Take a rake, a big stick and a large net - and you’re all set. Olives are still harvested traditionally, by hand, throughout much of Italy. And joining in the harvest gives you the chance to experience a real slice of rural Italian life: a raw, vivid, backbreaking – but wonderfully invigorating, taste of Italy.
The autumn harvest has followed the same pattern for centuries. Workers, friends and family all come together to gather in the crop from the small farms. The olive groves, regimented terraced slopes of shimmering silvery leaved trees, rustling and rippling in the breeze, suddenly swarm with activity. The gnarled trees, their trunks knobbly and scared are old and curmudgeonly, but their branches are laden with young, ripening green fruit.
Timing is crucial – you want to harvest the olives when they are on the brink of turning from green to black to get the best quality oil. Then, once picked, the olives need to be taken to the mill or Frantoio and pressed quickly – usually within 36-48 hours before they start to deteriorate and mould develops on the fruit. The olives are generally harvested in Italy from October to December depending on location: in the cooler north the crop ripens later.
Machinery has been developed to harvest the olives, contraptions which shake the trees so that the fruit falls to the ground where it’s collected in nets, but this is only possible on flat, even land. Olive groves tend to sprawl across rocky, inhospitable hillsides where harvesting manually is the only option. Picking by hand takes time, of course, but the advantage is there’s less bruising to the fruit. Stripping the olives from the branches with a special hand rake can be slightly quicker catching the olives, again, in nets on the ground.
It’s tough, hot work even though the sun is weak and watery, but you get a real feel for they way life has been here for centuries. And a sense of camaraderie as you work together, breaking for a rustic picnic lunch, sitting on the hard earth in the olive grove with your fellow-pickers.