08 Jan

The miracle of the olives

By Donald MacGillis,

Before volunteering to help a relative or friend harvest olives in hilly Umbria, first-timers should visit the nearby Madonna dei Bagni church. Since the 17th century, its interior surfaces have been covered with hand-painted tiles offering thanks for recovery from accidents, often falls from ladders propped up against olive trees. Aside from fingers numbed by the cold, this is the only downside in the production of olive oil, that mainstay of the healthful Mediterranean diet and a reliable cash crop since antiquity.

During a visit last month to the property rented by my daughter and her fiance in this town, I offered to help with the labor-intensive harvest, both to see how it works and to make myself useful. Their five acres include about 110 olive trees, nearly all of which had been picked by the time my wife and I arrived. Most of those left were thin producers and on steep ground.

The most important gear in the harvest is the large, plastic net that is put under trees to catch the olives that are shaken or plucked down. Before we laid down the net, we picked many olives off the ground, where they nestled like licorice jelly beans in Easter basket grass. The grass was particularly high on the slope where we worked because the tractor-mower could not get at it. Easiest to find were the glistening, plump olives at the height of ripeness, but more desirable were the even riper, wrinkled ones that had already lost some of their water. When growers take their olives to the mill to be pressed into oil, the mill owner charges them based on the weight. No one wants to pay for water.

Once olives are cleared from the ground, the netting is laid, and work begins in the branches. Pickers shake out olives with a long, rake-like tool or a battery-powered version about the size of a weed-whacker with half a dozen metal prongs. Olives that can’t be shaken free are plucked by hand and dropped on the netting.

Growers collect their harvest in meter-long wood boxes or plastic crates and take them to a local mill. There, the olives are washed, crushed, mixed, and then centrifuged twice: once to separate the fluid from the mash; again to separate the oil from water. Heat increases the yield but lowers the quality of the final product. Only oil that has been produced solely by mechanical processes at temperatures below 80.6 degrees Fahrenheit can call itself “cold-pressed virgin olive oil” — the finest of all.

Our work produced about three liters of oil and was only briefly interrupted by a fall I took from a ladder as I tried to reach upper branches. But the high grass cushioned my landing so I bruised nothing but olives on the net: instant tapenade. I wonder if there is room for another tile at Madonna dei Bagni.

[Source] Click here

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