The raccolta delle olive begins as soon as the sun has warmed the trees and dried off any dew that has collected over night. Wet olives should not be picked – they mold in their cassette (crates) before they can be taken to the frantoio (mill) for pressing. A large net is laid on the ground under each tree to catch the olives as they are ‘raked’ from the branches.
Pickers use their hands or little plastic rakes with short or long handles to pull the olives gently off the tree. To reach the top branches, one brave picker clambers up a rickety ladder balanced delicately against the high sturdy part of the tree.
Once a tree has been ‘cleaned’ of its olives, the pickers gather up the net, carefully bringing the olives to the bottom central portion of the net on the downhill side, then dump them into a
cassetta, picking out the biggest twigs and leaves during the process. Mills are NOT happy when a customer brings in ‘dirty’ olives, i.e. full of greenery!
Midway through the morning picking session, pickers are invited to stop for a pausa caffe’ with coffee served from a thermos, accompanied by biscotti (cookies). The hearty might go for a grappa to warm the belly and assuage the flagging spirit. Many also eat a picnic lunch in the olive grove to avoid losing time. We could hear the chatter from other contadini (farmers) in nearby olive groves picking their olives and taking their breaks. Olive picking then comes to a halt once the sun sets, at 4:00 pm here, as the dew begins to form and dampen the olives.
The olive owners count up the racolta for the day, pleased if they get 5-8 cassette. One cassetta makes three liters of oil. One tree can produce as little as a one-fourth of a cassetta or nearly two, depending on the tree size and its productivity. The pickers are paid in oil, either by the hours spent picking or the number of cassette picked. The owner typically keeps 50 percent of the oil produced and gives the rest to the pickers on a percentage basis.
There is nothing quite like tangy green olive oil freshly pressed from olives that you have handpicked yourself… doing so with friends overlooking the historic town of Arezzo? Hard to beat.
ItalianNotebook.com reader and Central Italy expert. Also a recent Senior Advisor at the UN’s World Food Program as well as head of WFP’s Programme Unit in Kabul, Afghanistan, for 15 months. Expert in gender issues and community health.