Of all the many things that make Italy a special place, the olive harvest is an undeniable contender for the top of the list. It's got just the right ratio of ritual to pragmatism which is a crucial element towards most of my existential quotients. Because I must confess that I am a sucker for a good ritual; I've very nearly joined a handful of religions for the ceremonial perks, only to be ultimately saved by my fundamental disinterest in long term commitment and lack of enthusiasm for changing my name to something my mom would have to look up to pronounce.
The olive harvest is one of the most time honoured practices in this part of Italy: from the Etruscans to the Romans to the middle ages to our overly stylized selves, people have plucked these trees for centuries, and the oil that issued is one of the staples of the Mediterranean identity. In and around Tuscania the harvest season approaches through whispers among men in cafes and will come to dominate discussions usually given to weather or what people are cooking and/or eating.
And then you'll start to see the trailers full of crates being brought to the communal mill for processing, the jerrycans and bottles in the backseats of peoples battered and bruised cars. As the days shorten, you may even hear that familiar buzz in the air of the giant combs that people use to shake the olives loose from the trees, and it will start to seem like a perfectly calibrated din that leads you to thinking about all manner of everything...
But I am getting ahead of myself. Rituals do that to me.
Last year was a pretty abysmal one for olives and olive oil throughout Europe, with a perfect storm of extenuating circumstances combining to create a very low yield of fruit with pretty rubbish results. People called it 'the black year' and it took on the kind of spectre that makes for scary bedtime stories. Yet as our friend Maurizio pointed out, the olive has resisted and existed in the face of every kind of illness and misfortune that we can imagine, and it still continues to thrive. Ebb and flow is a critical concept when you rely on land to deliver results, and it really does laugh in the face of our best laid plans.
Case in point, this year was set to be a banner year for the olive. A blazing hot summer combined with just the right cold snap in the fall was promising great quality fruits, and everywhere we looked trees were heavy with multicolored olives. We set out to work with Teresa and Massimo, Marco's parents who also help out at the Terziere, to harvest the over 300 trees that Massimo is responsible for maintaining.
For those who have never done so, small scale olive harvesting is a labour intensive and largely hand operated affair and olives tend to niggle on their branches like a loose tooth, so there are all manner of comb like tools employed to convince them. Luckily or not, some of us will get stuck with the tiny hand combs, and some will get the larger, machine operated combs that tend to make much quicker work of the picking.
The downside to the giant comb is that while mimicking the giraffe, one's neck is held in the upright position for what seems like an eternity, lost as we get in the steady buzz of the machine. It's just a constant work, nothing more and nothing less, with your entire body engaged in the singular pursuit of making these tiny fruits fall. There's not much else, and that's fantastic.
Massimo also prunes the trees as we harvest them, so he'll cut down large branches full of olives that we'll then pick clean on the tarps. Sometimes you can beat the branches with a stick and they wind up shaking loose (the "Maremma stick" as Massimo called it) or you can run the comb on the branches and watch as they vibrate wildly. I prefer to think that Massimo cuts the branches that Teresa cannot reach so that she can harvest them more easily, and I prefer to think of it as a gesture of affection.
Once a series of trees have been pruned, the olives are gathered up from all of the tarps, cleaned of the branches and leaves, and dumped into 20 kilo bins that will then make their way to the olive mill. The tarps have a certain magic of their own, and the smell of them as they get taken out of their storage at the beginning of the harvest is evocative in its own right, as Nikki rightly said.
We've known Massimo for a little while now and we routinely have a good laugh with him and can riff on a joke for some hours together. But it was a different thing to harvest together, to watch him tend to the trees that belonged to his father with the kind of affectionate assurance that comes from the intimate knowledge of how a thing works. To see him in his green coveralls was to see him differently, to see the parts of him that superseded the others yet remained beneath all of the layers, the constant and consistent undercurrent of holding a piece of your land in your hand. In truth, inside of every Italian there is that small piece which is a farmer. And I suppose that inside of all of us there is that small piece which is a little bit Italian.
Once the olives are collected, the tarps are moved and fashioned in their precise yet anecdotal fashion around the next group of trees, and on until the end.
It certainly wouldn't be Italy unless we stopped for lunch, and Teresa would hardly let Massimo go hungry (nor would Massimo let Teresa let Massimo go hungry, if we're honest). The collective fatigue and hunger that comes with being outside, the flush in the cheeks reminds me of days that my dad would take us to football games as children and bundle us up into blankets and pom pom hats. There is a melancholy that accompanies all of these moments, a smell of wood burning in the air and all of the things that are still to be done which is unmistakable and incandescent and which strikes something deep in me that I sense but cannot articulate. It's a different thing when your job brings you into someone's home, into their life. Lines blur and dissolve into a gentle mist.
We helped Massimo and Teresa harvest the trees located on Maestro Bravi's land, which once belonged to Massimo's father. Maestro Bravi is 87, and lives with his daughter in Tuscania where he is her primary caretaker, and his land is reserved for his trees and vegetable garden. A former schoolteacher, Maestro is possessed with the kind of innate awareness that requires him to speak very little and with a barely perceptible nod he makes it clear that he has understood what you have not even said. He helped with the harvest and collected all of the branches that Massimo cut for firewood, and seemed to get younger with each load of wood that he hauled away.
As the sun begins to dip down and the last olives are collected, the whir of the generator stops and the air is filled with a thick silence; it's as if you've never heard silence before and it is so powerful that you have to take a moment to stop and let yourself catch up with it. Olive harvesting is a long game, a slow and steady gain of inches and grams. The ritual is also in the pace of it, the time that has to be put into it. It is a type of austerity, a lenten promise to your father's trees or something close to it.
But again, it's pragmatic and the results are real. Because as all those bins get filled and they make their way to the mill they are transformed, and the transformation is why all the ritual matters.
This was the first olive oil we tasted of the 2015 harvest and in some grand symbolic gesture worthy of its name, the power went out in the mill as we were watching the first liters poured. It barely looks real but there it is, with no filters and no fanfare. It is luminescent and aggressive and the first taste of it is an assault that strikes at the back of the throat. Its a thing that you picked and you cared for and you watch fall out of that tree and there it is, painted alive.
There is a proverb that says, 'fortune and olives are alike: sometimes a man has an abundance and sometimes not any." There is a reason that the olive has such symbolism, and a reason why it means so much. The olive is filled with promise, with possibility; a reminder that if this time it doesn't quite go off as you'd hoped, there will always be another chance and another season. When we cook with it we take all of those possibilities and make them manifest and it continues to matter as much as it has for thousands of years.
Indeed perhaps it was to the humble olive that he was speaking when the philosopher poet LL Cool J uttered these words, and how true they ring: I'm gonna take this itty bitty world by storm, and I'm just gettin warm.