Making olive oil at harvest takes time, muscle and a bit of guidance. Visiting mills in the region, known as 'Italy's green heart,' provides a lesson in its history and a chance to sample the season's offerings.
Reporting from Civitella, Italy— The anonymous stone building on the outskirts of Civitella, my Umbrian hilltop village, was a mystery to me. Every time I drove past, it was shut up and seemingly deserted. But on one moonless night in November, lights blazed through the dirt-encrusted windows, and tractors, trailers, little Fiat 500s and the three-wheeled trucks called Apé were strewn across the road outside.
I stopped my car, pushed open the building's iron door and stepped into a room filled with the rush of warm air and the clanking of heavy machinery. I'd found the Co-operativo, an olive oil mill that comes to life one month each year like an Italian version of Brigadoon.
Three massive presses squeezed fiber mats coated with olive paste. Greenish-gold cascades of extra-virgin oil dripped in slow motion down their length. Across the room, a trio of equally outsized grinding stones revolved in a steel dish, like giant pestles in a mortar, mashing the freshly picked olives into paste.
Antonio, the courteous, soft-spoken manager, greeted me, then steered me past farmers in their bulky winter coats, each man keeping watch over his own olives, to where a wood fire burned in a blackened hearth. He cut a slice of the rock-hard local bread, toasted it, rubbed it with garlic, then drizzled it with oil he dipped out of the centrifuge.
As I bit into my bruschetta and the pungent, peppery oil caught in my throat, I felt the beat of “Italy's green heart,” as Umbria is called.
“It is much easier and cheaper for us to buy oil in the supermarket,” Antonio said. “But the olives are part of our life. We grow them because our parents grew them. The olives are the center of our being, deep in our soul.”
Harvest time, which takes place in my corner of Umbria at the end of October or early November, is the climax of the year. The olive mills operate 16 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week, and the medieval patchwork of fields, empty through the long hot summer, suddenly fills with extended families of pickers, from kids to grandparents with their nets, ladders, rakes, lunch baskets, bottles of wine, even tables and chairs.
Most tourists have come and gone by then, and that's a pity. They're missing a way to connect with the authentic life of Italy as well as a gastronomic journey touring and tasting at the mills. As for the Peruginos and the Piero della Francescas, they're still here in November, hanging in the same museums and churches; there just aren't as many heads between you and the art.
My own olive harvest begins soon after dawn with the arrival of my Italian caretaker, Pasquale, and his tiny wife, Rita. Many of my 60 trees are more than 100 years old, primary-school age for an olive. (The oldest tree in Umbria, near Trevi, is said to be 1,700 years old and still producing.) Like most local farmers, I grow three types of olives: leccino, for quantity; frantoio, for sweetness; and maraiolo, for intense green taste.
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