La Raccolta delle Olive

November 30, 2011 / Events
Arezzo, Tuscany
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.

Gretchen Bloom

by Gretchen Bloom 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.

8 Responses to “La Raccolta delle Olive”

  1. Here in my part of central Lazio (SE of Rome) it’s been a beautiful olive picking season–sunny and warm most days. Traditionally we start on November 3rd, though some people start as much as a week or two prior. Due to this year’s unusually dry November, olive picking here has finished for the most part. The going rate of “pay” is five or six liters of oil each per day of work, not half-half unless the pickers are totally responsible for everything (i.e. the owners are not there), and they pay half the frantoio costs as well. My favorite things about olive-picking? The mid-day picnic where everything just tastes better out in the cool fresh air, the new oil bruschetta, and after a few days straight of picking…a day off due to rain. The worse part? My sore back at the end of the day!

  2. Sharri Whiting

    Dear Gretchen, I loved your story about Tuscany and the following comment from Lazio. We pick in Umbria. I think we’re all lucky to have this special opportunity to return to the basics of life on the land, even with the sore backs that come with it. I’ve written a new app called Olive Oil IQ, which is available from iTunes and includes culinary travel in Italy, as well as history, and information about growing, picking, and pressing olives. I’d love to receive suggestions from any olive oil lovers to add to the next update.

  3. Marilyn Gentile

    When I visited the Tuscan region a few years ago, the olive trees were so beautiful to look at. It was almost magical the way the sun would glint off the leaves and cast a silvery hue off the trees. That is when I truly fell in love with Italy. The olive orchards were my favorite place. When I came home I had some pictures of the olive orchards that now hang above my couch in the living room. Whenever I look at them I remember the peacefulness of the countryside and the wonderful people I encountered and of course, remember tasting that wonderful olive oil!

  4. Penny Ewles-Bergeron
    Penny Ewles-Bergeron

    Lovely note, Gretchen and fine photos to match. Those of us who can’t take part (backs & location not allowing) welcome the chance to read about it all. I particularly love that stripe behind the new oil green. Stunner!

  5. Bob Siefker

    What a wonderful article! One of our fondest memories of visiting Assisi a few years ago was coming upon the Sisters harvesting olives in the grove next to Basilica of Saint Clare. To see the Sisters at all is fairly rare, but to find them engaged in the harvest was wonderful!

  6. Anne Robichaud

    Enjoyed, Gretchen, and read your note shortly after we tried our new olive oil, “olio novello” – just back from the mill – on bruschetta toasted on the top of our wood/burning stove.
    Is there anything better?!

  7. Great article! One of my favorite memories of time spent in Italy is the few days I spent picking olives with on a small farm in the Marche region through the WWOOF program. Cool but sunny weather, relaxed work pace, and far-off ringing of church bells from Monte San Vito.


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