As usual, 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 to the village.”
Our olive crop had ripened much sooner than usual thanks to the exceptionally long, hot summer with its weeks and weeks of intense, unbroken sunshine. By the start of October, the plump bright green fruit had already started to turn to a murky violet. Over the next couple of weeks, it darkened to purple, and finally, as the month drew to its close, to glossy black: tens of thousands of little black beads twinkling in the sun like fairy lights made of jet. It was clear that our annual springtime pruning efforts were really starting to bear fruit – literally – and so we were confident of another good crop, especially as there had been very few of the violent storms that typically mark the shift from summer to autumn and that can easily devastate a crop at the last minute. 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 russet 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 ladder, and the star of the show, his beloved abbacchiatore 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 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, no fewer than nine 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.
“Three crates more than last year,” he declared proudly. “I just checked last year’s photos on my phone. These are much fuller, too.”
“And 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 two hundred and twenty-five kilos there – it was about a hundred and thirty kilos last year. Anyway, 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 three 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! Two hundred and twenty-three point four 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 “After such a dry summer, we may not get such a good yield as last year – although it might make the flavour better, I suppose”.
“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 can we just take a quick look in the shed? I love watching the pressing process.”
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 the year before last 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 few leathery-faced old codgers had explained to him two years before.
“Right, so once they’ve been weighed, the olives get tipped into that,” Mr Blue-Shirt bellowed 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 spent ages picking out leaves and twigs, though.”
“Yes, we picked out a fair bit, but there’s still loads of debris in there that you don’t want to end up in the oil.”
“I suppose so: you can never get every last twig out by hand. 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 narrow 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, as the saying goes.”
“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 into 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 chaps lifts it off, puts on a fresh one, and threads the full one over that pole that’s actually 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 a metre and a half high.”
“I’m pretty sure the mats date back centuries too. Only they were made of straw or something originally, I think. Anyway, presumably it’s the actual pressing bit next.”
“Yes, 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 huge cast iron things with a great big comedy wing-nut on top you sometimes see rusting away in farmyards.”
“No, proper hi-tech this time: hydraulic. Four hundred kilos of pressure per centimetre squared,” he recited in full nerd-mode. I rolled my eyes.
“One of the old codgers showed me the pressure gauge when I came to watch,” he grinned. “It takes a good half hour to press all the oil out. It just trickles down the sides into that big steel tank in the floor.”
I peered down into what looked like a vat of used motor oil.
“Yuk! It looks revolting!”
“Yes, there’s still quite a lot of crushed up pulp, skin and bits of pip in there at the moment. So they pump the unfiltered oil from this tank into a centrifuge – that big cylinder over there in the corner – to remove all the remaining solids from the oil. I think the chap said it spins at something like 7000 revolutions per minute.”
“And so that’s the clean 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 when Rodolfo talked you through the whole process”
“It was! I was dying to taste it, but it was still too cloudy and needed to settle for a couple of days.”
“So go on, tell me: how much have we got, then?” Mr Blue-Shirt asked me the next afternoon as he helped heave our flagon from the back of the car and down into the cantina.
“Thirty-eight litres!” I said smiling broadly.
“Thirty-eight litres?! That’s amazing! But you were right about the lower yield. We had getting on for double the quantity of fruit this year, but that’s nowhere near double the quantity of oil.”
“Yes, and it’s not as if the fruit wasn’t ripe. Mind you, Rodolfo still reckons it’s a good yield. And he was very complimentary about the quality too: I was also right about the effect of the dry, sunny summer giving a richer and more intense flavour.”
“So quality as well as quantity. Let’s have a look…”
Down in the suitably halloweeny gloom of the cellar Mr Blue-Shirt unscrewed the lid of the shiny, stainless-steel flagon and shone a torch in through its wide neck. The beam illuminated the fragrant greeny-gold oil that nearly filled the container and I inhaled deeply, savouring the distinctive grassy, peppery aroma. I swear I could practically feel the glow of sunshine on my face again and hear the song of the crickets echoing around inside the flagon. It was not just oil; not just Casa Girasole oil. It was liquid summer…