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.

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.

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 delicious and the perfect dinner after a day out in the fields. After eating and quaffing several bottles of the fine local red we drift off to sleep and dream of picking olives. Being out in the trees is incredibly calming. Sometimes you hover around in a group, chatting and gossiping as your hands go in and out and around the branches, picking handfuls of ripe olives and dropping them into our fetching antique baskets laced around our waists with lengths of my fathers old climbing rope. But then when the chatter starts to get to be too much you can wonder off to a lonely isolated end of the field or decide it's time to move onto a new terrace. Then you can be alone in the tree, listening to the birds and the sounds of chainsaws from the woodsmen and dream.

Even though the weather is glorious each day, there is not enough of it and we miss our first date at the mill. Finally, after four days of picking and the purchase of 10 more containers, we are done and we assemble a convoy of three cars and off we go 20 kilometers on the winding road to the mill where the smell of fresh olive oil and cigarettes hangs over the machinery. "Cigarettes!" sniffs my mother. "We'll have to find another mill next year! I don't want cigarettes in my oil!" The olives get weighed and the mill owner tries to tell us he can't press until the following morning. One of the secrets to good oil is getting them pressed as fast as you can. So that won't do. I push him for a time in the evening and he agrees. He will press us at 8:30 p.m.

Back off we go to a merry lunch with Salvatore, who shows up with greens from his garden, sausages to grill on the fire, and bottle after bottle of fine wine. We drink and eat with a sense of rest that we haven't had at the table for almost a week, thinking we will have nap time before the pressing. But no, the phone rings two hours early and we race back down the hill. Its 6:30 p.m. but pitch black and there is so little movement in the dark winter evening that it seems more like midnight. The mill is busy and harshly lit. It's an unusual mill, as it still uses the old system of stone crushing and pressing with mats as well as the new modern centrifuge system which my mother prefers as she thinks it's cleaner and makes a better, fresher-tasting oil. Watching the dirty, used mats get barely cleaned and then reused, I agree.

From the time the olives first go up the hopper until the first drops come out is about two hours, so there is plenty of time for standing around admiring the machinery, clothing, and the ancient stone wheels turning. Burly men hustle in and out, and our group of brightly dressed "stranieri" stands out. By the end of two hours, though, everyone starts trying to talk to each other and compare harvest notes. Finally, the oil starts coming out of a spigot and we all gather around, sticking dirty fingers and plastic spoons out to taste that magical moment when we see whether all of our efforts were worth it. This year, with the heat and the late picking, our oil is not as fluorescent, and it's softer, with not as much of the "pizzico" -- the bite that Tuscans look for. Signor Landi, the mill owner, chastises us for picking so late. But we went into this as an experiment; If we don't push the extremes we won't know the boundaries. And still the oil is wonderful. Fresh and grassy, with a smaller spicy kick then years gone past but still a kick that tickles the back of your throat and almost makes you cough. And we have so much more than last year. Happily, we trudge home with our 100 liters of fresh olive oil to keep us going until next year, when we'll start picking earlier and probably invite a few more people to share in the labor and the wealth.

Image: viki2win/Shutterstock.

You can find a selection of this year's new oils at Gustiamo and Zingermans.