herbal aroma and a light grassy taste.
In our Central Italy region of Italy there are three popular varieties of olives: Leccino, Frantoio and Moraiolo.
Leccino olives have a delicate captivating flavor. They have the smell of freshly cut grass, almond, and a mild, spicy peppery endnote.
Frantoio olives have an artichoke-like flavor combined with freshly cut grass, and a stronger peppery after-taste.
Moraiolo olives have an interesting slightly bitter taste, but with a fruity, floral aroma. This oil is a beautiful, forest green color.
Many olive oils are carefully blended with different olive varieties to produce a more balanced flavor.
Olive oil is extraordinarily popular among Italians. On a per capita basis, Italians use roughly 20 times more olive oil per year than Americans.
Italians put olive oil on almost anything including bread, salads, soups, grilled meats, fish and all kinds of steamed vegetables. Olive oil often enhances the flavor of other foods.
Freshly produced olive oil has a strong, pleasant smell with a robust flavor that gradually gets weaker as the oil ages. For this reason, it is best to use olive oil within two years of the harvest date in order to enjoy the best flavor.
Italians tend to be very environmentally aware, and they do not like to waste anything organic. If there is leftover olive oil after two years, they redeploy it for use as a cooking oil.
A Typical Wood Ladder Is Used In The Harvest
These Are Locked Up By A Tree At Night
Italians are known for being very family-oriented and this extends to the olive harvest. They recruit their entire family and extended families to assist. Therefore, the harvest usually includes kids of all ages, parents, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandchildren. Adult children who live far away often return home to assist during this special time of the year. They also recruit other friends like me who do not own olive trees, but who enjoy helping out.
With a few exceptions, the method of harvesting olives for most farmers, other than commercial processors, has not changed much over the centuries.
By long-held Italian custom, food plays a central role in the harvest. It is expected that the host will serve a nice harvest day lunch -- even a hot lunch -- in the olive grove to all harvest workers each day. Thus, there is also a lot of food preparation involved in the harvest.
Olives quickly start to degrade after being picked. Thus, it is important to make frequent trips to the olive mill (frantoio) to process the olives into rich, green, tasty Italian olive oil.
Tools For Picking Olives
For a family, harvesting olives does not take a lot of tools or equipment. All you need are six things:
You Need To Be Agile When Picking Olives!
A wooden ladder
Large olive nets to collect olives as they fall
Metal stakes roughly three feet tall to keep olives from escaping the net
A special hand rake to comb the olive tree and rake the olives off the tree
Able-bodied family members and friends to gather the olives
A Rake Which Is Used To “Comb” Olive Trees
Some farmers add a battery operated, “vibrating rake” which is longer than a weed whacker or grass trimmer.
Close-Up Of A Vibrating Rake
A Video Of A Local Man Using A Vibrating Rake
The vibrating rake shakes the tree branches causing the olives to fall from the tree. It works better if the olives are ripe. However, if not used properly a vibrating rake can cause damage to the tree. That is why many Italians avoid using these. The manual way of picking olives is perceived as the safer method.