“Let’s be silent,” I implore my fellow olive pickers. “Just five minutes. Let’s take in the sounds of the valley.”
We’ve talked endlessly, wonderfully, hour after hour as tree after olive-laden tree, steadily yield their bounty.
I want to savour the sounds of this Italian scene. The vista from Carolyn and Paolo’s slice of paradise is spectacular and speaks for itself. Vineyards run straight and tidy, rows of Soave-valley grapes, nestled in low hills. Colourful small towns, and hamlets, also inhabit the scene; their terracotta tiled roofs dotted between the greens of cypress, olive and vine. Church steeples pierce the sky and I am drawn to their melodic tunes, a familiar signature of the small-town Italy that I love.
It is late on a Sunday morning and as we suspend our conversation for a quiet interlude, church bells peal lyrically across the valley, drifting up to our perch on the hillside. Weaving with birdsong, they are the soundtrack to this weekend’s olive harvest.
Carolyn, a Washingtonian, long-happily settled in her husband’s homeland, had kept me updated on which weekend the olive harvest would take place.
“It’s now the 13th and 14th,” she had written while we were in Italy last month. “The olives will be ready then.” And indeed, that was the date set for all of the surrounding community… the olive harvesting weekend had been declared!
Carolyn, Paolo, their son Leo, and Fly the basset hound, had arrived the day before from their main residence in the South Tyrol, close to the Austrian border. This country home offers a gracious, pastoral counterpoint to their home in the Italian Alps.
“The first time we looked at the centuries-old farm house we knew it was special,” Paolo told me the evening before as we chatted over a drink at our hotel, just a picturesque meander along a small windy road from their casa.
“You’ll see tomorrow,” he had said, “our house is on the end of a row, so we have a view. But it needed work, everyone told us to walk away. And we did, for a year.”
The fondness Carolyn also feels for her country place was clear to see. “A year later, we revisited it and the owner was clever. He implored us to stay overnight and that was it. I fell in love with the bedroom!”
This morning, before we start our day of harvesting, Carolyn tours me through their home and I understand it all perfectly. The old stone, wood and bright colours, blend to a cozy mix of rustic and modern. And yes, the bedroom is a haven. The shutters are flung open… to the sky and to the gorgeous vista, and to a pomegranate tree. All… just there, a live mural, as beautiful as my favourite Boticelli or Michelangelo. Oh yes, I could easily imagine waking up to this living canvas.
But allore, it is time to start picking and with bags tied with rope around our waists, we happily join the family harvest. We pluck and gently glide the olives off their branches. We reach high and low, between and around, sometimes kneeling and then on our tip-toes, low on the ground and high above. Eight year-old Leo is still light and nimble enough to perch himself on the more stable branches… perfect for those elusive olea europaeas.
Time after time as our waist-cinched bags become laden with the colourful drupes (pitted fruit), Leo ferries each trove to the crates. They are laid out along the aged stones at the back entry of the home and slowly fill up, hour by hour. Neighbours, Roberta and Diana, are also busy on their plot of land just above us. Their home is also a country retreat and has been in the family for generations. Like our hosts, their passion for harvesting is evident, as is their fondness for Carolyn and Paolo.
“We’re so happy this family is our neighbours,” they reveal gladly. I notice Roberta is wearing a t-shirt that reads… If you can’t get where you’re going – you may be there. The adage mirrors the inspiring signs that Carolyn has dotted around the property. They too play their part in the charming setting; as do the hammocks, Leo’s tree house, the roses and the profuse persimmon tree.
The scenes, the sounds, the scents suffuse into one; affirming my love of travelling, the wonder and joy of it, each experience a fond gem that I tuck away in my treasure chest of travel. So too, is this opportunity to spend quality time with a friend in a unique setting – sharing and discussing our future plans as we move from tree to tree. It is also the chance to be an actor in Italian life, to be part of an annual ritual rather than the habitual spectator as a traveller. When I notice Paolo and Bruce laying on their backs, cocooned under the silvery branches ensuring not one precious olive is left lonely on the trees, I know this too is bringing sheer satisfaction to my travel companion – and also the chance to work off some pasta-fed calories, a result of our indulgent pleasures over the weeks-long meandering trip.
But Paolo ensures that this day won’t be any different and has hung up his picker’s ‘basket’ to don his chef’s apron. His weekend culinary hobby is far removed from the demands of his doctor’s responsibilities, and we’re soon called into the house for a delicious late lunch. I contribute a bottle of excellent Slovenian wine that I had squirrelled away just for this occasion and with the door wide open to the occasional tolling of bells, we sit down to:
Feast a la Paolo~ Primo: Spagehetti alle vongole. Secondo: Polenta, funghi, e formaggio Asiago. And a side dish (Contorno) of a Melanzane alla pizzaiola… all of it simply delizioso!
Over this perfect Italian style lunch, I ask the family why the olive harvest is so special.
“It’s the expectation, the hope, that you helped something thrive. With no chemicals, its personal and kind of soothing,” Paolo explains.
“It’s so satisfying to put something on your table that you grew, something so healthy,” Carolyn adds. “It’s like honesty in a bottle.”
“I love that, very fitting. It’s so wonderful to be part of this day,” I say dreamily, savouring the food, the wine, the setting, the conversation… divine, all of it!
Yet, so busy is this olive harvesting time that we can’t luxuriate too long as the ‘sacred’ appointment for pressing the olives is near. ‘Don’t be late, but don’t be early,’ seemed to be the key and we realized it was almost the optimal time for departure. But with ten minutes still, before we leave for the pressing, Paolo and Bruce once again set upon an olive tree that had not quite been picked clean. They go about their task with renewed vigour, eager to boost the yield by a few precious kilos, knowing that what remained on the trees would wither on the branch.
My mind wanders just for a second… Yes, I can imagine our very own Italian getaway, with olives, maybe a small vineyard, even a dog, and…
“You’re going to love this next phase,” Carolyn is telling me. I’m pulled away from my daydream. It is time for the main event!
From the hilltop of Castelcerino, every road leads downward and with our precious loads of olives safely stowed, our small procession of cars wend along the narrow hillside roads, down through olive groves and vineyards to the little town of Cazzano di Tramigna.
The Frantoio per Olive, the olive pressing factory, was unimposing and familial, a pastel-shaded building set just off the main street alongside a stream and small lagoon. Bruce and I, novices to this process, allow ourselves to be guided by the others who despite having done this many times before, seem to have a sense of excitement and occasion.
The weighing arrangements for their respective loads is discussed with Roberta and Diana, then we all watch with anticipation as Paolo and Carolyn’s pallet container is forklifted onto the scale. Paolo looks pleased – it’s tanto, much! Twice the yield of past years and we’re secretly delighted that we had a hand in this record haul.
Roberta and Diana have even greater cause for celebration – arm-scratched, weary yet elated from four arduous days of harvesting, they’ve reaped over half a tonne of olives, testament to their pruning and nurturing over the past year.
The pressing equipment is neat and economical, clean and freshly painted in an appropriate shade of hunter’s green. We watch in fascination as the olives are tipped into the hopper, first the wash and separation of stray leaves and grit, green olives and black, all sizes and varieties mingling in the process before disappearing into the mulcher. Olives and pits are macerated, resulting in a brown mush that ultimately joins the growing mound outside of the building.
We follow the grapes from beginning to end, savouring the already olivine odours infusing the small, but bustling factory. There is anticipation in the air as we watch the Fattoio operatives expertly moving around the equipment, sure in the knowledge of whose olives were where in the process, small cards with the family name of the olives perch on one of the machines as reminders. No drama or fuss, they work with a well-practiced rhythm amongst the noise, and with the olive patrons literally waiting for the ‘fruit of their labour’… in liquid form, of course.
In fact, the factory rather resembles a waiting room, complete with that particular shade of green and a row of metal chairs. But the collection of family containers awaiting this year’s harvest sets it apart. Bulbous glass demijohns, tall stainless-steel jugs and common plastic vessels all await their turn – the family name clearly indicated.
We’re nearing the two-hour mark. We’ve had a delightful peek around the town. We’ve stopped to admire the old, traditional olive press. We’ve enjoyed a glass of celebratory vino overlooking the gentle lagoon, a hilltop castle peering down on us all.
Now, finally, it’s our turn. We take our front-row seats opposite the crusher in time for ‘our’ olive oil to pour forth into the containers; it’s luminous green, forming an artful gush from the stainless-steel spout, about 120 litres of cold pressed, organic extra-virgin olive oil from the hills of Castelcerino. Looks of satisfaction are worn by all; they’ve waited all year for this.
Bruce and I marvel that such a seemingly simple process of picking and packing and pressing can feel so rewarding and fulfilling; and we’ve only helped. We understand the sheer satisfaction of how it must feel to our friends, but then again, it isn’t that surprising – it’s all about communing with each other, with the land, with a treasured Italian ritual.
Yes, Carolyn had mentioned this too while we lunched. “Watching Leo grow into this, to give him this ritual is wonderful. He’s taking ownership. It’s his land too.”
As we load the hefty loads of olive oil into the cars, Leo has the final word.
“I just like the picking,” he says with a ring of innocence and delightful exuberance.