As usual, we had been um-ing and ah-ing about when to start for a good couple of weeks, keeping an eye on what our neighbours were doing as a signal for when would be the right time. Over the preceding few days one of us would come in and report that “Maurizio and Flavia have started.” Or “There were stacks of crates outside the place with the goats.” Or “They’ve got their nets out next door to the bakery on the way to the village.”
Our olive crop had been steadily ripening beneath the mellow sun of our long and langourous Indian summer as it slowly faded into autumn. The plump bright green fruit had gradually softened to a murky violet, then darkened to purple, and now to glossy black: thousands of little black beads shining in the sun like fairy lights made of jet. The trees that Mr Blue-Shirt had given a vigorous pruning back in January hadn’t fruited this year, of course, but there was so much fruit on the rest that from the house we could see it twinkling among the branches. So we were cautiously confident we’d have another good crop, especially as we hadn’t suffered any of the bad storms that typically mark the shift from summer to autumn and that can easily strip most of the fruit from the trees. But as ever, exactly when to harvest these little black jewels was a matter of judgement, and as ever, we had decided to take our lead from what other people were doing – hence the daily reports on what our neighbours were up to.
So it was the next available weekend that Mr Blue-Shirt retrieved the bright green nets, orange rakes and maroon crates from the shed – and also (Mr Blue-Shirt being Mr Blue-Shirt) two chainsaws, the leaf-blower, the battery-powered secateurs, the pole shears, the bolt-croppers, the long-reach ladder, and the star of the show, his beloved abbacchiatoro elettrico. This car-battery-powered device consists of a telescopic pole on the end of which is a pair of lightly interlocking rakes that jiggle back and forth like a pair of rapidly clapping hands and tease the olives from the tree as you pass them along the branches. What these go-to gadgets lack in romance they more than make up for in efficiency, and the sound of their mechanical chatter drifting across the olive groves forms autumn’s background music.
Our confidence had been justified: at the end of three days’ non-stop raking, jiggling, snipping, sawing and gathering, five and a bit crates brimming with shiny black and purple fruit stood in neat rows on the floor of the van. Mr Blue-Shirt wiped his olive-stained hands on his muddy trousers and picked a few stray twigs from his fleece.
“Job’s a good-un,” he declared and stretched contentedly.
“It’s about twenty-five kilos per crate, isn’t?” I asked, rolling my work-stiffened neck and shoulders back and forth.
“Yep, so we must have a good hundred and twenty-five kilos there. Let’s get down to Rodolfo’s and weigh them in.”
We slammed the van doors shut, clambered into the cab and trundled off through the gathering dusk, down the hill to the oleificio we use to get our olives pressed. This is a small yet impressive set-up in the corner of a sprawling and immaculately kept olive farm down a lane on the way to Macerata. We had found it two years earlier by following the recommendation of our neighbour Enrico and the signs off the main road to Morrovalle, the next village from us.
“Spot on! A hundred and twenty-five point two kilos” confirmed Mr Blue-Shirt, reading the display on the industrial scales by the door to the pressing shed.
“We don’t know what the yield will be like, though,” I cautioned “At the end of the day, it’s all about how much oil we get. And after such a dry summer, we may not get such a good yield as last year”.
“Well, all will be revealed tomorrow: the chap who weighed our crop just said they’re really busy, so they won’t be able to press our fruit today. But let’s take a quick look in the shed. You didn’t get to see the whole pressing process last year, did you?”
Ever the engineer, Mr Blue-Shirt has never lost his fascination for all things mechanical and is still drawn to practically any kind of machinery like a moth to a flame, so last year he had eagerly accepted Rodolfo’s invitation to go and watch the entire process from weighing the fruit in to picking up our flagon of oil. As we stood in the doorway of the shed that was little larger than a domestic double garage, but that was teeming with activity, he talked me through the same process that a couple of leathery-faced old codgers had explained to him the year before.
“Right, so once it’s been weighed, the olives get tipped into that,” bellowed Mr Blue-Shirt above all the clanking and whirring, and pointed to the large steel hopper behind me. “They drop down through a stream of air that blows away all the twigs and leaves and so on.”
“We got rid of lots of leaves and twigs, though.”
“We picked out what we could, but there’s still loads of debris in there that you don’t want to end up in the oil.”
“So where do they go next then?” I asked, peering into the shed where three or four workers wheeled, shoved and carried different pieces of equipment back and forth.
“Well, they land in another hopper – See? Down there? – which feeds them onto that belt.” He pointed towards a small conveyor belt that disappeared into the shed where it dropped the fruit into a large round tray.
“Look! This bit is great. They still use these huge rotating stone wheels to crush the whole olives into a sludgey paste. All this modern technology everywhere…” He gestured expansively around the shed … “…but it’s effectively the same technique they’ve used for centuries. I love it!”
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I suppose.”
“Exactly. And that bit’s just a modern take on ancient technology, too.” This time he indicated the large Archimedes screw that was feeding the black-ish goo up to the next machine. A precision-engineered, stainless steel one, admittedly, but an Archimedes screw all the same. Then, once the black paste had wound its way up through the screw, it was fed through the slot-shaped nozzle of the next machine which spread a generous layer of paste onto a circular mat made of stainless-steel mesh.
“OK, you can see that when the mat is fully covered, one of those blokes lifts it off, puts on a fresh one, and threads the full one over that pole mounted on a trolley.” I watched the fluid and practised movements of the young man who was obviously Rodolfo’s son. “They keep adding mats until they have a stack about 1.5 metres high.”
“I’m pretty sure the mats date back centuries too. Carol Drinkwater mentions them in her books about the history of olives. Only they were made of straw or something originally, I think. Anyway, what happens next?”
“Right, then they wheel the trolleys into the press on the left there, which slowly pushes down on top of the stack of mats.”
“I’m a bit disappointed it’s not one of those old things with a great big comedy wing-nut on top you sometimes see in farmyards”
“No, proper hi-tech this time: hydraulic. Four hundred kilos of pressure per centimetre squared,” he declared in full nerd-mode. I rolled my eyes.
“Only you would know something like that!”
“Last year one of the old codgers showed me the pressure gauge,” he grinned. “Apparently, it takes a good half hour to press all the oil out. It just trickles down the sides into that big steel tank down there in the floor.”
I peered down into what looked like a vat of used motor oil.
“Yuk! It looks revolting!”
“Yes, there are still quite a lot of crushed up solids in there– pulp, skin, bits of pip and so on. From that tank the oil is pumped into a centrifuge – that big cylinder there in the corner – to separate all the gunk from the oil. I think the chap said it spins at something like seven thousand revolutions per minute.”
“And so that’s the finished oil coming out of the centrifuge from that spout?” I asked, pointing at the glossy, yellow-green stream pouring into the flagon that had been positioned below the spout.
“Yup! And that’s it, done!”
“It must have been so satisfying to see our oil pouring into our flagon last year!”
“It was! I was dying to taste it, but you can see it’s still a bit cloudy, so it needs to settle for a couple of days.”
“So go on, tell me: how much have we got, then?” I asked as Mr Blue-Shirt heaved our freshly-filled flagon from the back of the car and down into the cantina.
“Twenty-five litres!” said Mr Blue-Shirt smiling broadly.
“Wow! That’s much more than I expected! I’m sure we had closer to two hundred kilos of fruit last year and only got a few more litres than that.”
“Yeah, thirty litres, I think. But I reckon we picked a week or so later this year, so the fruit was probably a bit riper. Rodolfo certainly thinks it’s a good yield. And he says the quality is high too: apparently, all those weeks of hot, dry sunny weather will give the oil a richer and more intense flavour. ”
“So quality as well as quantity this year! Can we have a look?”
Down in the musty gloom of the cellar Mr Blue-Shirt unscrewed the lid of the flagon and shone a torch in through its wide neck. The beam illuminated the fragrant greeny-gold oil that nearly filled the flagon and I inhaled deeply, savouring the distinctive grassy, peppery aroma. I swear I could practically feel the sunshine and hear the crickets. It was not just oil; not just Casa Girasole oil. It was liquid summer…