La raccolta: the olive harvest in Tuscany

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We have been harvesting in our olive grove for three weeks now, although frequent rain has slowed our progress. The harvest, or raccolta, is a decidedly social affair. Ulivetti (olive groves) here are usually small and fences are non-existent, so on the way to our patch we stop and chat to friends harvesting in adjoining groves; sometimes a neighbouring farmer joins us for our picnic lunch. We compare notes on yield and acidity, admire new harvesting equipment, lament the weather and share gossip from the frantoio (olive press) or circolo (village bar).

Olives for harvesting, Tuscany

The first step when harvesting is to select the trees. Some varieties ripen earlier than others, and the maturity of the fruit is also affected by the topography of the grove. We start picking once the first olives have started to turn mauve, meaning that most are still bright, unripe green.

Olive nets laid out for harvesting, Tuscany, Italy

Once the trees have been chosen we lay down our nets. To prevent any valuable olives escaping, these need to be tightly wrapped around the tree trunks and, on slopes, the edges supported with poles. Big rolls of net are the most effective way to do this, but they’re also expensive, so we lay down nets individually.

Olive nets laid out for harvesting, Tuscany, Italy

Like most Tuscan olive farmers we harvest in a traditional way: the steep hills make this area unsuitable for the industrial harvesting techniques found in flatter southern areas, such as the huge machines that grasp a tree by its trunk and shake it until the olives fall. We use the somewhat gentler method of combing the olives from the branches with rakes. Our one concession to modern technology is a hand-held mechanical harvester (a spinning device mounted onto a long pole) for the highest, hardest to reach branches.

rakes for harvesting olives,Tuscany, Italy

Mechanised olive harvester

The harvest is a family affair: Michele’s brother and his girlfriend, his parents, and us. We work in three teams: a couple of people working up ladders or in the trees, combing for olives and pruning any dead wood; three on the ground picking low-hanging olives, who are also responsible for collecting and sorting them once a tree is finished; and finally, someone with strong arms to reach the highest olives using the mechanical harvester.

Harvesting olives using a rake

Harvesting olives using an abbichiatore olive harvester

Harvest time is when the hard work of pruning really pays off: a low, neatly trimmed tree can be quickly completed mainly from the ground and in a fraction of the time it takes to harvest fruit from a tall, overgrown tree.

Olives at harvest time, Tuscany, ITaly

Olives on nets during the harvest, Tuscany,Italy

Once all the olives have been removed from a tree or group of trees, the olives are gathered together in the nets, and as many leaves and twigs as possible are removed. Although the frantoio (press) washes the olives before milling, the olives are weighed in the state in which they are brought to the press. Since milling charges are calculated by weight, it’s important for farmers like us, who don’t have leaf-removing equipment, to get the olives as clean as possible at this stage. Although some people press their olives leaves twigs and all, this is to be avoided as it changes the flavour, composition (for example flecks of wood can raise the acidity) and colour of the oil (the chlorophyll in leaves is just one reason why a green hue is not a guarantee of quality).

Freshly harvested olives, Tuscany, Italy

Olives at harvest time, Tuscany, Italy

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The sorted olives are loaded into crates with holes in the sides to allow the olives to breathe. They are taken to the press as soon as possible, ideally within 24 hours, to prevent fermentation. This is an important deviation from tradition: in the past, farmers left the olives to sit in nets or crates for up to two weeks before taking them to the press, which resulted in a higher quantity of oil. Now the focus is on quality rather than quality, and pressing olives quickly helps keep acidity levels (the measure of ‘extra-virginity’) low. The frantoio specifies a minimum quantity of olives (usually around 10 crates), and the olives will yield about 10% of their weight in oil.

The olive grove, Tuscany, Italy

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19 responses to “La raccolta: the olive harvest in Tuscany

  1. This description is wonderfully evocative and informative at the same time. Having been to Toscana quite a few times over the years, it makes me want to head for those hills.

    I am a professional composer in the UK, and I am reading this blog to give me a bit of background and atmosphere, as I am writing a new work to commission, inspired by a lithograph of an olive grove…! Strange but true. More info here: http://michaelomer.com/news_reviews.html
    Thank-you for writing so well! Looking forward to the next installment!

    • What a lovely message, I’m so glad you enjoyed reading and hope it helped inspire you – what a wonderful commission. Olive trees are such incredible plants, and that’s a beautiful lithograph. Thanks for introducing us to your fascinating project, I hope we’ll be able to hear at least a sample of the finished piece on your website at some point in the future…

  2. I know that is a lot of work, but oh it is so pretty with all the trees filled and olives on the ground. I like the picture of all the nets gracefully floating on the ground below to capture those olive treasures. I LOVE olives and never knew how they grew and collected them or how twigs leaves etc ruin the oil…I was wondering do they taste good fresh/do you wait for them to ripen a bit more..also there were dark and green in the same basket. Is there a difference..:-) Also the way your all work together neighbors chatting, what a wonderful life:-)

    • Thanks for the lovely message. It is hard work, but you’re right, it’s very beautiful, so we can’t complain.
      We pick the olives when the first ones on the tree start to ripen – usually the tree will have a mixture of green and purple olives as some parts will have received more sunlight- some variety is fine and normal, but you’ll notice that there are few fully-ripe black olives in the mix. Unripe olives are generally considered to make the ‘best’ olive oil (although this is subjective) – it’s very strong-tasting compared to oil made from fully ripe olives.
      Olives picked fresh from the tree make great oil but they’re disgusting to eat! Incredibly bitter! They have to be cured to be eaten (using salt, lye, or dehydration which removes the bitterness). The varieties we grow are not usually grown for table/eating olives, as they are better for oil, but we do usually cure and eat a few. As far as I know table olives can be picked at any stage of their ripeness too, but they need to be cured/treated either way before you can eat them.

  3. I have always told people that if I ever go missing, they may perhaps look for me at the Basilica di Santa Chiara in Assisi, Umbria–as I will be helping to tend the groves of the Sisters 😉
    A true bucket list is to help in a harvest–somewhere in Italy, someday 🙂
    Grazie Mille for sharing the details of an age old tradition—
    ciao bella–julie

  4. Hi, Katie – In the mountain village I lived in near Rome, the olive harvest was a major event. People took a month off from their day jobs to get it done each year, and neighbors helped one another harvest just as you describe, with green nets, rakes, and ladders. The oil was pressed in a centuries-old stone mill across the road from my bedroom window – and it was delicious! It’s one of my fondest memories of life there. Thanks for the nice reminder. 🙂

  5. Pingback: Madonnas, melograni (pomegranates), and a winter salad | Notes from a Tuscan Olive Grove·

  6. I have recently returned to my house in Asciano and my olive trees were not harvested, so now I have black olives. Can I make any use of these at this point? Such as pickling, or preserving? Thanks, Anthony.

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