Monday, November 16, 2009

The broom and the olive tree

Right now the olives are being harvested all over Italy, and there are about as many ways as there are wills. Some farmers use machinery, others prefer sticks and nets, and others still prefer to climb the trees and pick the olives by hand.

In our part of Puglia the old contardini swears by the scopetta. With an old organic broom they sweep a circle around every single olive tree making the red earth hard, smooth and clean, so that olives can easily be gathered, when they are ripe and ready to fall off the tree.

A healthy tree in its prime of 300-600 years will give 10-15 litres of pure olive oil depending on the season’s weather and which farmer you ask, and with a ratio of one pugliesi to 15 olive trees lean harvest techniques are really necessary.

Most of the olives are taken directly to the frantoia, olive mill, where they are pressed to oil, but certain types can be cured and eaten as snacks. This is, however, not as easy as it sounds. Fresh olives taste downright horrible and preservation requires skill and experience.

Every year I try a salt and water rinse on a daily basis for several months, but the olives remain abominal. An attempt to cure the olives with a mixture ash and chalk failed from lack of the right kind of chalk. And the local housewifey shortcut with lye (or caustic soda normally used to strip paint)takes away my appetite.

The fruit of our 23 olive trees is therefore used exclusively for oil, and with an average yield of 50 oil litres a year I am satisfied to see it as a nice clean sweep – thanks to the hard work and help of the scopetta.

See how the olives are gathered and processed here.

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