Start the presses
Newcomers to Italy make olive oil
CASTELBUONO, Sicily — Our first grueling, knee-killing, bumbling and comically great olive season finally feels like it is over.
We are rich in a new way: More than 70 liters of dark green, corpulent and peppery olive oil has been produced, and is ready to pour onto salads, bread, pasta, fish.
During the summer, my wife and I were gloomy. There was the prospect of not having any oil for a second disappointing year. We moved to the Madonie mountains in north-central Sicily in no small part to enjoy making oil from some 40 trees on the country property we purchased.
But disastrous drought and extreme heat hit Sicily and Italy hard. Between April and the start of October, only 7 inches of rain fell into our rain gauge.
“Due to the drought, there could have been the problem that the olives wouldn’t have produced any fruit,” said Francesco Raimondo, an oil maker who runs a mill in Castelbuono that his grandfather started in 1955.
He spoke on a late December morning, the smell of crushed olives still hanging in the air inside the mill, though the picking season was all but over. In November, the olive presses had been clanking and whirring, and crates and bags heavy with olives were hauled in by farm trucks, atop tiny Fiat cars and in the backs of cars.
Still, production, Raimondo said, was off by half.
“This was supposed to be a good year, full. But the plants went into stress due to the drought,” he said.
When we arrived in September 2016, we’d looked forward to picking olives. But that first harvest was destroyed by the olive fruit fly.
Now the enemy was heat, drought and scirocco winds.
Wells ran dry and gardens were limp lifeless places. At the plumber’s shop, pumps were bought and old ones fixed. Fountains were shut off. Even household water was rationed. Bees buzzed in throngs — and died in throngs — at the few pools of water.
Finally, in October, as though out of nowhere, plump, black olive fruit appeared. And then more and more.
It’s customary in Italy to wait until after the Day of the Dead to start harvesting olives. So we waited.
We live on a hillside in a farming valley with a good variety of olive trees. Some are huge and centuries-old, while others are smaller and younger. We also have almond trees, ashes, a large prickly pear patch, a few pear trees and two empty fields once covered in grape vines.
On Nov. 7, we took our nets, rakes, crates and saws down to the first tree. We had made a crude map, and given trees names taken from the Greek and Georgian alphabets.
We started with Mu — a nice, full-bodied younger tree with a healthy number of olives. Its good exposure to sun and breezes helped it thrive.
Off to work we went. We first picked up fallen olives, which can be used as salted table olives. Then, we attacked the “olive jungle,” as I called our unruly trees left for years without a good pruning.
In the Madonie mountains, olives are picked mostly by hand, due largely to the landscape of steep hills and mountain slopes. Many families make oil just for domestic needs. We did the same.
Our initiation was anything but easy.
To pick olives, you first lay down large, nylon nets. Then, using rakes, clappers, poles or your hands, you strip olive branches of their fruit. After a tree is done, you pick up the net and collect the olives in it.
Simple enough, right? Not so fast.
Nets got stuck on our uncut grass and wild plants. We slipped, and occasionally fell. We twisted and turned and tried every possible position to get our heavy-duty construction ladder into trees. We struggled to get olives that were entangled in “secco,” a thick dry web of branches in each of our uncultivated trees.
And on it went for an entire month.
The days grew colder. Work was interrupted by rain. Sore, we got up in the morning and trudged off in rubber boots to attack another tree.
We stood high in the trees, got poked in the eyes by the secco, talked for hours and worked in silence for even longer; we admired dawns and dusks, worked with friends, and watched with satisfaction as the first olive oil was made at the mill; we climbed onto massive tree limbs and worried about falling; we killed our backs with long rakes and wondered why in the world we were going to so much effort for a few olives dangling high up there out of reach.
And we ate voraciously, to satisfy our work appetite.
We picked our trees, and those of friendly neighbors who live away in Palermo; and we ended our season picking other friends’ olives under the shadows of Pizzo Carbonara, the massive alpine mountain that overlooks Castelbuono.
Back at the oil mill, in late December, an oil producer named Enzo Biundo chatted with the mill owner, Raimondo.
“This is called courageous agriculture,” Biundo said about harvesting olives in the Madonie.
He shrugged. For him, the year had been “scarso,” disappointing. He got few olives from some 1,000 trees he planted six years ago.
As for us, we were happy with our harvest.
“I now have two favorite seasons: picking wild asparagus under our olive trees in the spring and picking olives in the fall,” my wife said with a smile.
The season isn’t quite over. A few olives still hang on the trees, and they can be turned into table olives. And a few trees still haven’t been mapped and named.