La Raccolta delle Olive (The Olive Harvest)
One of the most exciting times of the year to travel through the Tuscan countryside is during the autumn olive harvest. The hillside olive groves come alive with activity as nets are spread out under the trees and family and friends gather for the harvest. This yearly event is an ancient tradition in Italy, and the chance to see it with your own eyes offers a moving connection to the past. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll even be able to sample some of the season’s freshly pressed olive oil!
The production of olive oil—from harvesting by hand to pressing—is a labor intensive and delicate process. Beginning in October and November, Italians patiently and passionately begin the olive raccolta (harvest). To create the highest quality olive oil, it is important to time the harvest perfectly. Olives begin to ripen in the crisp autumn air, and the best time to harvest is just when they are beginning to change colors from green to black. This is when they contain the most high quality oil and are most valuable.
Yet olives don’t mature at the same time—sometimes not even on the same tree. Since many small, family-run olive farms can’t afford the expense of harvesting multiple times, the trick is choosing the moment when the largest amounts of olives are mature. In the past, olives were often left to mature until they began to fall to the ground. This caused the harvest to be pushed off until the winter and sometimes early spring. It’s now known that this method doesn’t produce the highest quality of oils, and in this case it turns out that man is actually better than nature when it comes to deciding when the harvest begins.
There are two main techniques for harvesting olives; either the traditional harvest by hand picking, or using newer mechanical methods. Using the “tree-shaking” machinery and power brushes is only possible on level ground where the trees are adequately spaced apart. However, the rocky, terraced hillsides of many olive groves has ensured that manual harvesting remains the most common method.
The ideal harvesting method is to hand pick the ripe olives from the trees, which is an intensely physical job from beginning to end. Nets are carefully spread under the trees, and the olives are stripped from the trees in a number a ways, including by hands, with special rakes or with long sticks. Hand picking the ripe olives is the simplest, but most time consuming, method. More often olives are harvested following the pettinatura method, where olives are stripped from the branches using bare or gloved hands and special rakes. For tall trees, long sticks or canes are used to beat the branches until all the olives have fallen into the nets below.
Where mechanical harvesting is possible, tractors are used to power rotating brushes that are used to carefully strip the olives from the trees into the nets waiting below. Also becoming popular are “tree-shaking” machines that grabs onto the truck of the tree and literally shakes the ripest olives right off their branches! However, no matter the method, harvesting always continues until the trees have been stripped of their prized fruits.
Once harvested, the olives are packed into airy harvest trays and must be quickly taken to the frantoio, or olive pressing mill, within 36 hours after they’re picked. The sooner the better, because once picked heat and humidity can cause molds to form easily, contaminating the oil’s delicate flavor.