22 Jan

Lessons from the Tuscan Olive Harvest

By John Becker ’02

“Anche le olive verde?” I ask, the words awkward in my American mouth. The answer comes in the easy cadence of Tuscan Italian: yes, we also pick the green olives. This much I understand, the rest I need to look up later. But for now I turn my attention back to the small hard green olives that seem unique to the tree before us. It is a fiercely bright morning in early November—the first day of the harvest on this organic olive farm in the twisting hills of eastern Tuscany.

Olive harvesting (at least the version of it in which I participate) appears to have changed very little in the last several thousand years. We stretch great nets under the trees to catch the falling olives. Climbing up single-pointed ladders, we stand wide-legged on the boughs. The fruit grows on the ends of long vertical scions, which we bend, praising their suppleness, to bring the olives near. We slide our hands and fingers along the branch, popping off olives, which fall with a satisfying patter on the nets below.

I had previously known olives to be one of two colors, jet black or drab green, but those that hang on the trees have complex and vibrant hues. A few are black, but most are a rich sweet purple, some are granny-smith-green, and some are the color of raw coffee beans. At times, it is even difficult to remember just what I’m picking, for the olives look so different than I expected. They could be cherries, or grapes, but they are olives, and they are beautiful. The boughs sway in the breeze, and the leaves shimmer green and silver. Regardless of color, all olives go to the press. The green ones, known for their strong flavor, offer less oil. The black olives give the most oil but tend to be mild. Even these, though, are as bitter as acorns when first picked.

The hills across the valley echo with the sound of men and hounds. They are hunting the wild boar, cinghiale. The hounds bay eagerly, close to their prize. Men shout commands to the dogs and call to each other. The sounds reach a cacophonous crescendo and are abruptly ended by gunshots. Six. Soon there is cheering.

The ground beneath the olive trees grows thick with grass and wild herbs. As we step and carry basketfuls of olives the air is heavy with the smell of bruised mint and thyme. I am awed once more by the simplicity of the Tuscan diet. From these hills, one cloudless day in November, we have the makings of a feast: Cinghiale con olio e menta. In America, food travels an average of 1,300 miles from farm to table. Here in Italy I can hear the gunshots as the olives land softly in the net.

[Source] Click here

Leave a Reply