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.
Manually Hand Raking A Tree To Remove Olives
Commercial operators on the other hand, often use large industrial vibrating rakes powered by gasoline or compressed air. These methods significantly speed up the olive harvest. Below is an interesting YouTube video ad which shows a commercial operator using a vibrating rake:
A Commercial Operator Using A Vibrating Rake
Even larger commercial operations that own thousands of trees use an even more powerful motorized device called a “tree shaker”. The tree shaker forcefully shakes the trees at the trunk to dislodge the olives from the tree.
I have not seen this method used locally but this commercial method significantly speeds up the process of picking olives. However, this method can seriously harm the trees after several years of shaking.
This cool video put to music demonstrates an incredibly fast method to harvest olives featuring a tree shaker combined with portable conveyor belts:
A Cool Video Featuring The Tree Shaker
Time For The Olive Harvest
The trees in Filippo’s olive grove are relatively “young” -- merely 36 years old. A disastrous deep freeze occurred in Umbria in 1984 that killed many of the old olive trees and Filippo’s grove was replanted shortly after the freeze.
As a precaution this year due to Covid-19, Filippo recruited a smaller team than usual, with only 8 workers. It took us twice as long -- 8 days in total -- to complete the harvest. The labor-intensive process is one reason why olive oil is so expensive.
We began each day at about 9:30 am while waiting for the prevalent fall fog to dissipate. We worked for four hours and then took an hour for lunch among the olive trees. We completed each day about 4:30 pm which is close to sunset at this time of the year. We then took each day’s harvest to store in our garage until it was time to transport them to the olive mill to be processed into olive oil.
The five-step process to harvest olives:
1. Place a net under and around each olive tree while placing metal stakes at the edge of the net raising it up. This keeps the olives from rolling off the net and onto the ground.
A Team Harvesting Olives
2. Once the net is set up, it is time to rake the olives from the tree. You start combing the entire tree just as you comb your hair, pulling off all of the olives. As one worker rakes the low branches another person climbs the ladder to rake olives from the higher tree branches.
While walking and moving around, you need to be careful to avoid stepping on the olives which have fallen on the net. Crushed olives will start to dry out or form mold which can ruin the taste of olive oil.
Also, stepping on olives is a lot like dancing on marbles … lots of marbles. On a steep hill, walking on olives is even more treacherous. A good friend of mine broke her leg while harvesting olives a couple of years ago. Fortunately, Filippo’s olive grove is relatively flat.
3. After combing the entire tree, several workers grab the corners of the net. They roll all olives into the center of the net. They then sit down on the ground removing all leaves and twigs which have fallen into the net during picking.
Removing the twigs and leaves improves the taste of the olive oil and makes it much purer when processed.
Some groups of olive pickers ignore this time-consuming step. Instead, they let the frantoio do it. This does remove some, but not all of the leaves and twigs.
Manually Removing The Leaves & Twigs
4. Once the olives have been cleaned you dump them into large plastic boxes (called “cassoni” in Italian) which has air vents in order to prevent mold from forming.
Each box holds about 24 kilograms (50 pounds) of olives. At the end of the day all of the boxes are hauled to our car so we can move and store them in our garage. Each day’s harvest yielded 6-to-8 boxes.
5. Move onto the next tree.
You repeat the above steps throughout the day.
Lunchtime Is Special
The highlight of the day occurs about 1:30 pm, when it is time to break for an Italian harvest day lunch. This is not a quick American type lunch with just a sandwich and chips.
Here in Umbria, the traditional harvest lunch can turn into an unforgettable experience.
The lunch can include anything like Umbrian bean soup (there are a myriad different types of beans here in Umbria many of which are not easily found in the USA); a host of different types of salads and antipastos; all kinds of fresh locally made artisan soft and hard cheeses; bread; cured meats including prosciutto ham, capocollo, and various types of home-made dried sausages (salumi in Italian); wood-grilled Umbrian sausages; fresh or dried fruit; Umbrian red wine cookies or a cake for dessert.
Of course, this being Italy you have to have some white and red wine; and thankfully some bottled water as well.
Since we were working high up in the trees, most of our group wisely elected to go light on wine during lunch.
Visit To The Olive Mill To Make Olive Oil
During the active harvest time from late October until early December, olive mills are open 24 hours each day, seven days a week to process olives.
Although the process for picking olives has not changed much over the centuries, the process of crushing, milling and processing olives into olive oil has evolved dramatically.
Never in my life would I have thought that processing olives would be so high-tech. It is simply fascinating to witness this process first-hand.
There are five-steps involved:
Step 1: Weigh & Deposit Olives Into Collector
When you arrive at the frantoio, you deposit all of your individual 50-pound plastic boxes filled
with olives into a much larger container holding over a half-ton (500 kilograms) of olives.
Half-Ton Containers Of Olives Waiting To Be Processed
Note How Clean The Olives Are!
Olives From A Group That Did Not
Carefully Clean & Remove All Of The Leaves & Twigs
A forklift then takes the olives to weigh them and determine how much to charge each customer. This price varies but our frantoio charged 20 euros (about $25) for each quintale (100 kilograms or 220 pounds) of olives processed.
A Forklift Operator Prepares To Pour Olives Into A Collector
The forklift then pours the olives into a collector which temporarily holds the olives at the foot of a conveyor belt.
The Olives Are First Dumped Into A Collector
Step 2: Remove Leaves, Wash and Dry Olives
A Conveyor Belt Takes The Olives To Be Washed
The olives are then whisked along a long conveyor belt where a blower separates out as many twigs and leaves as possible.
The Olives Are Washed
The olives then are sprayed with water to clean them.
Olives Exiting After Being Washed
Olives Are Dried In A Special Olive Dryer
It is best to avoid having water on olives when they are ground up, so the olives are then dried with an air blower.
The washing and drying steps are relatively quick, requiring only a few minutes.
Step 3: Grind and Mash Olives & Stir
The Olive Grinding Machine
In centuries past, donkeys were used to help grind and press olives. Today, a grinding machine powered by electricity quickly grinds up the olives as well as the olive pits.
The Olive Mashing Machine
The grinding machine then feeds the ground olives into what is called a “mashing machine.” The mashing machine has steel drums to mash the olives and create a very thick olive paste. This paste looks similar to a dark, thick and heavy, bread dough.
Olives Being Mashed In The Mashing Machine
The olive paste is slowly mashed and stirred for about 30 minutes. This step is the longest part of the process of creating olive oil and also arguably the most important.
This step enables the small, microscopic olive oil drops to aggregate into larger olive oil drops before all of it goes into a high-speed centrifuge.
Step 4: Extract Olive Oil By Centrifuge
The High-Tech Olive Centrifuge: Vanguard 3502
The olive paste is now fed into one side of a high-tech centrifuge. This step is where it gets very interesting.
The centrifuge itself consists of two coils: one inside the other. The outer coil moves at a slower speed than the inner coil. The heavier solids congregate in the outer coil while the oil congregates on the inside.
The centrifuge drum rotates at 5,000 RPMs (rounds per minute) creating a G-force equal to 3,000 times the weight of gravity. The Apollo astronauts experienced only a maximum of 4-Gs on Apollo 11, when I was a young kid, so I find this step particularly interesting.
The G-force separates the oil from other solids. The solids are gradually forced out of the centrifuge while the visually stunning olive oil comes out on the right side above.
The leftover solids created from producing olive oil contain heavy pulp and olive pits. These solids are dried and turned into biomass which is used as an inexpensive and efficient source of heating in many Italian homes. Additionally, the dark wastewater created is often sprayed onto fields rather than dumped down the drain. Nothing goes to waste. Italians are very eco-conscious.
Step 5: Collect Olive Oil
The Finished Product: Superb, Fresh Olive Oil
After about an hour from start-to-finish, the oil finally emerges from the centrifuge. As it does, you can smell a very strong but wonderful grassy scent. This raw aroma can be pleasantly overpowering.
I love to stand by the centrifuge to see and to smell the olive oil as it emerges.
Once all of your olives have been processed, you pour the oil into large stainless-steel containers – which can hold up to 100 liters (about 26 gallons) of olive oil – and take your oil home.
Olive Oil Poured Into Your Personal Container To Take Home
For our group, one person can rake and comb a complete olive tree in approximately four hours, but most people like to work as a team in order to talk and pass the time away (which while enjoyable, can also slow things down a bit.)
We harvested 1,200 kilograms or 2,700 pounds of olives from 70 olive trees. This yielded a total of 162 liters of oil (about 43 gallons) for eight days of work -- an average of about 2.5 liters of oil per tree.
A fully-grown olive tree normally produces an average 3-to-4 liters of olive oil for each tree, so our totals were a little less than average this year.
Post-Harvest Olive Oil Festa
Each year, prior to the current Covid-19 pandemic, Filippo would host another tradition. This is a festa, a party, to celebrate the end of the harvest and to sample the new olive oil. A festa reminds me a little bit like harvest festivals in the Midwest U.S. but with a more upscale, Italian flair.
Every year Filippo would invite our group to his house and serve us bruschetta with a light dinner. Filippo would also “pay” us in 1-liter, 3-liter or 5-liter cans of new olive oil depending upon the number of days and time we worked. He would also cheerfully explain to the group that we could return for a free fill-up anytime when we emptied our can during the year.
After he “paid” us with our cans of olive oil, Filippo made bruschetta by toasting a bunch of authentic, dense Umbrian bread on his gas stove.
Umbrian bread has a different taste and consistency because it is made without salt. Personally, I get a bit tired of Umbrian bread because it is mostly tasteless without salt (the French do a much better job of making bread, in my opinion). However, Umbrian bread is simply sublime and absolutely perfect to make bruschetta.
Tasty Bruschetta With Toasted Umbrian Bread & Fresh Olive Oil
Filippo would carefully rub the toasted bread only once, not more, with raw garlic. Next, he would crack some sea salt over the bread. Finally, he would carefully drizzle the dark green olive oil on the toasted bread.
While the bread was warm, he would quickly distribute the bruschetta to each member of our group to taste. If you love Italian food like I do, this is truly an intoxicating experience.
Every year the local olive oil tastes a little different, but it always has a peppery taste with the smell of a scent of grass.
Like so many Italian recipes, bruschetta is incredibly simple dish but when you use fresh ingredients and new olive oil, this dish is very tasty.
Hope For The New Year
Due to Covid-19 this year, Filippo unfortunately was unable to host his party. During lunch on our last day of harvesting olives, he presented us with our liter tin containers of freshly made olive oil. He complimented us by saying “un lavoro ben fatto” with means “a job well-done.” I was pleased that he asked if he could count on us next year. I responded that “I would love to, of course.”
That night, I prepared the bruschetta with the new oil at my home but without the camaraderie of our group. The bruschetta did not seem nearly as tasty as it was last year. I missed hearing what the group thought about the flavor, the peppery taste, the color, the smell, how it paired with the toasted bread and the wine that Filippo always served.
My thoughts came around to my life here in Italy, the extraordinary people I have met, and the realization that the harvest is just one of many unique and remarkable experiences.
Everyone here is hoping life will return to some measure of normalcy in 2021. When it does, I am sure we’ll gather together for an extra special in-person celebration of Filippo’s new 2021 olive oil harvest.
Bruschetta – This word is pronounced “Brew-skate-tah”. A lot of English speakers mispronounce this word. There are a lot of different types of bruschetta. All feature toasted bread with a something on top. Probably the most popular is toasted bread some with tomatoes, salt, garlic, fresh basil, and olive oil. Bruschetta all ‘olio or bruschetta with oil is toasted bread, one strike of a garlic clove across the bread, some cracked salt and then with olive oil drizzled across the bread. This is an especially tasty recipe when you use newly produced olive oil but is tasty almost any time.
Cassone – A plastic container with air vents. These are used to hold olives harvested each day. A cassone holds 25 kilograms (52 pounds) of olives. You also hear Umbrians say the English word “bin” as well instead of Cassone.
Centrifuga – A high speed centrifuge is used to separate the olive oil from olives when processed at an olive mill. The centrifuge rotates at 5,000 rpm or rounds per minute.
Essiccatore Per Olive – After the olives have been washed they go into an essiccatore per olive which dries the olives.
Festa – A party. Traditionally one hosts a festa featuring featuring Bruschetta and new olive oil after the harvest is completed.
Foglie – This is the Italian word for leaves. Olive tree leaves fall into the net and it is best to try to remove as many of them as possible prior to the olives being processed into olive oil. Leaves alter the taste of the pure olive oil.
Frangitore – This machine chops up the olives after they have been washed and dried.
Some Of The Olive Oils Sold At The Frantoio In Spello, Italy
Frantoio – An olive mill where olives are taken to be crushed for olive oil. There are over 5,000 frantoi (the plural word in Italian) in Italy.
Guanti da Lavoro – Work gloves
Nastro Trasportatore – A conveyor belt. This is used to take and transport the olives to be washed.
Olio Nuovo – New oil. I have only found this type of oil in Italy which is just after the fall harvest. It is typically unfiltered oil and only lasts for two months or so until the end of the year. This oil is dark green in color, a pleasant strong grassy-like smell, with a strong taste that is difficult to describe. This olive oil is very popular during the fall and is to be used by the end of the year.
An Oliveto In Central Italy
Oliveto – A group of olive trees in a particular olive grove. What is interesting and different from the U.S. is that an oliveto is defined by the number of olive trees rather than by the particular size or dimensions of the olive grove. When you buy an oliveto in Italy, you buy a specific number of trees rather than the size or acreage of a specific property.
Picchetti di Metallo – Metal stakes. These are used to prop up a net so that they olives do not roll outside the net and onto the ground.
Quintale – A common Italian measure of weight which is 100 kilograms or 220 pounds
Rastrello – A regular hand-rake which is used to rake the olives off the olive tree
Rastrello Vibrante – A vibrating rake is a faster method used to shake off the olives from the olive tree. The more common Italian words for this device in Umbria is either Abbacchiatore or Agevolatore Meccanico. It is easier for me to remember Rastrello Vibrante.
Reti di Olive – Olive nets
Scala in Legno – Wood ladder
Ulivo – An olive tree or ulivi for olive trees
Un Lavoro Ben Fatto – A job well-done. My friend Filippo likes to say this after our work is completed.
Vasche di Gramolazione – The chopped olives go into this machine which stirs and mashes the olives for approximately 30 minutes. This step enables the small, microscopic olive oil drops to aggregate into larger olive oil drops before all of it goes into a high-speed centrifuge.