Well, its November once again, and we are pleased to say that we have made a start on the olive harvest here at “Tre Cancelle”. This year we have many more olives than last year. By the beginning of November many were growing round and plump and gradually turning from green to a dappled pink.
The countryside surrounding Itri has been noted for the quality of its olives since Roman times. The Itrana variety is exclusive to this specific area, thriving in the unique environment. Everywhere you care to look in Itri there are olive trees, its undulating hillsides are tinted with their distinctive silver-grey foliage. In this rocky terrain olive trees thrive, benefiting from the hot, dry summers, temperate winters, refreshing Tyrhennian Sea breezes and fertile mountain soil. Indeed the cultivation and preparation of this fruit is the mainstay of the local economy.
Unfortunately, during the last week or so we have been troubled by some violent electrical storms, accompanied by bursts of heavy rain and forceful winds. Consequently a number of the olives have already been battered to the ground, so last week we started the harvest by collecting up some of these fallen fruits – a long and arduous job, on our hands and knees, but it is such a shame to waste them by leaving them to rot on the ground. In fact last weekend, I imagine that almost all the inhabitants of Itri would have been on their hands and knees, also trying to salvage windfall olives.
At the weekend Filippo and his English wife Pauline kindly volunteered to help us with some olive gathering. But we had a problem, as Paul could not remember where we had put our olive nets. Either he has put them somewhere very “safe”, or someone has “half inched them”, so in the end we had to go out and buy some new ones.
We started by spreading the huge, green, synthetic nets under four or five trees. Paul then fired up the air compressor, which is driven by a small, raucous petrol engine, and connected the long, flexible, pneumatic hose to the compressor’s air reservoir. There are a variety of tools that can be attached to the end of the hose, but for harvesting olives there is the machinetta, a mechanical shaker which has a pair of vibrating clappers, mounted on a telescopic aluminium pole, which can be extended to a maximum length of about four metres.
Paul operated the shaker, to dislodge the fruits from the higher branches of the trees, while the rest of us endeavoured not to get battered by the tumbling fruit that was raining down. Pauline and I worked on the lower branches, detaching the olives by gently running our fingers over the fronds, and popping off the green drupes. Filippo chose to use a ladder to climb up the tree to pick olives that were proving difficult to reach. Then I scrambled about under the trees to manually gather any that had bounced off the nets. Oh !!! My aching back !!!
We periodically silenced the compressor giving us a break from its chuntering and hissing, while we gathered up the nets rolling the olives to one edge. Then we sorted and pulled out some of the leaves and stray twigs, before pouring the olives into the prepared crates. Then we lugged the nets on to the next batch of trees to be harvested and laid them out again.
We worked on until dusk, and then packed away our equipment before I put the kettle on for a brew. Meanwhile Paul and Fil loaded the full crates of olives into the back of our car. Ideally the olives need to be processed within a 24 to 48 hour period after picking, otherwise the quality deteriorates rapidly, any bruised or damaged fruit would begin to oxidise and ferment, resulting in higher levels of acidity.
After a lovely cuppa, we headed off to the mill, and as we bounced and trundled down the pot-holed road to Itri the car was bursting with the intense fruity aroma of the freshly picked olives.