I hope all of you who celebrate Thanksgiving had a wonderful time with your families! Unfortunately I couldn’t spend it with my American family in the States, but I’m very happy that I had at least the chance to finally experience the olive harvest in Calabria, Southern Italy, for the first time. Actually, that wasn’t really the first time. Last time I was there around this season, I was a little girl. Not sure if that counts ;)
Talking about Thanksgiving.. Even if we don’t celebrate it here in Europe, I think that we all still have lots of things to be thankful for. Not only on that specific day, but year-round. Helping out and seeing with our own eyes the work behind that precious extra-virgin olive oil, filled us with gratitude in every sense. And not only that. Having access to such an amazing product, getting the chance to appreciate it even more than we already did before, spending time with the family, and being blessed with surprisingly warm days in the middle of November, were enough good reasons to be thankful for.
We were so excited when we got there, that probably no one in the village had ever seen so much excitement about going to work hard in the countryside :) I guess because we had no idea what to expect. Let me tell you, reality hit us very soon. After day one we were so exhausted that we were wondering how we would make it through the week. Besides wondering how crazy we must have been to take “leave days” from work to go work even harder. That’s how fast we went from ‘YEAH!’ to ‘OMG’ :))
Getting up early again the very next day, and starting off with a beautiful sunshiny day while seeing all that movement in the village, made us instantly forget about the hard work of the previous day. Right after sunrise you could hear the first cars and tractors driving to the fields. There was so much traffic on the roads! As my grandpa said later on, the village got completely empty during the day. No wonder.
Once we got there we started taking out the nets and laid them underneath the olive trees. Meanwhile, shortly after my auntie had disappeared inside of the house, the smell of espresso filled the air. Followed by the yummiest and biggest cornetti (Italian croissant version) in the area! Nothing wrong with starting off the day like that, right? If there is something that could be considered high priority to Italians, that is not to skip any meals, whenever possible. Best example: You should have seen my aunt’s face when my brother’s (German) fiancé suggested “why don’t we just bring some sandwiches tomorrow for lunch?”. Well, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, given the fact that on day one we spent at least 1,5 hours sitting around the table having lunch, while there was so much work outside waiting for us. Makes sense, doesn’t it? As expected though, her suggestion had zero chance to be implemented. So, guess what? The outcome was another three course menu. Hilarious! Granted, we loved it. And – of course – no one dared to complain.
It was quite impressive to see how people can keep working after a huge meal, when your body is literally screaming “I need a nap! Now!”
To be honest, the calories were more than needed. And it didn’t take much to burn them. No matter whether the task was holding up those heavy mechanical pickers, picking them by hand, or collecting the nets.
The olives on the little trees could be easily picked by hand or with the help of a hand-held rake, which I really enjoyed using. It made me almost feel like back in the days, the way my grandparents, and their parents used to pick them. I also had a chance to listen to my 92-year-old grandpa’s harvest stories. What precious memories, despite the very hard life that they had.
The harvest time usually goes from November to January. And having warm spring-like days in the winter is not always a given. On top of that, there were no cars that would take my grandparents to the field. Which means that right after sunrise, they walked for two long hours all the way from the village to the countryside, and all the way back right before sunset, after a very hard day of work of picking the olives by hand. No matter what the weather conditions were like. Sometimes there was sun, rain or even snow. My grandpa said that by the time they got home at night they didn’t even had the strength anymore to hold up the spoon with their hands during dinner.
Despite reaching their limits, physically, they still enjoyed the time outside. Family members would help each other, and they used to sing songs while working. There was no house with a stove back then, nor did they have a nicely set up table. The lunch that they brought from home was served underneath one of the centuries-old olive trees. Like a picnic. Doesn’t that sound like a beautiful scenery?
At the end of the day the mules where in charge of carrying the harvest to the olive oil mill.
Even today you can still find traditional mills, similar to the ones that they used in the past. These consist of large rotating millstones that press the olives into a paste. Then the paste will be spread on several discs, which will be placed on top of each other in order to squeeze the olive oil out, which will be filled into containers later on.
Other olive oil mills are using either modern machinery alone, or in combination with millstones. The kind of machinery that is being used to press the olives does influence the outcome in several ways. Just to name a few: The traditional machines take longer, and on top of that the oil is exposed to oxygen, which might decrease a little the quality of the oil. The advantage is, that it tends to extract more oil. The modern machines protect the olive oil quality by not exposing it to oxygen, as the entire process takes place inside, which results though in a slightly less quantity.
Even the methods of payment go back to the past. Customers still have the option between paying with olive oil or money. Most people still prefer leaving an equivalent part of the oil at the mill, instead of paying with cash. The mill owners then go ahead and sell the oil that they get. And on top of that, they sell as well the leftover brown paste, that can be used in certain heating systems after being processed.
We learned so much during that week. And we also learned that going by plane isn’t always the best option. The check-in guy at the airport knew what he was talking about, when he responded to my brother’s question whether the plane was fully booked: “The plane is not only full with passengers, but even more with baggage packed with soppressate (Italian dried salami), provolone and other local products.” Oh, I don’t blame them! We did the very same thing. And had we had the chance to take some gallons of freshly pressed extra-virgin olive oil with us, we would have done just that!
If you ever get a chance to be in the Mediterranean area during the olive harvest time, do not miss the chance to go taste some that just got pressed. The intense green color alone is a feast for the eyes. Now imagine the taste and smell! Yes, it is quite intense, but it’s so worth a try, especially on a slice of grilled rustic (sour dough) bread.
It can take up to two to three months until it gets the normal color that we are used to. In the meantime you get to taste something so intense that will blow you away!
And as I always say, there is nothing more beautiful than eating something so pure and genuine. Especially when you literally followed the entire chain of production, from the tree to the bottle.
This is one of the main reasons why I love blogging about the flavors of the Mediterranean. Experiences like these are a true inspiration. And I hope I could inspire you, too.
See you very soon with more recipes… ;)