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Harvesting olives in Tuscany - where else?

By Rhea WesselSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 22, 2003


Two Germans, a Norwegian, an American, and an Englishman recently joined forces to help an Italian friend pluck green gold from his 200-plus olive trees. The olive groves had been abandoned for many seasons before Guido Gualandi bought the 10-acre estate a year and a half ago. He wanted to settle not far from where he grew up in Florence.

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Guido works from home as an editor for an American market-research company. Between conference calls and interviews, he can be found up in a tree, pulling olives toward the ground. Guido estimates working 300 hours last year clearing, pruning, and picking the trees - and that was before dozens of friends descended to help.

On a foggy Saturday morning, the first day of a two-day harvest party, the American and a German lifted harnesses over their heads and strapped brown wicker baskets in front. They were charged with picking a row of sparsely fruitful trees on an embankment. The remaining helpers spread used parachutes around tree bases, ascended the trunks, and tugged on black or green olives until they fell neatly onto the tarpaulin. Occasionally, olives that were combed from trees with plastic hand rakes bopped a picker on the nose or slid down a blouse.

In the background, Tuscan hunters could be seen and heard as they fired at pheasants resting in trees.

Guido's children, Sarah and Rebecca, joined in and offered their expertise. The girls were adept at hanging from small limbs like monkeys and stretching to grab that one last fruit, just out of reach. Olive trees are surprisingly resilient and acrobatic. Bend them forwards; bend them backwards. They seldom break.

Five people worked for five hours picking a line of trees in the grove and a few wild ones nearly grown over with weeds. The wild trees were hardly accessible because of the underbrush and a lack of pruning. An olive tree can grow between 10 and 23 feet high. Cultivated trees are pruned each year so their limbs grow outward and the trees stay manageably short.

The Norwegian guest, who is training as a cook in Oslo, was so excited by the opportunity to harvest that she set aside her fear of heights for a few days. That first day of work - 25 man and woman hours - netted two crates of olives, enough for only 6 liters (about 6 quarts) of extra-virgin, cold-pressed, chemical-free oil.

The cultivation of olives and olive oil hold a special place in the history of Mediterranean Europe. Olives were first grown between 5,000 and 3,000 B.C. in Crete, later spreading to Egypt, Greece, Palestine, and Asia Minor. Scientists believe they arrived in Italy 2,500 years ago.

Symbol of peace

The olive branch symbolizes peace, and the tree represents wisdom and immortality. In the Bible story of the flood, a dove brought back a freshly plucked olive leaf as news of receding waters. Olive oil was used for the ritual anointing of priests, kings, and honored guests, and for ceremonial cleansing.

In Greek mythology, the olive tree was created during a disagreement between Athena and Poseidon. Zeus was called in as a referee and said the winner would be the one who presented him with the most useful invention. Athena then commanded Mother Earth to grow a new and exceptional tree, and the olive tree appeared. Zeus declared her the winner. In other stories, the winners of battles are crowned with a wreath of olive branches.

For hundreds of years, olive cultivation was the primary source of income for entire populations. Oil was used for lighting and medicinal purposes as well as for food. Still today, it accounts for a large portion of the agricultural output of Mediterranean countries, which grow 50 percent of the world's olives. The European Union subsidizes olive growers to the tune of about $2 billion a year.