Maybe Autumn was reading my last blog post, because fall finally arrived at Spannocchia, proper like.
It's quiet here now, as most of the guests have gone, so we don’t have big dinners in the villa anymore. It was strange at first, but now it’s the new normal—I’m always amazed at how quickly that happens. And it’s our second to last week, too! I can’t quite believe it. But still, there are more things to tell you! I am desperately trying to eek out a few blog posts before I leave.
Around two weeks ago, we finished the olive harvest. Spannocchia has about 350 olive trees with which it makes its own olive oil, which is served at dinner here. While the olive harvest isn’t as stressful as the grape harvest (it’s not as time sensitive), it does take longer, and without the benefit of being able to sneak a bit of the harvest as a snack before it reaches the buckets (olives off the tree are the most bitter things I’ve ever tasted.)
Olives in the Trees
Like a lot of things in farming, the first few hours of it were new and fun, but then the experience transitioned to boredom and a general feeling of I’m over this, before seamlessly shifting to ruminations of how on earth did olive oil become so common? Why is this tradition? Why am I doing this? when it then swiftly descended into murderous rage of the form I am going to scream and kill everyone if I see another goddamn olive tree, before finally resting at defeated acceptance: This is it. This is my life. I will be picking olives until I die.
Even though the olive harvest was somewhat of a sufferfest (an unpleasant thing that a group experiences together that later everyone admits was kind of fun in its misery), it gave me a much deeper appreciation for olive oil, and left me in complete amazement that olive oil has been a staple of so many cuisines for so long. Because seriously—it’s an involved process. Here’s how it goes down:
First, the week or two before olive harvest, you go around to all of the olive trees (all 350 of them, mind you) and clear out any new olive shoots, sticks, brush, and (especially) thorn bushes from around the base of the tree in about a five-meter radius, so that these things don’t get trapped in the nets that are put down. (Later, when every goddamn thing under the sun gets caught in the nets, you will understand the point of previous weeks’ work more clearly and wish you had done a better job.) I am lucky that, as an animali intern, I was only pulled onto this job a few times, but even so the hours of using clippers on olive shoots made my hands ache. My poor Tutto Fare companions had to do this work for days, with the cuts and hands nearly crippled and left claw-like to prove it.
When the harvest starts, you lay down a net under the tree. The nets are horseshoe shaped, and you wrap it around the trunk and overlap it so no olives slip underneath. If needed, you put the ends of the net either above buckets, or on poles hammered into the ground, so that it makes a bit of a bowl shape and all olives that fall from the tree roll back into the center, instead of off the sides. This step is precisely when every thorny stick attaches itself to the net, like Velcro.
Then, you start picking the olives! We were given these special olive-harvesting rakes to use to comb down the branches of the olive tree. The leaves slip past the teeth unharmed, but the olives get stuck in the teeth and fall onto the net. Usually there will be several people working on a tree, a few climb the tree to get the olives at the top, and a few work on the bottom, occasionally getting plunked on the head by a plummeting olive.
As more olives gather on the net, you have to take care not to step on any that have landed, which can be quite challenging, as any time you step the olives roll into the dip caused by your feet. And if you stand on your tippy toes, the olives immediately roll beneath your raised heels. Invariably you’ll squash some olives, and then feel bad about it and hope no one saw that it was you. Also, your neck will hurt from looking upward.
While navigating on the ground can be tricky, often picking in the tree isn’t any easier. Olive trees send up crazy amounts of shoots, both from the base of the tree but also from its branches. Ideally the olive trees would be pruned well so that any new shoots on a main branch are clipped, which not only funnels all energy to the olive-bearing branches and also leaving the branch bare, making it easier to climb. But a lot of Spannocchia’s trees hadn’t been pruned, so they were thick with leaves and small branches, which made climbing challenging. I got so overwhelmed on one tree that when I popped up into the thick leaves and branches, my claustrophobia kicked in and, in trying to scramble to a clearer spot, I stepped on a small branch, which snapped, and I tumbled out in a cartwheel that ended in a painful thud on the ground. It was the only falling-out-of-a-tree incident of the Spannocchia 2015 olive harvest, and a first for me as well.
Once the tree has been picked clean of olives, you gather up the net and funnel all of the olives to the end, where you then transfer it to the bucket, and then move on to the next tree. This is the step where you try to remove all the thorny branches that have gotten stuck to the net, which is maddening, because as soon as you remove it from one part it promptly attaches itself to another, and it makes holes in the net, which allow precious olives to escape, and it also makes holes in your skin, which hurt.
It’s amazing how esoteric one’s excitement becomes after doing something like olive picking for so many hours. We’d be giddy over a good tree—one that had been pruned well and had lots of olives clustered together, where you could get just one good swipe with the rake and all of the olives would cascade out onto the net. And this remained even after the harvest was over; last weekend we went to San Gimignano, a nearby town, and just outside its medieval walls there were scores of good olive trees, the kind where entire branches would bow downwards, laden with thick, ripe olives. We couldn’t believe no one had picked these, talk about low-hanging fruit! If only all of Spannocchia trees had been like that, we lamented. I was tempted to pick them myself, just because I felt someone should harvest those glorious trees.
For the best oil, it’s best to press olives as soon as possible after they are picked. Because Spannocchia doesn’t have its own press (frantoio in Italian), we took them to a local one near Siena. So, we would pick and pick and pick, and then as soon as we had enough to go to press (300 kilos), that’s where we went. I wasn’t able to see our own olives being pressed, but we did go at another time just to see the process, which is pretty cool. The entire factory smells heavenly (it smells like olive oil).
First, the olives get washed, then they’re sent down a belt that funnels them into another machine that gets rid of any extra leaves or branches that may have made their way along with the olives. Then the whole olive is crushed, meat and pits together, into a big brown paste that I have no photos of because it’s really not photogenic at all. Then, and this part I’m a bit fuzzy on, I think water is added, which helps the water components come together, so that the centrifuge can more easily separate out the oil from everything else. The oil is then poured out into a big jug, and, at this point, it looks basically radioactive.
The olive oil from Spannocchia was delicate and fresh—not strongly flavored, but delicious nonetheless. It has been such a privilege to have such fresh olive oil, and even more so to know that I helped produce it, and in doing so took part in a tradition thousands of years old.
In my next post, I’ll write about the Cinta Senese pigs, which are the special breed of heritage pig that we have here at Spannocchia.