Olives have been cultivated throughout the Mediterranean for thousands of years, even before written language was invented. In Salento, where I live in the far south “heel” of Italy’s boot, this “liquid gold” often comes from ancestral trees over 400 years old. I contend (without prejudice, of course) that our region makes the finest oil from the finest olive trees.
I manage our family trees with extra care by pruning and treating them with copper sulfate spray to protect them from the harsh sirocco winds. Experts say that olive trees need to be pruned up high to allow light and air into the center, which helps prevent pests and diseases from taking hold. I didn’t mind cutting away growths from the base of the tree, but I finally accepted that more radical pruning was a necessary evil. And so, during the spring, before my olive trees had started to flower, I surrendered them to the war surgeons.
Watching the pruning work was painful. I was shocked as half a dozen skilled pruners, armed with blades, saws, scissors, and ropes, surrounded each tree like opportunistic predators. Imagine ten men in the same treetop performing an undignified mutilation. Down fell the sawed limbs, still bleeding, like my own wounded heart.
Two years later, I anticipated an abundant crop that would yield excellent olive oil. A successful harvest needs enough workers to do the picking, a task that my family, friends and I have traditionally done by plucking each olive by hand before shaking the branches. We scheduled the harvest that year for the beginning of November to take advantage of several factors: school holidays; early ripening olives; the town’s olive presses were operating; and Saint Martin was expected to bless our work with the warm and sunny weather Americans describe as “Indian summer.”
Our family team of six pickers, each with a basket, headed toward the olive-laden trees, around seventy of them in regimented rows. We plucked the lower-hanging olives. Next we arranged huge, bright-green nets under the trees to catch the olives as they were scraped or shaken from the branches with either gloved or bare hands and special long-handled rakes. After hours of this, we gathered up the nets and tipped the fallen olives into crates.
The children plucked olives from the lower branches or collected them from the nets, emptying them into baskets or tins. My 12–year-old nephew Gabriele insisted on climbing to the top, ignoring protests. I smiled. The olive harvest was in his blood.
Olives need to be pressed within 24 hours of harvesting; otherwise the fruit’s fermentation would taint the oil’s flavor. At the olive press, long lines of horse drawn carts, tractor-pulled wagons, and other open carriers filled with olives awaited their turns. Everyone remained with their own fruit, making sure that their olives were not mixed with the “inferior” olives of others. Finally, the olive oil was segregated into large glass jars, ready to take home.
For my family, the best part of picking olives is our payment in liters of delicious oil. The first tasting on a slice of warm bread is a celebration of the fruit’s bounty: the yield of a year of nature’s work but only a week of our own! Truly, in Salento, we who can bring home enough oil to fulfill our family needs feel as rich as kings. The liquid gold of our olives, not money, has been and will continue to be the measure of our family’s well-being.
Salento by 5: Friendship, Food, Music and Travel Within the Heel of Italy’s Boot is written by five authors: three Salentinians (Luciana Cacciatore, the author of this excerpt); Carlo Longo, and Lucia Erriquez) and and two long-time visitors from California (Audrey and David Fielding) . More than a travel guide, the book is a memoir and expression of a Salento love affair. Visit our website to buy the book and learn more about its authors. Illustration by David Fielding.
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language; LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the World; MONA LISA: A Life Discovered; and “A” Is for Amore, which you can download for free at diannehales.com.