We’ve just spent the day helping Rocco and La Signora with this year’s Abruzzo olive harvest. It was a harvest that for a while didn’t look like happening. The weather for the past two weeks has been utterly awful. Torrential downpours have pummelled ripe olives off trees and walking through the groves bordering our swimming pool became a depressing experience as every step squashed fallen olives into the mud.
For a while, this year’s prospects for Abruzzo olive oil hung in the balance then on Monday, rain miraculously gave way to clear skies and warm weather, with the promise of a settled two weeks and temperatures soaring into the mid-70s. It needed patience to keep the tractors in their sheds for a couple more days while the land dried out a little. Over-eagerness at this point would’ve done more harm by churning up the olive groves into a muddy morass.
Rocco has to pick the olives off about 200 trees and needs around 10 straight days of good weather to do this. It’s a tough job. It gets light around 7.00, but he needs to wait an hour or so until the sun’s dried any dew off the olives before he can start picking. Wet olives go rotten in a blink, so the day begins by laying huge nets on the ground around the trees onto which the olives fall as they get shaken out of the branches.
The days of handpicking olives are long gone. A couple of contraptions powered by compressed air do the job instead. Shaped like giant hands, they vibrate fiercely, doing a quick and effective job of sending olives showering out of the trees and cascading into the nets.Hardly an olive escapes. Those that do are left, on Rocco’s orders ‘per gli ucelli‘ – for the birds.
There are minor dramas. The compressed airhose for one of Rocco’s two automated pickers springs a leak. Fixed in a twinkling. More seriously, one of the ‘hands’ on the other picker snags on a branch and snaps in two. Replacing it involves an hour’s round-trip to Palombaro. Rocco incurs the wrath of La Signora for being clumsy.
La Signora also makes me quake as she shows me the right way to handle the mechanised picker; the right way to lay out the nets;and the right way to gather up the nets full of fallen olives and empty them carefully into plastic panniers.
La Signora – a five foot nothing, feisty, bright-eyed whirlwind – puts the fear of God into me in case I do things wrong. Patience isn’t a strong suit. She continuously rages at Rocco’s slightest real or imagined misdemeanour. When he’s sure she’s not looking, he grins at me and winks.
Pauline gets on like a house on fire with La Signora and discovers her name is Angela. I’m a little fearful of such familiarity. She’s now – and might well always remain – La Signora. In between barking at me and Rocco and smiling sweetly while she chats to Pauline, she’s scrambling about nimbly in the uppermost part of olive trees, her picker sending olives, twigs and leaves fluttering indescriminately onto the ground.
Nearing mid-day, La Signora returns home, returning soon after with rigatoni in tomato sauce with grated peccorino; sausages and green beans; bread and cheese; Rocco’s own home-made salami; apples and red wine. All prepared by her 84 year-old mother. We squat down by the side of Rocco’s ageing white Fiat van and feast. Do we like it ? Yes we do. Then have some more. Feeble protests are brushed aside as seconds are ladled out.
We start emptying the panniers into a big, metre-square container on the back of Rocco’s tractor. When full, it’ll hold 100kgs of olives. The days’s haul so far comes to within a few inches of the top. After six hours, we’re starting to hurt. Rocco and La Signora will finish off the last few trees and haul the olives off to the frantoio – the olive mill – to be turned into Abruzzo’s finest olive oil. Then tomorrow – and until every last olive is picked – they’ll do it all over again.
Next year, if you’re on your Abruzzo villa vacation in late October, join us for a little Abruzzo olive picking with us. We can’t provide exact dates for the harvest, because there’s no regular start/finish time and all is dependent on the weather and unpteen other factors. It’s hard work – but it’s fun – and La Signora’s mother makes a great lunch !