There is something humbling about participating in a traditional olive harvest. Every couple of years, I get to help my husband, and his family gather olives to make oil for our own family. Everyone loves the taste of good high-quality oil, and I refuse to do without it.
I grew up eating olives, and I’m addicted to them, every year I do some olive schiacchiati (crushed cured olives), and I’ll eat olives by the truckload. I love, love, love drizzling everything with olive oil. My favourite snack is fresh crusty Italian bread, toasted with olive oil and oregano. So it seems fitting that I participate in their collection since I liberally consume them throughout the year.
The harvest is a few days of physical work which I don’t mind doing. I enjoy doing something with my hands, working together with others to make a high-quality natural product.
Participating in the harvest makes me feel connected to my ancestors, who once did the same as me. It also creates a particular affinity with many other people who participate in this ritual all around the world. For me, it is a labour of love, an ancient rite which has been undertaken since biblical times.
Commercial olive oil production happens all over the world from genetically modified trees, planted over hundreds of kilometres to ancient secular plants in small family plots. Harvesting occurs everywhere, from Australia to the US and Spain. The tools range from automatic machines who shake every last olive off the tree to people harvesting by hand.
A smaller harvest has more soul to it, and something is satisfying about doing physical work, gathering this ageless fruit the same way it has always been done. Beating the branches with poles to make the ripe olives fall, laying down the nets to catch them, being careful not to lose one pip carelessly.
There is something gentle about blanketing the ground with the nets known as lenzi in the Sicilian dialect, it is an almost maternal act, wrapping the earth with them. The word Lenzo reminds me of the Italian world lenzuolo or bedsheet as if laying them down prepares the land for the sleepiness of the coming winter.
Lenzo is a common Sicilian surname, like so many other made-up names taken from everyday objects and places in Sicily. I’m always amused when many people with a Sicilian background fall into the trap of believing they could be aristocrats because they are named after a town or place. Many people fall for the propaganda of fake family crests when most probably, there was a foundling child in their ancestry.
Surnames taken from places and ordinary objects were made up on the spot while registring abandoned children left to the church in the poverty of nineteenth-century Sicily.
It was common for unwanted children to be anonymously abandoned in the revolving doors of the church wheels. No one knew neither mother nor father, so the local priest or town registry officer would give them random names.
Sicilians always fall into the trap of thinking they have a regal background; their pride tricks them. Any link to the ancient royal houses of Sicily is still convoluted and challenging to prove. It seems nobler to me to be named after the nets who embrace the landscape in a beautiful quilt every autumn than be part of a convoluted mostly foreign Gattopardian decadence which has pretty much died out.
The thought of an honest hard days work is appealing to me; it seems more authentic in our modern lives which have lost their connection with the natural world.
Perhaps it’s my honest, hardworking working-class background. Instead of being preoccupied with chasing a fantasy, ambition, fame, or money, it is refreshing to do something tangible and real.
The connection to the seasons, the land and the natural world is quite inebriating for me, and it’s as if I am working side by side with my Nonni in their ancestral home.
It is beautiful to embrace the olives, gently wrap them up in the nets pulling out the leaves, branches, prickly bramble vines, cleaning them and grooming them for their journey to the press which will turn them into glorious olive oil.
The sound of the olives falling onto the carefully positioned nets make a distinct popping sound as they bounce playfully on the well-groomed soil, recently cleared and cleaned to help with the harvest.
Once on the nets, the voluptuousness of the deep purple olives bleed out an oily watery residue, which stains your hands like blood.
On the first day of harvest, I stupidly forget my protective gloves and so as I pluck out the tiny branches and leaves, I occasionally prick myself on the random prickles of the cleared Mediterranean scrub.
The oiliness begins to stain my fingertips as I turn the fruit over to separate them from the leaves and sticks. That night I have to dig out a thorn with a sewing needle which had made its home painfully inside my index finger.
For me collecting olives is an act of patience and love, tumbling them into the fabric sacks for transport. The olives squelch as they crush themselves with their weight, ready for their final journey.
The humble olive has made an amazing made odyssey through ancient history from their origins eight thousand years ago in the Eastern Mediterranean, to their gradual migration from the Near East, Cyprus, the Aegean Sea and the Strait of Gibraltar.
The Phoenicians diffused olive trees along the Mediterranean shores of Africa and Southern Europe.
The Greeks and Romans were gradually bringing the olives and oil to Sicily, where it is a solid staple on the Italian table.
The local Sicilian olive press or frantoio as they say in Italian is a hive of activity. In December people rush to have their oil pressed before Christmas. The presses are often open twenty-four seven in a furious few weeks of activity as people pile up their cars and pull trailers filled with linen bags overflowing with Tyrian purple ripened olives.
The sacks who once inhaled the aroma of coffee beans are recycled to soak up the raw oil leaking out from the bursting olives. Bags are stacked up outside the entrance of each trapito as olive presses are called in the local Sicilian dialect.
A cue of work starts to form, and the backlog piles up along the edge of the workspace. No one has ever been turned away; you wait your turn before the presses labourers load the olives into the machines.
People standing around waiting for their oil are surreptitiously inebriated by the pungent aroma of the savage oil which overcomes them. The odours of an olive press in full production is like a thick woollen blanket embracing everything alleviating any sensation of the cold and impeding any possible movement.
The freshly pressed oil is like a mesmerising numbing shock-like biting into a raw olive, but then it gradually intoxicates and makes you feel at home.
The first time I saw freshly pressed olive oil I was surprised by the colour, it isn’t golden like the variety you buy by an incredibly vibrant green, which looks more like freshly cut grass shaving rather than bottled oil. As it rests and settles, it becomes dirty mustard and eventually the usual honey colour we are accustomed to seeing, but at first, it is wild and green like the countryside it came from.
Often the new oil is taste-tested directly at the press by roasting thick pieces of crusty bread and drenching them in the elixir. It is obligatory to salute the blessings of this years harvest with a celebrity drink of new wine.
After the olive harvest, the fresh oil is immediately put to use at home with the family by sharing more slabs of crusty Sicilian bread sprinkled with salt and oregano and frying up savoury dumplings known as crispelle flavoured with everything from cauliflower to anchovies.
The use of the oil is a serious undertaking as it gives a final collective vote of approval to the quality of a particular olive press, reputations are built or destroyed every year after the taste test.
If the oil is burnt or has some other defect, the press will lose its clientele for the following year. If it is good, it will be used abundantly to fry everything from arancini for Santa Lucia, to salted cod or Baccala’ during the upcoming New Year’s Eve feast.