The Olive Harvest: Picking in an Ancient Etruscan Hill Town

In November, after the trees have had time to produce, the author gathers friends and spends days in a remote hamlet behind Cortona.


Every year as summer wanes, my mother, my brother, and I start to think about how we are going to manage to pick the olives from the 150 trees on our farm in a remote hamlet in the hills behind Cortona, an ancient Etruscan Hill town in Tuscany. We have owned the house for 40 years and it has been an amazing experience to be a part of, especially so for my brother and I as, until recently, it's the only place we have ever owned, the only place we have come back to over the years in summer and fall and winter, in childhood and as adults, in love and out of love, licking our wounds or celebrating success.

Fifteen years ago my mother began planting olive trees on four fields and terraces, determined to restore agricultural value to the land and keep the forest from constantly encroaching on the long dormant fields, always ready to enclose the house and begin removing all evidence that man was there. I doubt things would have gotten that bad. But where once broom and fierce blackberry bushes and oak and chestnut saplings grew ever thicker, today we have beautifully mowed fields filled with shimmering silvery olive trees that are bigger and more productive every year. In 2009 and 2010 we produced about 60 liters of olive oil; this year we produced 100.

We dine together, with a fire lit in every room, on my mother's bean and farro soup, which, even though we tease her about it, is the perfect dinner after a day out in the fields.

The trees are young and just starting to really produce. Last November, for the first time, we almost didn't have enough space to get all the olives down to the mill in one trip. It's been about five years now that it's not just the three of us, spending a day or so going through the trees, picking the meager offerings and tossing them in with our neighbor's olives. In fact, this year, our neighbor mixed his olives in with ours. But it's a production that requires a lot of hands. So as each September comes, we start to talk up to our friends how much fun the harvest is and what a unique experience it is. I don't mention how cold and damp it can be or that there are scorpions under the bricks or that my mother is legendary for trying to serve bean and farro soup for three meals in a row. No, I talk about how exciting it is to go to the mill and taste the oil right as it comes out of the spigot and how my friend Salvatore always shows up and grills his homemade pork sausages on the open fire. The magic that is the clean air and the sweet smell of herbs in the field crushed underfoot and all the wonderful wine to be consumed. I don't mention that we might make you sleep in the monastic cell, so called because it's quite barren and the bed is a high austere single metal frame with a 1930s spring supporting the mattress. I don't mention that before you even have a nice cup of coffee you will need to start the kitchen stove fire, or that taking a shower is a painful thing when the only way to heat the bathroom is with the steam from the hot water itself.

As September comes we start to anxiously call our neighbor Arnaldo to see how the trees -- and, more importantly, the olives -- are doing. Has there been hail? Has it been too hot or too cold? Is the grass mowed down in the fields? When is he thinking of picking? This year, my brother decided we should pick later -- that we had been picking too early and we should push it forward and see what happened. Unfortunately, this year was incredibly hot and so everyone else decided to pick earlier. My mother, who arrived in October to warm, sunny, even hot weather, fretted that without cold nights the fruit would not convert into oils, and we could pick as much as we wanted but we wouldn't get any oil. In the end, by November 15 -- the date when 40 years ago the mills used to open -- the cold nights had started, and we had enough people gathered and bedded up between us and the neighbors that the harvest could begin.

We wake to glorious sun so warm that we are picking in shirtsleeves and it's a pleasure to be outside. The first day we pick is a Sunday and it's hunting day so as we work our way through the olives in the top back field we hear the sound of yells and dogs and shotguns echoing through the valley. Hunting may be dying out in the rest of Italy but not in our hidden hamlet. It is strangely exhausting to spend all day amongst the trees filling our little wicker baskets and dropping them into the big plastic bins we use to store the olives. Even though the physical effort doesn't seem significant, by the end of the day, which ends at about 4 p.m. in November in the hills behind Cortona, everyone is tired and stiff and ready for bed.

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Sara Jenkins is based in New York City, where she has developed a reputation as a fine rustic Italian chef. She runs Porchetta, an Italian sandwich shop, and Porsena, a casual restaurant focusing on classic Italian pastas. More

Sara Jenkins is based in New York City, where she has developed a reputation as a fine rustic Italian chef. As Mario Batali put it, "She is one of the few chefs in America who understands Italy and how Italians eat." Sara is also the author, with Mindy Fox, of Olives and Oranges: Recipes and Flavor Secrets from Italy, Spain, Cyprus, and Beyond, released by Houghton Mifflin in September 2008.

The daughter of a foreign correspondent and a food writer, Sara grew up all over the Mediterranean, eating her way through several cultures and learning to cook what appealed to her. She began her professional career in the kitchen with Todd English at Figs in Boston, then went on to work as a chef in Florence and the Tuscan countryside, as well as on the Caribbean island of Nevis, before returning to the U.S.

In New York City, Jenkins became chef at I Coppi, earning that restaurant two stars from The New York Times. After similar turns at Il Buco, Patio Dining, and 50 Carmine, she began work on her own cookbook.

In September 2008 she and her cousin Matthew opened Porchetta, a storefront in the East Village focusing on porchetta, a highly seasoned roast pork common in Italy as street food or festival food sold out of a truck as a sandwich. Porchetta has been wildly successful in New York City, both with gourmands and ordinary folk alike. Porchetta was awarded the top spot in Time Out New York's "100 best things we ate in 2008" and also received a four-star review from New York magazine.

In 2010, Sara Jenkins will open Porsena, a simple and casual restaurant down the street from Porchetta focusing on classic Italian pastas.

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