Harvesting our olives at Contrada Lazzaretto & the Frantoio

About a week after joining the Farinas and Palladinis for their olive harvest, it was finally time to pick the olives on the trees in our back garden, mix them in with those of Carlo & Rita (she of amazing sott’olio pickles).  A friend, Americo Colantuono, lent us the mats and a couple of combs and came over to get us started.  Although we didn’t have motorised combs, it was relatively quick work to pick the olives on the furthest tree with an experienced pro giving us a hand.  We moved on to the remaining trees ourselves and while doing so discovered the importance of pruning.
These trees had been neglected for quite a few years and pruned perhaps a couple of years ago.  Before that, they’d been left for quite a few years as we weren’t harvesting them and none of our neighbours was interested in doing so either.  As a result, although they’d been spurred on to more fruiting by the bit of pruning they’d had, they weren’t exactly trained.  Anyone who has picked fruit will know what I mean; by pruning you make sure there are a few branches that are bursting with fruit so the job of picking is straightforward and efficient.  If you don’t prune an apple tree, given that the fruit are relatively big, it’s not so bad trying to hop around the tree and pick them individually.  For something like cherries, or indeed olives, it makes a much bigger difference as you pick one or two olives per branch and the novelty of picking olives in the autumn sunshine, starts to pall.  Using the combs becomes barely worthwhile because you’re pulling down as much in twigs and leaves as you are olives so it makes more sense to pick them by hand which is pretty slow work.  This brought out different approaches in the family group; my father became just a tad obsessive (perhaps not a huge surprise to those of you that know him), staying up the ladder and picking individual olives way past sunset when it was so dark you could barely distinguish olive from leaf.  I got bored of hand picking and started some early pruning to cut out the excessive branches from the middle and open it up.
Properly pruned olives with the centre open and the fruit at the edges
Rocco Palladini had explained to us about pruning when we joined them for the day – his family’s trees are pruned into a wine glass shape with space in the centre for the light to get into the tree and keep it alive and vibrant and with a few branches that descend waterfall style from the edges which can be combed easily and yield bounteous amounts of olives.  The added bonus of opening up the middle as well is that there is somewhere to rest your ladder for those of you without the motorised combs.  However, by slightly after nightfall, the harvest was done, several washing basins filled with olives and the bigger twigs were picked out so that they could be driven to Carlo & Rita’s to be included with their olives and sorted then pressed.
Sorting turned out to be done in a very simple manner, the olives were consolidated into a trailer, lifted out and put onto a grid sloping down an incline.

By the nature of their different weights, the olives fall down where the leaves can either fall through the grid or be brushed out and to the side and blow away.  Again this is a family activity, all hands to the pump and carried out with company and chatter.  Sorted (all but a few remaining leaves that is) and finally put into sacks, it’s time to go to the Frantoio.

The Frantoio itself is down a little side street in Tollo.  Most of the year, you would never know it was there and would just think it was an agricultural building of sorts.  When it’s open though, it’s a fascinating glimpse into a way of producing oil that has changed very very little since the time of the Romans, I suspect.  The olives are offloaded and weighed and then crushed into a paste by rotating stone millwheels.  These are powered by a motor now but in the past would have been horse or more likely donkey or oxen powered.  In fact in the cellars of our house there is still the olive press that the farmers who lived there used to use, which was driven either by an ox or donkey.  More recently they converted it to a wine press but that’s another story.
Returning to the Frantoio; the paste is spread between mats which are stacked up onto trolleys with a column in the middle to keep them in place.  Every 4 or so mats there is a metal disc that stabilises the whole stack.  Once full, the stacks are taken to the hydraulic press and pressure is put onto them from the bottom up and a mixture of olive oil and olive juice streams out and is collected in a pit below.
The oil, of course, floats to the top of this and in some cases this is lifted from the top of the liquid without putting it through any centrifugal separator and sold as the ‘flower of the oil’.  In this case, however, the oil and some of the liquid was sucked up and put through the centrifuge, emerging as a trickle of emerald green oil.  It seems quite magical when you watch it, to see these purple or black olives go in and this bright, fresh green oil emerge at the other end.
So how much did we get in oil from our trees?  Well since you ask, a rather majestic 13 litres.  Score.
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