REGGELLO, Italy—The silver giants make you respect them just by their look. I approach a little fearfully. With a small rake in hand I’m ready to harvest their generous fruits. Yet, my confidence wavers in the presence of these mighty trees. Then I suddenly realize their grand arms that reach for the sky are actually welcoming me with a warm hug.
My people of Reggello, a little town in the province of Florence, regard the harvesting of olives as something more than just producing olive oil. In the last 20 years, the market price of olive oil has not even covered the cost of maintaining the orchards, not to mention fertilizing, harvesting, and pressing the olives. Even so, hundreds of people roll up their sleeves and get ready to join the activities that have not changed for centuries—except for a few machines—and are repeated every November. Actually, just a few decades ago November was not yet olive harvest time.
Only recently, we discovered that the quality of the olive oil is much better if we harvest the olives before they’re completely ripe—while still on the trees—instead of collecting them from the ground. With this, there is also less worry about seeds taking root.
In the past, November and December were months that peasants were busy sowing winter cereals to be harvested the following summer. Everyone was busy with that and the new oil was produced in the new year.
Nowadays, not many young people are interested in climbing the trees to harvest olives. Our farm represents one of the few exceptions.
Every year, young foreigners come to help out and they are always very pleasantly surprised. These young people are volunteers and take part in various volunteer programs related to helping the earth. They come to discover for themselves if it is really possible, in the 21st century, to thrive on the labor of their own two hands and live directly off the land. They help us with everything that needs to be done and we, in exchange, give them a place to stay and healthy food to eat, which we are happy to share with them.
I like to tell these young people that, in the past, the olive harvest usually took place during the coldest months of January and February. This makes them feel lucky already. In those months, most of the olives have already fallen to the ground. Women and children, who were responsible for picking, normally used little sticks to pick the olives up from the frozen soil. Some carried a “braciere” (a metal bucket holding embers). The harvesters would remove their wooden shoes and warm them up with the embers to lessen the stinging cold of those months. Olives were collected in baskets woven out of chestnut, willow, and olive wood. Some of these baskets are still in use today as a testament to their strength and great craftsmanship.
During and after the world wars, parachutes were often found and peasants did what they do best—reuse and not waste anything. The parachutes became precious sheets that were opened right under the trees, allowing the farmers to collect the olives much more easily than with traditional hemp bags. Today, as materials have improved, harvesters use anti-thorn nets that are much stronger, and instead of picking the olives by hand, they use little rakes to ‘brush’ all the little branches of our good giants.
How can we not be happy early in the morning when, with the sun rising over the hills, we climb into those welcoming arms? From this vantage point, you can contemplate the beautiful vista of the valley, looking like a slow, floating river in the morning fog. It feels like I’m flying over the clouds. After a few minutes, the chilly air gives way to the warming sun and reminds us of the power of summer. Woolen sweaters and shirts fly off and we happily continue to harvest in T-shirts. Nets and rakes share the orchard with stories and laughter. At the end of the day, as we store our olive boxes, I feel tired, but also very satisfied and full of a new energy.
After the harvest, comes the celebration of the olive press, and the not-to-be-missed traditional “fettunta.” In that slice of toasted bread dipped into green oil, I find all the flavor of the ending season. This flavor takes me through the whole year. It’s difficult to imagine a meal without this precious ingredient. It would be like listening to a beautiful symphony with a pillow in front of the speakers.
The harvest is done and nets and baskets are packed way. Now, I just wait for winter to pass. Nature goes to sleep. Peasants sit by the fire, fixing tools and sharpening scissors, and await the start of the new season. March, in fact, is time to prune. This is the way it is here: seasons end and begin with olives.
- The traditional “fettunta” is a slice of toasted bread dipped into green oil. (Erica Ermini/The Epoch Times)
Giordano Cellai, 35, has been farming for 6 years. He lives in Reggello, Florence, and enjoys recording and bringing to life Tuscany’s traditional farming culture that still endures today.
The young volunteers are there as part of the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) network.
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