back for the olive picking

Well it’s been a while since I did a posting about Italy – simply because we haven’t been there for some time. C’s mum’s deteriorating situation throughout much of September and October meant that it was impossible for us to get out there. We knew the olives needed picking but they would just have to wait. After the funeral we set out the following week, just C and I. We hadn’t been there since taking S my grandson in the summer when we had to deal with the Birds! What would this visit throw up?

Our inaugural olive harvest last November was just a great experience. For someone who’s spent more than 30 years behind a desk, the opportunity to produce, harvest and have our own oil processed was just brilliant. As Mario Puzo might have put it, we’d made our move into the olive oil business, and we were really proud of ourselves. Plus you’ve got to admit that The Pasta Paulie Olive Oil company has a lot more brand strength than Genco Olive oil, don’tcha think?

We have about 30 trees, some immature but many olive -producing. Encouraged by last year’s harvest we started our own adoption scheme for family and friends and this was pretty quickly snapped up. As we were unable to find a bottle supplier anywhere in Italy we managed to take some oil bottles into the country in our luggage and bring back some oil for most of our adoptees over the course of our infrequent visits this year. But since Xmas 2006 we’ve been largely based over here in the UK and the trees have had to fend for themselves this year without pruning or much care. And we were conscious of the need to collect this year’s harvest before the frost/weather harmed it or before it all ended up on the ground.

We arrived at our home in Italy fairly late Wednesday. We are always anxious when arriving after a long passage of time. After the birdcrap incident one of our neighbours now checks the house for us whilst we’re away. We’ve had no further visits from the sparrows (hats in the air, hurrah!) but a power shut down had switched off our freezer (groan) and that frozen fish we’d left in it had de-frosted…. and although our friend had removed it, the rotting fish smell had left it’s own distinctive mark in the house. So our first full day was spent trying to rid the freezer and the rest of the house of this awful smell. That freezer was scrubbed down with everything from bicarbonate of soda, to strong vinegar and lashings of lemon juice. The smell has almost disappeared but not completely. If anyone knows a remedy please shout! Here’s a tip – don’t leave frozen fish in a freezer in a land where power interruptions occur frequently, but mostly when you’re not there!

I had checked the trees on that first morning and found them to be pretty full of fruit which was great. Although the grass in the garden is once again as high as an elephant’s eye (of which more later), it was clear there had been quite a lot of fruit already fallen from the trees. It’s been a great summer out there (so they tell us) and the crop was obviously ripe for picking a few weeks ago. But we consoled ourselves with the thought that with the weather fine and the freezer now (almost) sorted at least we could make a start on the picking the next day. But the day became more overcast as the day wore on and more blustery. Normally the wind is from the sea but this was coming from the mountains behind us and we’ve experienced this phenomenon before. By 6pm you’d swear a hurricane was blowing over, the wind was so strong. Within a couple of hours it had completely abated but it had gone very cold. We knew we’d have to make a start on the picking the next day and were praying for good weather.

Next morning we surveyed the scene in the grove and of course a load more fruit had blown off the trees. Yes the gods of fun are having extended play time with us at the moment but the weather was glorious and we kicked off after breakfast picking away. C was taking the reachable fruit and I was on all fours in the damp grass scrabbling for recently dropped fruit. We started with the daddy tree – the best yielding in our grove. We were a little rusty and it took us a day virtually to pick it clean. Just the 30 more to go….

Actually that wasn’t quite true. A number of the immature trees haven’t fruited as yet. Some of the trees looked to have a little less fruit on than last year – I’m sure that’s because we didn’t get chance to prune the trees this year. The v. good news was that two non-producing mature trees were this year full of fruit. It took us through until late on Monday to pick all the trees. We ended up with aching backs but with one more basket of fruit than last year so the yield was definitely higher and there was a lot rotting on the ground too. You know the locals all shake the trees and collect the fruit off the ground nets, bent over. They must have backs like oxen because it is so hard to do it that way.

Anyway the locals told us that they were reckoning on a cold winter and they advised us to prune now rather than in the spring as per last year. Although getting pretty weary – this paesan life can be bloody hard work – by late on Tuesday afternoon we’d pruned over half the trees and quite dramatically at that. I was content with that; we’ll do the rest when we get back next month. In any case I needed to get to the oil factory to get the oil processed before it closed -we were heading home the following morning. It was getting on for 5pm and I was hoping they would still be open. I went to the same place as last year. It was open and nowhere near as busy as last November – obviously the bulk of the harvesting had been done a few weeks ago. Last year I wandered round nodding at all the blokes as if I was a regular. Everyone there was turning in tons of the fruit; I’d turned up with my two baskets of olives all carefully picked, leaves removed etc. It was then that I realised that the locals piled everything into their crates – leaves, twigs, dead cats and mice (joke) etc as it’s all based on weight, stupid. The production process sifts out the crap. After making some enquiries with my faulting Italian they smiled at my little harvest and pointed me in the direction of the lovely Flavianna who I guess dealt with all the little old ladies and now me. I don’t care.

This time I spotted Flavianna again and she recognised me (the sad Englishman with a tiny crop). We weighed the fruit – 52kg, about 5kg more than last year and I reckon another 5kg could be on the ground in the grove. So I reckon we’ve improved on last year’s yield by around 10kg, about a 22% increase. I was really chuffed 52kg = 115 lbs. That’s more than a hundredweight of olives!! Woo hoo. Flavianna found me a large demi-john for the oil and didn’t charge me for the pressing as I’m now a ‘regular’ (if tiny) supplier. Wey hey. Our olives went into the general hopper but I was very happy with the outcome. And I did notice that several of the little old ladies were commenting on our fruit and nodding favourably. Perhaps they were just having fun, commenting that ours was the only load not half full of leaves! But I don’t think so. Anyway I don’t care.

In four days we’d picked all our trees and really heavily pruned more than half of them. We’d also had a visit from the geometra about the crack in our extension and he’d agreed to get the builder back who did the original work to repair the damage and re-do the foundations once we were back and at no charge to us. Let’s hope it happens as he promises. I believe it will. I’m beginning to have a great deal of respect for the people of le Marche. At the airport on the way back the next day we’d dropped the hire car off at the airport terminal, checked in and had literally just gone through the security check to get air-side when I heard someone shouting my name. Turning around I saw this guy hailing me from the land-side of the security check. The guards let me back through – it was the guy from the Hertz desk. He had C’s wallet/purse which he’d found in the car and had run the length of the airport to get it to us before we’d boarded our plane. Isn’t that just bloody decent?

So all in all a tiring but really productive visit. The weather had been great and we’d had really peaceful time just picking out fruit, enjoying the scenery, drinking some local wine and sleeping like old dogs for a change. The only downside, and I didn’t tell C this, is that I found two scorpions in our bedroom on the walls. They aren’t big things but they are sinister- looking and for all I know these little buggers could be the most lethal in the scorpion family. I see lots of them whilst I’m chopping wood. They nest in the moist gap between bark and log – I know this as I tend to disturb them when I’m sawing through the logs. They scamper out within centimetres of my stubby fingers and every time I have a little heart attack. On the wood pile is one thing (and I’m getting to know the logs which are likely carriers now plus my axe action is getting a lot sharper) but in the bedroom is another. It’s a little off-putting trying to drop off or get romantic knowing that other little buggers may be around and may have just witnessed me smashing their mum to pieces with my slipper. But to be honest we were so damn tired I didn’t think of it for very long.

That said I do now check my slippers every morning before putting them on when I’m out there. For all I know the Italian scorpion may have a memory like a elephant. That’s a poor analogy because I’m pretty sure the Marche elephant became extinct many years ago. Anyway the thought of finding one hanging off my big toe with his little stinger injecting into me whilst he smiles at me with a that’s-for-mum! look on his little face, isn’t something I care to think about. But I guess if that other oil producer Vito Corleone could put up with it, then so can I.



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