What does olive time look like and much effort is needed to turn this handpicked fruit into green gold
Author: Guca from Happiness Bay
Photography: BKG personal archives
As we leave the summer heat behind us, we don’t allow ourselves to be bored. We continue deep into the fall on the coast, which brings the fun olive time. A traditional and almost completely “local event” of olive picking on our coast, starts at the end of October and ends by early November, depending on the year. The locals wake up and all of the sudden everyone is moving, on the roads, rocky ground, seaside, even parked in bicycle lanes. Armed with ladders, nets, rakes, chainsaws, trailers and determination to pick as many kilos as possible that day. We participated in the harvest a couple of years ago, we wanted to enjoy that beautiful extra virgin olive oil, that “green gold” made with our own hands. I never had the opportunity to try such quality olive oil, but now I enjoy the luxury of using it daily, as if it was a regular store bought oil (imagine what we bought thinking it was extra virgin…).
Our great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers mostly bought, small olive parcels. Some would count ten trees, sometimes less, sometimes more. The number of heirs would grow, people would leave to cities, and trees would turn wild, some groves would only be visited by sheep and boars. Those who stayed on the coast would maintain groves and pick olives for their personal use. But time and learning changed and olive growing reviewed. Many olive groves reviews, family manufactories opened, olive-grower unions were founded, oil mills opened… but it is still, extensive, almost family business style olive-growing.
Success isn’t guaranteed because even olives are live creatures; many things influence them – they can get sick, but can also be healthy and still not bare a single olive
Our personal story is somewhat different; my husbands’ father left the groves to his brothers and sisters and left in search for a new life far away from the coast. Who would even think that his son would return there decades later? The family which inherited those groves also left the coast and never took care of the olives. Therefore the next deal is active: we take care of those few parcels, cut branches, sometimes the grass and bur-weed, pluck the olives, take the olives to get grinded, and in the end divide the produced oil by half. Success isn’t guaranteed because even olives are live creatures; many things influence them – they can get sick, but can also be healthy and still not bare a single olive. We often concernedly look up into the sky, has this drought been too long, maybe the olive will discard its fruit, or why did it rain now – there won’t be pollination, or, ouch the olive mite attacked it… Slowly and discretely, I learned a great deal about the process. When we visit our great city, if it was a good year, we proudly bring a few bottles of olive oil as gifts for family and friends. Alas, we remember three horrid years in a row, when we haven’t plucked a single fruit and with disgust, bought our olive oil in Italian markets.
If you believed that getting quality organic virgin olive oil is easy, you are greatly mistaken. Many days fueled by sandwiches, many cut arms and legs, sore muscles and backs, as well as some weird bug bites, all which has to be endured. This is an opportunity to discover some long forgotten muscles. All falls from ladders are considered extreme cases, for example making a mistake of leaning on a dry branch, or getting torn of the ladder by strong winds. We remember my fall with ended by celebrating the fact that my head barely missed a huge rock, and afterwards cried because me backside got stuck in the biggest burr-weed ever. Getting the burs out looked just like a cartoon scene. Or the moment when, showering at the end of the day I notice my navy ankles, which got their color from multiple conjoined bruises made by constant leaning against a metal ladder fighting to maintain balance and not get lost under one of the many tree crowns. The gold medal in this dark competition goes to my husband, who had to be taken to the emergency room in the mainland due to an enlarged and bloody eye. In order to pluck that cursed olive he leaned on a branch, which, with all its might, swung back and hit him directly in the eye. Luckily for him, the wound was only superficial, but he still had to walk around the village with a plastic patch on his eye. Those days are always fun, everyone walks around in some sort of active outfit, ask around how many kilos has who plucked, there is a sense of solidarity, people with “eye patches”, bandages on their heads, hands in casts and even on crutches. In conclusion, olive growing isn’t really an extreme sport, but shouldn’t be considered a harmless activity either. By the way, olives are called ulike here, so when passing by, we greet each other with “What’s up uličari” (street gang)?
Older and wiser people used to tie themselves to an olive tree during intense storm and thus avoided getting knocked down into the ground
Before the plucking commences days are spent by observing fields and deducing whether the olives are still green or started to darken. If about 10 percent started to darken the gathering can begin. Here we preferred the oil of green olives, which gives a more bitter taste and is a dark green color. Some long traditions and different regions start plucking late, when the olives are ripe and black and give out an oil which is more yellow in color and has a heavies, let’s say more sweet smell. Once we establish the first day of olive picking, the constant weather report monitoring commences. Our plan usually consists of leaving the house early in the morning, but unmistakably arriving in the field at noon… first morning coffee, then a bit of communicating with the world, surfing, then the little dog needs to go for a walk, then breakfast, then sandwiches…
Not all groves are accessible by car, there are long walks, rock hopping, careful walking on gromač, and getting stuck in lianas full of thorns which rip jeans, then avoiding sheep “souvenirs” and grinning at holes in the ground made by wild hogs. We never saw them, but you always know they were there. Gromačis, by the way, a long and tall wall made of stacked rocks, and represent the boundary between two parcels as well as a trail. You always have to be careful, a stone will often get loose under your foot, and take other stones as well as you down with it. Sometimes they can take a bucket filled with already picked olives, which will never be seen again because of the tumbling and disappearing. Sometimes we would get to the grove and the olives would already be plucked… hm, there you go. And sometimes we gaze with envy at surfers who arrive to the coast from all sides of the world and raise their adrenaline levels by riding in a strong storm. The same storm which knocks us off trees.
Sometimes I’m on the ladder, and sometimes I put a backpack in front of me and pluck everything I can reach with my hands. I hate yellow plastic rakes because when you pull them through the branches, besides for the olives, small branches and olives fall down and you have to sort through them. I prefer plucking them like cherries, even though it’s a waste of time. The dog enjoys with us, she would bark freely for days, steal olives, disappear over s gromač and return full of tiny round burrs we later plucked for hours, and which she would collect all over again tomorrow. She enjoyed running through the car with folded seats as well as “protecting her territory” from the oil mills workers, who would unprepared, open “her” trunk. But, that’s why she became a real celebrity olive-growing dog.
While walking to our terrain, we would pass by a few flat, pretty and well-kept olive groves. The olives we pick were unkempt for years, and burrs and weeds are their undeniable rulers. Some trees grew so tall, up to five meters, and you can’t even pick those “best” olives in the tall crowns. Such branches are cut and then plucked on the ground, which serves as some kind of rest after all the positions you get in while plucking. I don’t like the nets that are put around olive trees and then raked, even though that is the fastest method. That’s why my other half likes it and does it relentlessly. We mostly work until sundown, when bags are packed, and carried (he carries them) to the car and then drive them to the local oil mill.
Experienced oil-growers claim that you can taste the difference in the aroma of the oil if, under the olive tree, there is thyme, fennel, immortelle or wild mint growing
Sometimes there can be a long line of cars stretching, and sometimes we are lucky and finish everything quickly. Workers take over the bags, measure them and then you can take fresh oil, not exactly from your olives, because all gathered olives are put inside the same mill. It doesn’t really make a difference since all olives are from the same region, same couple of kinds and are mostly organic. Those who have the necessary quantity can reserve a private mill and get their own oil. Experienced oil-growers claim that you can taste the difference in the aroma of the oil if, under the olive tree, there is thyme, fennel, immortelle or wild mint growing, because the oil has a different taste then. The oil mill gives us an amount of oil depending on that days universal oil quantity in the fruit, on average you get around 1,2 liters of oil for 10kg of olives you submit. To continue my lecture: the title extra virgin can only be barren by olive oil which has up to 0.8 percent of free fatty acids. The lower the percentage the better quality the oil. I can proudly claim that our olives produce oil of 0.09 percent (claimed by the technologist at the oil mill! They are milled mechanically but without any supplements and on “cold”. The oil is murky during the first couple of days, but after two weeks starts to settle and claim it’s royal dark green color and same smell. We realized that the plucking season is truly over after we got rained on for two days in a row. The rain would fiddle with us, it would wait for us to reach the terrain by car, then allowed us to walk for a kilometer, arrange our tools for plucking and only then start raining on us. Then, we would start running towards the car, with all our tools and ladders under our arms. But we would still laugh, tired and wet, because we spent days working on something visible, we already accomplished something with our own hands, and it’s too late for the rain to ruin it for us.
Even just looking at the horizon from some hill is enjoyable, at the red soil stretching by the coast, at the shapes of some belfry, at the sometimes lovely blue and sometimes black and threatening sky. After a dozen days of plucking, you develop a sense of belonging to the nature, you can calmly watch some weird spiders (two interesting bites on the neck and nose), huge ant hills, some insects pretending to be trees, and after jumping in the green grass pretending to be grass, wild laurel with its unmatched aroma, and the smell of thyme before rain… I spent the first couple of days picking thyme, but bees would come and complain. And when I would peacefully switch to the next bush they would follow, until I realized that I am in fact a thief of their food, and stopped plucking thyme altogether.
This years extra virgin campaign is complete, what was plucked was plucked. Once it was divided with family members, we were left with enough for our yearly needs and a bit of a backup in case next years grape picking fails. There will be a bit for gifts, secret lists are being made… and then we are left to wait for a new winter, but we already wrote about that.