Back in October, I took 3 weeks out from my cheesemaking schedule and headed south for (slightly) warmer climes and a holiday in Italy. Holidays for me do not mean getting away from food and producing food, far from it. It’s just that in Italy there are other things to see, learn and do.
There’s the amazing Rita who makes easily the best sott’olio pickles I have ever tasted. In the summer, she dispenses recipes for her aubergines under oil, roasted peppers and sweet and sour figs. In the winter she makes a mixed vegetable pickle (cauliflower, carrot, fennel, celery and little pickling onions). All of these add a lift to very simply cooked poached meats or bollito misto and make a winter meal that bit richer and more vibrant. Every year we aim to learn another one of her culinary gems.
But Rita doesn’t just cook like a goddess. She and her husband Carlo also have some land on which they grow vegetables and have a grove of olive trees. Every year in November, it’s time to harvest the olives, take them to the Frantoio and collect their next year’s supply of oil. Carlo is the man who helps us look after our garden too and thanks to him, our ancient and neglected olive trees have been pruned and brought back into some sort of productive order. Last year it was actually worth our while picking them and Carlo and Rita offered to combine whatever we could get with their olives and give us a portion of the oil commensurate with the weight of olives we’d sent them.
We weren’t the only people olive picking, as you can imagine. The frantoios locally which are closed the rest of the year, work 24 hours a day at this time. You book in your allotted time slot, pick your olives and head off with them, returning with 20 litre jerry cans of oil. A few days before we were due to pick our olives, another group of friends invited us to come along and see their olive picking. Well olive picking isn’t a spectator sport, you get stuck in, and so we did sorting the leaves and branches from the trailer load of olives as Ennio, Elodia, Paola and Rocco and their cousin picked the olives from the trees.
|Elodia harvesting with the motorised combs (see below)|
To harvest the olives, you need nets to spread on the ground and big comb like things which you effectively comb the branches with bringing olives and tiny bits of branch and leaf with them onto the nets. If you have a lot of trees and are serious about it, you have a couple of motorised combs which are on long sticks and which vibrate as you comb, bringing more olives to the ground. This being Italy, a day’s hard work becomes a family affair. The kids come out and help or just hang out in the autumn sunshine, taking off for a walk when they feel like it, coming back to help again when they fancy it, and of course there is lunch.
|Lunch is served on the car bonnet|
I had already heard about the infamous olive harvest lunches that the Farinas and Palladinis have. My sister Jane and her partner Jon had joined them a couple of years ago to help pick olives and left at the end of the day unable to eat for another 24 hours they’d been so well fed. On our visit we were treated to a tomato and pepper based beef stew that Paola had prepared, home-made bread from her wood-fired oven, emerald green new season oil from a grove they had harvested earlier, tomatoes, tuna, pecorino and (the bit the kids were particularly looking forward to) sausages cooked on a fire of olive prunings and dead branches.
All of this bounty was washed down with prosecco and beer. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, the cakes were unveiled. Cakes are a big part of Italian Sunday lunching. The local Pasticceria will be rammed on a Sunday morning with people picking up tray after tray of rum babas, fruit tarts, choux buns filled with crema, chocolate custard or coffee flavoured custard. As everyone gets together after church for a family meal, it’s customary to bring cakes to the house of whoever is hosting where we might bring a bottle of wine and the hosts in anticipation won’t have made pudding, just a bowl of fruit to round off the meal before the cakes and espresso are served. So out in the olive grove, we too ate cakes, drank shots of espresso and then returned to work, in the afternoon sun, surrounded by the fresh green smell of the olive leaves and fruit, hanging off a big trailer full of olives, sorting out the little bits of branch from the fruit.
|The harvest ready for sorting|
As the light started to go, the day’s work was finished for us while the Palladinis and Farinas took their haul of olives back home to do further sorting in preparation for the frantoio. As we drove home, other families were finishing up with their olive picking too. All of them out in family force, children and all, turning what is essentially farm labour into a fun day out for the kids. They know how to live, those Italians.