Walking through the olive groves, I see the faint little green pips hanging in the trees. The local bar already hosts an intense debate about the harvest in November! I see their eyes sparkle when they talk about the latest and greatest harvest of the year! For years I have seen how the trees are pruned during my walks. For years, I have seen small white flowers change into small green olives , but never had I seen the olive trees filled with black, ripe olives. So for once I wanted to travel to Italy in late autumn and for once see ripe olives, the picking and the tasting ....
The sun heats the red-yellowish coloured, slightly misty mountains. Smells, colours and the fatigue of a night’s drive put us in a blissful daze.
Mario shows up with his delicious wine and Wilfredo with the wood for the fireplace. The night falls early and is cold. In the cosy cottage we nestle with Mario's wine by the fireplace.
Wilfredo reckons it unwise to start picking tomorrow; rain is expected. We don’t mind too much, a day’s rest or a visit to Cortona is fun too! The next day, however, the sun shines as normal. Wilfredo has probably been listening to Il Colonello, the weatherman of the Italian TV!
We decide to go by foot and walk to the village. From there we walk further up the mountain to the Wilfredo’s little house. Bare trees seem not to exist here in the hills; the many red oaks are red all winter and "the ever green oak” indeed appears to be always green!
On the trail, every 20 meters, you see a hunter with his rifle, intently waiting. They peep down the slope, but in the dense forest is nothing to see. They are waiting for the dogs to chase the wild boars. I am thinking back to images from the spring: mother boars with their babies, still ignorant and running and sniffing around. But now it is November and I realise that November is not only the month of the olive harvest, but also the month of the hunters ...
Wilfredo hosts us hospitably. We are given food and drink. He shows us the ecological vegetable garden and insists on giving us get stacks of vegetables.
Then, out of nowhere, a heavy downpour starts. Il Colonello is right again!
Wilfredo takes us back down with his pick-up truck. The moment everyone is back down in the village it stops raining! We go for a drink at the local bar and to shop for bits and pieces for the olive picking. Everyone gets their own gloves. To prevent cracks in your skin. The juice of the olives apparently is very bad for your skin.
The next day Wilfredo recommends again not to go picking because of the Tramontana, the strong, icy wind which can come rolling down the mountains here in autumn and winter. We claim that we, being Dutch, are used to tough weather!
After coffee at the local bar we drive up the mountain road. At the last house of Valecchie I cannot go any further with my van. We walk up the hill through well maintained olive groves and to arrive at the more overgrown, wild olive grove.
A soft cold breeze, but the sun is nice. Is this the infamous Tramontana?
We take the ladders, the baskets and little rakes. Nets are placed under the olive trees with many olives. The little rake is zipped along the branches. The olives fall into the net. We removes the leaves that have come off with the olives before the net is emptied into the jute bags. A few of us tie a basket on our bellies and pick the trees with less olives by hand. From afar we constantly hear voices, neighbours further down the valley; also busy picking. Pleasantly chitchatting or bickering lively.
The ex-acrobat in me decides to pick the olives as much as possible higher up in the trees. I wrestle myself with the ladder into the tree. High on the ladder I can see that this way I can even better enjoy the beautiful views of the Umbrian hills and the valley, which is still in Tuscany.
Wilfredo makes a fire. The salsicce are fried and we stretch out for a siesta in the sun. We pick for two hours more and then we weigh the olives: 60 kilos!
What a disappointment, that's 12 litres of oil, or half a litre of oil an hour per person. Now I understand why, even in Italy, you easily pay 10 euro per litre for the real extra virgin..... All that work, the planting of trees, the pruning, the fertilising, that labour-intensive picking and the pressing! And it even takes at least three years before a tree starts producing some fruits.
Wilfredo instructs us however that in the bar we must always tell that we have picked 2 times as much. It seems everyone is doing that...
We are getting more enthusiastic and experienced the day. It gets ever easier to place the ladder properly and we get more skill in picking itself. But every single olive counts! Even if there is only 1 olive in a tree, we jokingly compete for it.
Three days of picking: first cappuccino at Franca’s bar, then walk up in the sunshine, picking and meanwhile enjoying the beautiful vistas, the picnic with the fire, the siesta ...
When the sun sinks behind the mountains and leaves a deep red glow is time to go home. We walk down through the neighbour’s olive groves and look greedily at his olives: much bigger and much darker! Later we were comforted to hear that just black olives doesn’t taste good and that the size of the olive says nothing about quality.
The days end with an amaro in Franca’s bar, where we diligently lie to the regulars. They continue giving us pitiful smiles for what is in their eyes only a few kilos. "But hey, it's not that bad, after all you are foreigners. The fact that you are picking at all is already very special."
And in the evenings it is delightful to gaze into the fire.
We drive with our self-picked olives to a small pressing mill. Here we see how the olives are washed and then crushed and pressed. The sludge emerges at the rear, and is caught ... Make no mistake; this is the sludge the pressing mill uses for the olive oil sold in stores!
"Our" oil now flows into the centrifuge, where water and oil are separated from each other. From one rubinetta some black sludge water still emerges, but from other valve we finally see the flow of the coveted green yellow gold.
On our final day we make a beautiful drive through the mountains looking for a nice town where there as said to be spas. After some searching and climbing, we can indeed warm our muscles in the hot springs. We enjoy the bubbling water, pleased with what we have done that week.
In the evening Mario and his wife Alma visit us to bring us some more red wine. We enjoy their wine, the fire and the Mario’s stories. While the outside world gets whiter and white, we feast on bruschetta with new olive oil. Fresh oil really tastes much, much better! And surely the oil from olives picked yourself!
The next day when the snow has disappeared because of the heat of the sun, we enjoy the last warm sunshine before we drive back to rainy Holland. We are all richer through a wonderful experience and one litre self picked, freshly squeezed yellow gold in our luggage!