Fall In Central Italy: The Annual Olive Harvest

Some Tasty Bruschetta

Some Tasty Bruschetta

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

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

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

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

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!

You Need To Be Agile When Picking Olives!

  1. A wooden ladder

  2. Large olive nets to collect olives as they fall

  3. Metal stakes roughly three feet tall to keep olives from escaping the net

  4. A special hand rake to comb the olive tree and rake the olives off the tree

  5. Work gloves

  6. Able-bodied family members and friends to gather the olives

A Rake Which Is Used To “Comb” Olive Trees

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

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

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

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.