Harvesting olives in Tuscany - where else?

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

In Tuscany, the Medici family first encouraged cultivation of the trees. The merchant family ruled Florence for nearly 300 years. They allowed farmers to purchase land cheaply if they grew only grapes and olives. This policy was so effective that Tuscany had plenty of oil in the early-16th century and began to export it to other regions.

Olive oil deeply rooted in Italian psyche

The love of olive oil is rooted deeply in the Italian psyche. Many traditional dishes are simply unthinkable or impossible without olive oil. Consider pesto, a tomato-mozzarella salad, or bruschetta made with corn oil? At a meal, Guido assured us that only a well-trained palette can distinguish between a passable oil and an impeccable one. He has switched the oil on unsuspecting guests.

An olive tree is a lesson in patience. A freshly planted tree reaches maturity after 35 years and can live for 500 to 1,000 years. Some limbs may die during hard frosts, but trunks can survive, allowing the tree to regenerate.

Olive trees awake from their winter hibernation in March and sprout small white blossoms in May. Harvests begin in September and can last until February, depending on how ripe an owner wants his olives. Green olives are unripe, and black ones are ripe. Both keep their color during pickling. They are inedible until they are pickled.

With each fruit harvested, one acquires a greater appreciation of the time and work that goes into a liter of olive oil. A few hundred olives make less than a liter of oil. The fruits contain about 20 percent oil.

On the last day of the party, some 20 people representing an additional half-dozen countries plucked olives for another six hours.

The party drew to a close in the afternoon, and a small group of hard-core olive enthusiasts accompanied Guido to the press. Oil that is pressed immediately after picking is best, so the group didn't waste any time getting to Frantoio Goccia d' Oro in nearby Castelfiorentino. It specializes in the Sinolea method, which extracts olive oil through natural cold dripping. The brightly lit, family-owned mill in an industrial area is open 24 hours a day during harvest season. Guido put his olives in line and waited his turn. Finally, around 9 p.m., they were sent up the conveyer belt. About two hours later, he had the results of this year's harvest. All in all, Guido's 200 trees produced 100 kilos (about 220 pounds) of olive oil from the Moraiolo, Leccino, Frantoio, and Pendolino varieties.

In Tuscany, many farmers struggle to make a living from olive oil, so they often "pay" helpers by giving them oil. This old tradition is called mezzadria. In honor of this and as a thank-you to his international guests, Guido sent pickers home with one liter of olive oil, and the whole group left with a harvest of good memories.

Bruschetta
(pronounced broo-SKEH-tah)

4 slices good bread, preferably cut from a large, crusty, Italian loaf
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, halved
Salt to taste

Preheat the broiler or grill and adjust the rack so that it is at least 4 inches from the heat source. Brush the bread on one or both sides with a little olive oil and rub one or both sides of each slice with the garlic, letting the garlic disintegrate into the bread. Sprinkle with a little salt.

Broil or grill the bread until lightly browned on both sides, taking care not to burn it or toast it all the way through. If you like, drizzle with a little more olive oil and rub with more garlic. Serve immediately. Makes 4 appetizer servings.

Note: Bruscetta can be topped with a variety of additions, including diced plum tomatoes and fresh basil, prosciutto, or freshly grated Parmesan.

- From 'How to Cook Everything' by Mark Bittman (John Wiley & Sons)

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