With the rain pouring down for two days now and the beautiful Tuscan landscape obscured by a thick gray fog, it’s a relief to know that most people have gotten in this year’s olive harvest. A few posts back, I was lamenting the fact that my friends, who usually call upon me to harvest their olives, hadn’t pressed me into service this year because there were so few olives on the trees. Instead, I’d cheerfully helped my friend Tania with her olive oil bottling and had resigned myself to the fact that I was going to have to *GASP* pay for olive oil this year, when along came Charles and Peter. I had been hearing about Charles and Peter for three years from Janet and Ken. They are British expats who have been building a house in the Val d’Orcia and although I felt like I knew them from Janet’s recounting of their house building saga, our paths had never crossed. Then Ken died. I met them at the memorial service and it was Peter who drove us down to Viterbo to do the cremation. I will write separately some day about the craziness of that experience including a high-speed chase of the hearse and Peter being measured for Ken’s coffin, but by the end of that very surreal day, Peter and I were fast friends!
So when Peter and Charles called and said they needed help with their almost 240 olive trees, I was elated! OLIVE OIL!
I spent this past weekend helping “the boys” as Janet calls them. Their trees too had very little bounty, but we undertook to do those that had something to offer. Normally the harvesting would have begun a month ago and the new oil would be really spicy. Unfortunately with a house under construction and a bazillion details to follow-up on, the guys just hadn’t had time to get it going. Traditionally, the olives in this area were harvested around this time and into December. It’s a recent trend of beginning the harvest earlier and it makes the oil a little more piccante!
Saturday was sunny and gorgeous and the guys and I, and their two basset hounds, Harold and Maude, headed out to their soon-to- be-ready new home. With any luck they will be in the house in another week or two, but it’s been a very slow process. The house is gorgeous and I was treated to a tour before we got down to work. They even have an outdoor pizza oven so most of the day of harvesting was spent talking about recipes and how many things we could thing of to cook in their oven!
The property which boasts even a small vineyard may one day serve as a B&B and the setting couldn’t be more magical. The views of the valley are extraordinary. And I also learned that the property was at one time part of the estate of La Foce, which was home to Iris Origo and her Italian landowner husband. Iris Origo’s book War in Val d’Orcia is her first-hand account of life in this valley during WWII. It’s a beautifully moving diary detailing the everyday struggles of the people during the war. Peter even showed me the caves that they’d unearthed where allied prisoners of war had taken refuge during the German occupation.
As for the olive harvesting, we were all old hands at it. Netting the bigger trees, chatting as we worked and gathering kilo upon kilo of purple, green and multicolored olives. Peter actually knows the varieties since he had to get certified as a farmer when they were buying the property! It was a great day. One tree even offered up over 40 kilos of olives. The second day brought a couple of other volunteers– Robert, one of Janet’s Australian friends who was visiting and thought harvesting might be more fun than shopping with Janet and his wife, and Wanda, a local teacher and longtime friend of Janet who really went above and beyond when Ken was sick.
Day two was a bit cloudier and at one point the fog started to roll in, but it was still an enjoyable experience. Because we had done most of the trees requiring nets, we gathered the remaining olives into baskets. Robert sported one of the traditional Tuscan hand-made harvesting baskets around his waist and I had a fanny pack that I loaded up and which required doing a woman-giving-birth-in-a-field type squat to empty it! (And please note when harvesting with Brits and wearing a fanny pack — fanny has an entirely different meaning in the UK, not your backside but your lady parts! Charles and Peter were constantly chuckling when I talked about the fanny!)
We finished up on day two with about half of the yield of last year, but with the hope that the coming year will once again bring laden trees. And the 300 kilos that we did manage should net me a little oil to get me through the winter! Thanks, boys!