We had been um-ing and ah-ing about when to start for some time, keeping an eye on what our neighbours were doing as a signal for when would be the right time. Over the preceding week or so 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 nets out next door to the bakery on the way into the village.” With each new sighting, Mr Blue-Shirt went and dusted down another piece of our harvesting equipment. First the bright green nylon floor nets to catch the falling fruit, then the orange plastic rakes about the size of a child’s toy that can be fitted onto poles of varying lengths and with which the fruit is simply combed from the trees, and finally the russet-coloured storage crates (ingeniously designed so that they can either stack on top of, or, if turned round the other way, slot inside each other) in which to take the gathered fruit to the oleificio, the oil press.
Our olive crop had been steadily ripening beneath the mellow sun of our prolonged Indian summer. The plump bright green fruit had gradually faded to a murky mauve, 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 on the northern side that Mr Blue-Shirt had given a good pruning back in spring hadn’t fruited this year, of course, but there was so much fruit on the trees along the eastern side we could see it twinkling among the branches from our bedroom window. And a quick inspection of those along the southern boundary confirmed that they too carried a promising amount of fruit. But as ever it was a matter of judgement as to when was the best time to harvest these little black jewels, and as ever, we had decided to take our lead from what people locally were doing – hence the daily reports on what our neighbours we up to. Annoyingly, however, just when the harvest really seemed to be gearing up and we had decided we would spread our nets out beneath our own trees and get raking the coming weekend, the weather broke. After weeks of uninterrupted sunshine and temperatures consistently in the low twenties, thick grimy cloud suddenly bowled in from every direction, the temperature halved overnight, and rain fell in torrents from slate skies. Days of the stuff, heavy and relentless: harvesting in this was out of the question. Not only would it make a normally enjoyable task extremely unpleasant and mucky, but fruit harvested in the wet would quickly start to rot. And this would mean reduced yield or, if any rotting fruit was not extracted, tainted oil. So Mr Blue-Shirt returned the nets and rakes and crates to the shed and waited for the rain to stop and for the trees to dry out.
It was a good week later that the nets, rakes and crates finally reappeared from the shed, and Mr Blue-Shirt being Mr Blue-Shirt, this time accompanied by both chainsaws, the leaf-blower, the long-reach secateurs, the bolt-croppers, and the decorator’s ladder. Along with the harvest, he wanted to give the badly over-grown, unkempt trees along the eastern border a long overdue pruning and start the process of coaxing them back into their optimum fruit-bearing (and fruit-harvesting) shape. This means keeping them quite short, maintaining a good distance between the branches of one tree and its neighbours (to restrict the spread of pests and disease), removing any dead wood to avoid rot, and taking out most of the growth in the centre of the tree. This helps direct growth to the principal fruit bearing limbs, allows them to get more sun, and provides easier access when it comes to harvesting. The ideal shape to aim for, apparently, is that of a wine glass: a rounded, hollowed-out crown on a short, broad-based stem.
With his supporting cast of tools neatly laid out on the grass, Mr Blue-Shirt strode off to the boiler room for 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. The plastic rakes are all well and good for the lower branches and if the fruit is quite dense as just a vigorous tug will bring the black beads raining down. And there is something almost romantic about the simplicity of using a technology that has hardly changed for centuries. But to get right to the top of the trees, even the shorter ones, and comb through every branch to make sure you’ve got all the fruit, then one of these gadgets makes all the difference. And it’s not just the reach, it’s the speed as well: whatever quantity can be gathered using rakes and ladders will take a fraction of the time with the clappy hands – and with no need for ladders either.
Fortunately, however, we didn’t feel the same need this year to try and locate every last olive. The year before, waves of storms accompanied by raging gales in the weeks running up to the harvest had yanked most of our crop from the trees and hurled it onto the sodden grass below in a rotting carpet of slippery black. In the end, even with the assistance of the clappy hands, we had only managed to fill four-and-a-bit crates: little over a hundred kilos, whereas the year before that we’d got almost the same amount from just five or six of our thirty-eight trees using just our trusty orange plastic rakes. This year, though, we were confident of achieving a much more substantial crop.
Our confidence had been justified: at the end of several days’ non-stop raking, combing, jiggling, snipping, sawing, sorting and gathering, nine crates brimming with shiny black fruit stood in neat rows on the floor of the van. Mr Blue-Shirt wiped his purple-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, rolling his work-stiffened neck and shoulders back and forth.
“Wow! I hadn’t realised you’d got that many! How many kilos do you reckon?”
“Well, we’ll soon find out. I’ll just these tools put away and then I’ll get straight down to the oleificio. I don’t want this fruit to sit around for any longer than necessary.”
And with the tools safely stowed for another year, he slammed the van doors shut, clambered into the cab and trundled off through the gathering dusk, down the hill to Rodolfo’s.
“196 kilos?!” I yelped when Mr Blue-Shirt got home and showed me the receipt Rodolfo have given him.
“Yes, I know! Incredible, eh?”
“But that’s almost double what we got last year! What on earth will we do with that much oil? We’re still getting through last year’s batch.” I gestured to the bottle of green-gold oil standing on the work-surface where I was preparing dinner.
“We don’t know what the yield will be like, though,” cautioned Mr Blue-Shirt. “At the end of the day, it’s how much oil we get from each kilo that counts. And we won’t know that until they’ve been pressed.”
“When’s he doing that, then? I thought you wanted to get them done today.”
“I was too late. He’s going to do it first thing tomorrow. And he’s asked if I’d like to go and watch, so time will tell…”