Many of the olive trees scattered on the hills of a valley in Maremma in Tuscany, are over hundred years old.
I know this place very well and I can move around easily without getting lost. Sometimes, I like to pay the olive trees a visit, thinking of them as the guardians of this land and of the many people who have passed through here. While I’m wandering around the olive grove, at this time of the year, I can hear their voices in the wind but, in getting closer, I realize where the voices are actually coming from. Under one of the tree, someone is picking the olives that are now ready to be harvested. In passing near some of the workers, they immediately greet me. Some are having a rest and are slicing the filoni of bread and the pecorino cheese or the ham, some are collecting the sacks that are full of olives, while others are spreading the nets well around the roots of the trees.
Olive picking means long hours, from dawn till dusk, and many days of hard work.
In this area, they use a small rake for “combing” the branches so that the olives fall down into the nets. The olives are then separated from twigs and leaves and hand picked one by one, and are put into sacks or crates.
The time required for doing all this seems to be already set and is slow. Up and down the ladders, up and down, as if to follow the shape of the hills. The harvested olives are then taken to the mill, called frantoio where the precious oil is extracted and where later, it will be ready to be given to the people. It will last for the whole winter and its fragrance will make the kitchen smell good. I use it with parsimony and I pour it slowly because its value is not only in its quality and fragrance, which are both very appreciated, but because it holds lots of memories.
It reminds me of when, sometimes, I would climb a steep hill to go to a podere where Gelsomino lived. He would come outside his workshop in which the sawdust covered every single thing, to see who had ventured up there. He would come out to meet me and stroked my hair softly, his eyes were always fresh with wonder and his hand smelled of wood. He was a poet able to enchant people with his often rhyming poems which he wrote on an old and yellowed sheet of paper that had been folded several times and that he would then put away to be read and shared again with someone else. His handwriting was simple but the tone of his voice was majestic and the language he used sounded so ancient and clear to me. Sometimes, while he was reading, he felt moved by his own words.
He was also a carpenter and he used to surprise my child eyes with gifts I had never seen before.
Once it was a miniature tea set, completed with teaspoons, perfectly handcrafted in olive wood. I still have it and only now I can really appreciate the hard work he had put into it to create such small objects with a type of wood so difficult to work. The olive wood is very strong but also longlasting and its grain reminds me of human veins marked by the passing of time, as Gelsomino’s life had been, strong and resilient. He also gave me a large bowl carved by him as a present from his good heart and I think it is the proper place for my recent harvest.
Towards the end of the day in Maremma, the light is enchanted with golden and amber streaks similar to those of the olive wood grain, and they are smooth and warm.
While everyone are making their way to return home, at the frantoio the work doesn’t stop but carries on into the night in order to make the precious oil whose colour is of a deep green and has a peppery taste.
My harvest has been quite modest as I had picked the olives from a secluded wild olive grove, which is close to four very old cypresses and not far from a pond where the wild boars go to drink. In this grove, the trees haven’t been pruned for a while and, probably for its position, noboby comes here to pick olives anymore. But this ancient and magnificient olive grove, in fact, have the best fruits.
There are still some old ladders against the trunk of the trees, maybe someone had left them from the last harvesting. I wander how long these ladders have been used for; how many hands have touched them; how many feet have climbed up. They have been left under the sun and in the rain, in every season of the year. The silence around here seems to underline their solitude. Then, the fading light reminds me to hurry up or I might not find my way back home.
The amount of olives I have picked is not enough to make some oil for the winter, however, these precious fruits should not be wasted but used as best as possible so that their growth was not in vain.
While re-affirming the fundamental point that for this you need to be patient (very patient!), and maybe to ask someone else to help you, this is what you should do.
But it doesn’t end here! Keep reading, the second part – here !
- black olives
- fine salt
- With a knife or using the specific tool, remove the stones from the olives. Place the pitted olives in a large bowl, preferably made of glass. *(after a little while your nails and fingers will turn black and a little slicky but it is a task impossible to do if wearing gloves).
- Fully cover the olives with cold water and leave them for 3 days, changing the water twice a day, morning and evening.
- Then, a further 4-5 days of soaking in cold salty water. Change the salty water only once a day and stir the olives from time to time. You should used the right amount of salt, which is about 50g of salt for every litre of water. Based on the amount of olives you need to cure, used the right amount of water to cover them fully.
- When the soaking time is over, the olives will have leached out their bitterness and will be ready for the next step.
- Taste one and if they are still bitter, extend the soaking process a bit longer.