In November 2009 I participated in an olive harvest for the first time. Don't let the strained look on my face fool you – I had it pretty easy. David Thom and Tanya Starrett are a couple who moved from Glasgow to rural Umbria a few years ago to found Campogrande, a B&B and organic olive farm. At the moment they have only 40 trees, enough to produce about 70 litres a year of delicious extra virgin oil.
As I said, it was my first harvest, and far less difficult than I expected. First of all, it's not nearly as dirty a job as I'd anticipated. Prepared for long hours in mossy trees buzzing with vicious insects and incontinent birds, I was pleasantly surprised to find the trees clean, sturdy and miraculously inhospitable to territorial wildlife. Secondly, the big, ripe olives fall off the tree like they're desperate to be picked. We hand-picked the low-hanging olives and used small rakes to scrape the fruit off the higher branches. What I expected to be a repetitive, tedious process becomes a perfectionist game, a challenge to leave the tree scraped completely clean. It's almost impossible to walk away from an unfinished tree, the unreachable branches waving like a crude taunt. Once scraped off the branches, the olives fall into ground nets, a tumbling carpet of purple, green and black.
It's amazing how prolific some of the trees are. A well-kept tree in a good harvest year can produce a full crate of fruit, or about 4 litres of oil, according to this blogger. So far I've characterised the work as painless, but only because I could come and go as I pleased, and helped to pick a relatively small haul. In no way do I want to understate the hard work that goes into large-scale commercial harvests. I also helped another family in their (much larger) grove, where they arrived early in the morning and worked tirelessly until sundown. Extra bodies make an enormous difference – one person could pick clean one of Tanya and David's trees in an hour or so. Add a a partner and the tree is done in half the time. Two teams of two can get therefore do four trees an hour.
Campogrande's olives are pressed at an old-fashioned stone mill (frantoio). The area has a more modern facility, reputedly the preference of many Italians on account of its hygiene guarantees, but small-scale producers often opt for the slower, more traditional technique. I went with David and Tanya to collect their oil, which had been pressed over two days at the frantoio. As I understand the process, the olives are dumped from crates into an industrial blower, removing leaves, twigs and other adulterants. The raw olives are then pulped between large stone discs, creating a rough paste. This paste is then spread onto what look like nylon platters, which are rested between rotating plates on a large centrifuge, the whole device resembling the unholy offspring of a jukebox record stack and donner kebab. The platters are squeezed between the spinning plates, and the resultant oil pours liberally from the stack. Even when you've had access to every step of the production process, it's still difficult to believe just how much oil these trees can produce. And of course, it's hard not to start pondering those annoying questions about olive fundamentals... Who ate the first olive? Who decided it might be a good idea to crush them and make oil? When was it discovered that a couple weeks' curing would make the raw fruit edible?
I'll no doubt be spending a lot more time with olives. By all accounts the pruning is a specialised art, and the subject of perpetual debate amongst self-appointed experts. My next volunteering jaunt takes me to Arezzo province in Tuscany, where the olive trees and grapevines await grooming.
Campogrande's oil is currently only available directly to B&B guests, though Tanya and David are looking for ways to make their product more widely available.