Olive Picking 29th November
Out in the Sicilian countryside near Palazzolo Acreide a young family are keeping going the farm of their parents with olive, almond, walnut and carob trees along with a market garden for vegetables. They are passionate about keeping their products natural and organic; for making olive oil this means foregoing mechanical pickers for the olives and picking by hand instead.
Via connections amongst the cruisers at Marina di Ragusa, a call went out for helpers to pick the olives over a couple of weekends. We'd heard from others who had been before how great a day it was so we quickly signed up.
Early on a Saturday morning seven of us squeezed into a borrowed truck for the hour and a half drive. We took the scenic route via Ragusa which was beautiful, the morning mist softening the crags and hills. It was a bit slow and windy and at one place part of the road had land-slipped away but it didn't stop the locals tearing around at their usual speed.
Our target was a farm a few miles east of Palazzolo with a large cow sign to look out for. Turning into the yard Kenny had to be careful not to squash any of the 17 puppies wandering around. They were all very cute and one took a liking for Colin whilst I just wanted them all! Homes are needed for them if anyone in Sicily is reading.
Very cute puppies
After greetings with Paulo and Mila we left the puppies behind and headed off for a short walk to the olive field, Paulo answering our many questions and pointing out their land and explaining what we would be doing that day.
Hi ho hi ho it's off to olive picking we go
First step was to lay out the nets which had to be spread in a large square around each tree to make sure all olives were captured and joined with the upslope net overlapping the lower one so no olives rolled down and got lost in the gap. Nets laid we could begin picking. By running our fingers down the branches most olives would drop off easily, some needed a little more persuasion to break free. This method of picking left the olives unbruising - sometimes a stick is used if time is short but this bruises the fruit and results in a lower quality oil. To get to the higher olives we could use the ladders or climb the tree. Once a tree was cleared the nets were gathered and tipped into the boxes.
More dogs wandered around and it was just great being out in the countryside and fresh air. It was a bit cloudy which turned out to be a blessing as it wasn't too hot; the olive picking was fairly strenuous and we were soon working up a sweat. Not too cold either, just right. Lots of chat and banter passed the time. We were more than ready for lunch having had breakfast so early; Paulo brought out a plate of homemade bread drizzled with their own olive oil with locally made cheese. Plus the very important 2 litres of wine. A simple meal but very tasty and filling. Fresh rosemary and oregamo had been added to the olive oil and chasing herby oil around the plate with lumps of bread was downright delicisimo! The cows that provide the milk for the cheese are occasionally put in with the olives so they can fertilise the trees with their organic pats.
Back to the picking and a challenge to fill at least 8 boxes was set. Some trees were bountiful (the word of the day), one had the mother lode of all olives and filled nearly a box itself. Others were sparse and had hardly any fruit. Some olives were purple, mostly still green, all to do with the ripeness. A mix of green and purple gave the best oil.
A little after 4pm the light was starting to fade and Paulo was suggesting we stop - we'd filled 8 boxes so that was perfect. Back at the house our energy was topped back up with lentil and vegetable stew, more bread, cheese, local sausages and the softest, tastiest fresh ricotta I've ever eaten. We also tried a very young olive oil, pressed in the last week and a bright, emerald green. It had a spicy flavour, apparently only the Italians like it so fresh but we were guzzling it up. It was shame to leave, I could have stayed all night chatting about the farm, Paulo and Mila's plans, nibbling away at the food and drinking the red wine. However we wanted to see where the olives were pressed.
Olives looking like mushy peas
It was a jovial atmosphere at the press with other growers having their olives pressed and waiting for their oil. It seemed like a sociable place for the men to hang out on a Saturday night. Paulo explained the process, the olives going up a conveyor belt first where leaves and sticks are shaken out, then a wash. Next into a giant masher where the whole olives are crushed and churned until they look like super green mushy peas. A separator machine takes out the water and then one last machine to extract the oil. As the oil is pure olive with no additives it is a much greener colour than what is normally bought in the shops. We bought a couple of bottles of Paulo's oil from last year and will be looking more closely at the labels on the oil we buy in supermarkets from now on.
The sacred green oil
We were able to get our haul weighed - a whopping 160kg! Proper job!
A brilliant day out doing something useful and healthy and meeting Paulo and Mila was a real delight, they are so passionate about their land and keeping it natural. It anyone is interested they have a website at Phantalica
and people can go stay with them and help out, not just with the olive picking.