Olive hunting

October is when some people start harvesting olives while others prefer to wait until they are more ripe and harvest them in the thick of winter. The harvest can be done by hand or using some machinery but there is one thing that is no longer done: the olive hunting. Vittoriano Baccetti shared with us the beautiful story of how olives used to be collected and what this process consisted of. Listen to this.

“A group of hunched down harvesting women moved forward on the wet soil on their knees, pushing forward the basket where they put their olives. It was a group of about twenty, fairly young women, carrying out the operation in a straight line, with their heads down, their hands numb from the November cold. Sometimes one of them stood up and went to throw the content of the basket into a bale near a deputy farmer, a person trusted by the owner of the olive grove who checked on the harvesters and assessed their performance on the basis of the olives which were collected.

At that time, most olives were collected from the soil, waiting for them to fall because they were ripe or eaten by worms. Only a small percentage was collected on the branches, straight from the plant, using heavy and uncomfortable wooden ladders which were moved from one olive tree to the next by men who secured them on the soil by going up on them before any agile woman did.

It was a tiring job. The deputy farmer checked that the harvesters didn’t waste any time and that the basket was emptied constantly. The slow ones were told off, harshly sometimes.

This process went on for several days, sometimes until the end of January.

Oliveto - Olive trees

Oliveto – Olive trees

When the harvester went back to the village, the more elderly women who had not been hired because of their age and lower performance, asked the younger women how long it would take them to finish in the field. The reason they wanted to know is that as soon as they knew that the harvest would finish the following day, they used to rush to the field with a bunch of kids, all equipped with baskets.

They started searching for the very few olives that escaped the harvest in the tufts of grass and in the holes in the olive tree trunks.

They had to roam around the whole olive grove to gather half a basket worth, or one if they were lucky.

This was the olive hunting. Basically there wasn’t a single olive left in the olive grove after searching it high and low like this – not even a wrinkly or worm-eaten one. They all ended up in the basket!

When the basket was full, sometimes after two or three days of tiring searches, they brought it to the olive mills operating in the village. For each basket, they received one litre of olive oil.

To check whether it was good quality, apart from tasting it on a bruschetta, they put it a small frying pan and they cooked an egg in it: if the oil didn’t make any smoke or have a nasty flavour, it was ok. Even old ladies and children could contribute to the family oil supply thanks to this system.

Apart from pressing the olives, mills were also a winter meeting point where people who didn’t work could go and have a chat by a constantly lit fire where, by tradition, bruschettas were prepared. They brought some toasted bread slices and the mill dipped them in a jar full of oil. The slices were then drained in a meshed sieve, wrapped in a couple of yellow paper sheets made with hay and brought home.

Bruschetta

Bruschetta

I remember that when we went there as boys, our mums used to tell us to be careful and not drip oil on the floor because the oil that had not been absorbed by the paper would have been used to fry up the next day!”

Thank you for your story, Vittoriano, and now what are you waiting for? Come and taste some bruschetta with fresh oil in Magliano!