Monday, 22 October 2012

Flavours Holiday Magic Happens In Winter Too

Experience An Actual Olive Harvest In Italy 

We think of olive trees as survivors and marvel at their gnarled and contorted forms. Olea europaea is this majestic tree’s botanical name and the Romans did much to popularise this genus. Right across the Mediterranean and as far as the Portuguese Atlantic coast you will find silvery, grey sentinels. They tolerate intense heat and long spells of drought with fortitude, decade upon decade and in some cases even, century upon century.

 In any olive growing region, and in fact, in any traditionally agricultural community, there are certain times of the year when you can predict what people will be doing. The year is punctuated by sowing and harvesting following historical cycles. The final harvest of the horticultural year is usually the olive and as you drive through the landscape it is dotted with figures armed with nets, baskets, rakes and assorted picnics, attempting to strip every tree of its valuable fruit.

The smell of diesel from the agricultural machinery used to transport both crop and workers fills the air and the sound of voices permeates the plains; and ‘twas ever thus it seems. I am so glad this tradition continues because freshly pressed virgin olive oil is really one of my favourite perfumes and there is nothing better than drizzling this vibrantly lime green liquid (or yellowy gold colour) over fresh bread or crunchy Bruschetta. Homer, after all, waxed lyrical about olive oil and called it ‘liquid gold’ and top quality oil really is ‘liquid engineering’ for both the body and the soul.

The picking is a ritual, (completed by hand to avoid bruising the precious olive) and so is the pressing which is an opportunity to gossip, bemoan this year’s growing conditions, whether the crop was infested or managed to escape, and of course, price. Depending what region you might be in, this will probably all happen around November to January time but Tuscany is an exception. Their harvest happens in September to beat the frost and as a result the olives are harder and yield less oil. This probably contributes to the slightly peppered qualities so characteristic of this region. It also means Tuscan olive oil is less commercially available as there just aren’t sufficient bottles to swamp the market, so why not pay a visit at olive harvest and source your own?

Yes, supermarket olive oil can be bought fairly cheaply and you can splash out and treat yourself to a reserve bottle but take my word for it, there is nothing like smelling and tasting freshly pressed olive oil; I was shocked at the difference when I first experienced this phenomenon and I love how they all taste slightly different.

There are pristine warehouse-style mills peppered across the regions but usually local mills most people favour, make use of pretty traditional methods. First the olives are ground between massive stones and then the resultant paste is squeezed onto massive fibre mats and the oil itself gloops satisfyingly down the centrifuge. It reminds me of Keats’ Ode to Autumn where autumn tarries:

‘… a cyder-press, with patient look, 
Thou watches the last oozings hours by hours.’ 

Not apples, true, but olives, yet the feeling is the same. Although in Italy whole families picnic in the patchwork fields as their forefathers have always done, maintaining this tradition for another year as if it’s a celebration of survival; ‘I made it here for another harvest and will see you again next year.’ That’s another good reason to throw a party and the Italians often do to celebrate the harvest.

Nicky Chapman joined us for the olive harvest
on the BBC Holiday Programme - watch it now!
It’s something many tourists never get to see and those who experienced a Flavours holiday in the baking heat of the summer will see Tuscany, Puglia and Umbria take on a different atmosphere and hue which is well worth experiencing. Yes, the evenings may be decidedly cool but the days are often bright with high blue skies and winter sunshine. You may well enjoy watching the rituals and doing your very own olive oil tastings all over the region. You will learn about the different types grown for sweetness, quantity and intensity too. Names to look out for are: frantoio, leccino and maraiolo.

Yes, it is an age old tradition but it is frenetic work. Once the olives are picked, the race is on to get them pressed, as fermentation begins almost immediately. This is a disaster in the making, unless the fruit is pressed as a matter of urgency, for its 20% oil content -not much really - so, you can begin to imagine just how many it takes to make a litre of oil (around 200 if you are working it out).

Tempted? Then why not leave dull days behind and celebrate the olive harvest in Italy or maybe think about how you might put top quality olive oil to use in the flavours’ kitchen next season?

Flavours offer Italian cooking holidays, Pilates, and painting holidays in Tuscany, where you can experience the olive harvest at the right times of year - contact us to learn more! Flavours also offer holidays in Sicily, Umbria, and Puglia.

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