By Suzanne Saluti
It’s colder than it looks like it should be as we head down the hill to the olive grove near the garden. The sun is shining, but the Fall colors of green-gold and the low mist hanging over the valley remind me that the season has definitely changed. The silvery tinge of the olive leaves contrasts nicely with the green and black fruit nestled on the branches. By lunchtime, the mist has burned off and the sun is hot, and we are all down to shirtsleeves; our sweatshirts and fleece vests abandoned on various branches, like some kind of alternative holiday decorations.
This year we are fortunate to have a good crew to help out: our daughter Alessandra and her boyfriend Matteo have come in from Rome to help us, along with her former roommate Genya (who is originally from Kazakhstan), as well a family friend who still lives in Ascoli. As we’re working, Alessandra and her old friend Beatrice keep up a running comic dialogue mimicking the local dialect old folks speak to keep us entertained. We shout directions to each other in a mash-up of Italian and English, with an occasional bit of French thrown in for good measure since both Alessandra and Genya speak French too. This year we asked Genya to teach us the best swear words in Russian to add to our international repertoire.
I both love and dread the olive harvest. I love it because it is ridiculously gratifying to be able to taste the results every day in our cooking and eating, to enjoy the rich, spicy green oil knowing that it came from our trees on our land. I dread it because I am no longer a spring chicken and it is gruelingly hard work. The picking itself can be quite meditative and satisfying, and I still love to climb inside the trees in order to reach the olives hidden high up in the branches. As I climb and rest inside the trees, I am struck anew at the ancient resilience of these plants. I always whisper a thank you to them as I’m up there for giving us their fruit year after year.
The work involved to gather fruit to make this precious oil is truly exhausting: dragging the nets up and down the steep slopes, setting them up, pinning them together so there are no gaps for the olives to fall through as they hit the ground, gathering the picked olives in the middle of the nets, crouching over the nets to pull out any large twigs that have fallen in, lifting the nets now heavy with olives and rolling them into the baskets used for transporting them to the frantoio where the oil is extracted. Every step involves hard physical labor, especially given that it is repeated: 10 trees a day for 3-4 eight hour days. By the time we are finished each evening, I am dizzy with fatigue and every muscle aches. Every year I think to myself: extra virgin (first press) olive oil should cost at least $50 a liter.
We no longer pick the olives by hand, one by one. This year we are using 2 electric rakes with long handles and super-long “fingers” that vibrate to shake the fruit off the branches. Those with the smaller hand rakes swipe them briskly down branches, releasing the fruit. I personally prefer to use the “milk the cow” method of running my gloved hand down the branch, basically ripping off the olives as I go on the down swipe. Sometimes, so many olives rain down at once that you have to abandon your own picking efforts and take cover so as to not get beaned. Once we have all agreed that no more olives are left on a given tree, we organize ourselves at the top and the bottom of the slopes to begin the process of rolling the olives to the bottom of the nets to be transferred into the baskets. Each basket holds about 40 pounds of olives. This year our total harvest was about a half a ton of olives, which translated into 65 liters of rich green, spicy oil.
The best part of the day is breaking for lunch. This year, Alessandra has taken over the cooking duties so she is excused from picking early to start the preparations. Today she has prepared a delicious pasta sauce from the last of the sweet cherry tomatoes planted in the spring, followed by San Daniele prosciutto sliced paper thin on the fancy slicer that my husband bought last Christmas. We also have a local pecorino sheep’s milk cheese to spread with homemade fig jam, and a nice red wine from our producer friend in the hills of Southern Marche, famous for their Montepulciano and Sangiovese grapes . Genya has brought some good dark chocolate as a gift, and we finish the meal with strong espresso and head back out to the property to harvest a few more trees before the early darkness of Autumn descends upon us.
As the sun sets and the mist drifts back into the valley, I stand and stretch my back as I look out at the rolling hills and Monte Piselli looming in the background. This landscape often reminds of the green-gold hills of my childhood growing up in the Bay Area of Northern California. Occasionally, I feel a twinge of longing for my old life there, and I sometimes miss the clarity of the sunlight in California, especially in the wintertime, and the smell of the pines along the coast of the wild Pacific Ocean. But the light here also is stunningly beautiful, all the rich and exquisite colors that one finds in Renaissance paintings: vivid greens and blues, ancient sepia and ocher and pale travertine.
Today, I am overwhelmed by gratitude for both the harvest and the life we have built here, far from where I grew up. The place I was born and raised is an ocean and more away, and I doubt I will ever live there again. But I am at peace with that because this magical place in which I now live inhabits me in ways I never could have imagined.
Suzanne was born and raised in Northern California, but has been living on and off in Central Italy for 30 years. She has now found her forever home in the Marche region with her Italian husband, six chickens, three cats, and 95 olive trees.