January Blues

God, I loathe January. Yes, I know it’s a bit of a cliché; the media would have us believe that loathing January has effectively become compulsory these days. You know the shtick: the sparkle and euphoria of Christmas have faded, the only Quality Street left in the tub are the sickly soft centres, and all you can find in the freezer is yet more leftover turkey. The credit card bills have landed, the poinsettia is shedding more leaves by the day, and the new year’s resolutions have long since been exposed as a work of fiction – again.

For me, though, January is not just a collection of media tropes and the blindingly obvious. For me, it is truly the season of sorrows. It is the month in which we repeatedly pounded up and down the slush-slicked motorways between our home in Lincolnshire and my family’s in Devon, initially sick with dread and later numb with grief. It is the month in which barely forty-eight hours into the new year, I buried my father. It is the month in which, just two years later, I spent endless, agonising days at the side of my sister’s bed in the hospice, watching cancer steal her life from her. And exactly two years after that in the hospital right next door, it was the month in which I spent almost identical endless, agonising days at the side of my mother’s almost identical hospital bed, watching cancer steal her life too.

January is the month in which I became an only child. January is the month in which I became an orphan.

In the UK, the crushing weight of that immense sorrow was almost unbearable. For then it was accompanied and intensified by January’s ceaseless, dank and frigid gloom. Although technically the days were lengthening, the increase in daylight was imperceptible. Darkness reigned: we went to work in the dark; we came home in the dark; the lights were always on. It was a world drained of life; a world drained of colour, with black, naked trees and lifeless, sepia-coloured fields over which hung leaden skies that the watery winter sun was seldom able to penetrate. Then there was the exhausting misery of the damp, bone-chilling cold that seeped into the very core of my being and that turned every day into an unwinnable battle to keep its effects at bay. Without fail, my mood would darken, and without fail, in a matter of days I would find myself tumbling into a gaping chasm of wretchedness from which I could only manage to haul myself when spring at last beckoned.

But here in Le Marche, a thousand miles to the south, the contrast could hardly be greater – this January at least. Since well before Christmas we have been blessed with benign temperatures, often in double figures. For weeks on end a honeyed sun has shone from a baby-blue sky. And on the days when its gentle rays have been filtered through a veil of fine mist, the land has been bathed in a soft golden light that has given everything an ethereal, dreamlike quality. It is a world full of colour, with hilltop villages flushed pink in the soft-focus sunlight and spring crops already carpeting the fields in vivid green. Tiny white and blue flowers now dot the hedgerows, while splashes of brilliant yellow mimosa blossom are starting to appear, and many of the trees – including all the olives, of course – always remain as green as they were in full summer. On occasion, the breeze even carries the soft murmur of birdsong.

Despite the renewal and growth and life that are evident everywhere, January remains the season of sorrows, mind – as I suspect it always will do; the multiples layers of loss simply run too deep. But the warmth and colour of a Mediterranean winter at least make the weight of that lasting sorrow bearable, and the brightness of a southern sky helps dim the shadows it continues to cast over me. They lift and sustain me and their reassuring embrace keeps me from falling into that annual chasm of wretchedness. They have, in part at least, redefined the January Blues.

Found in Ancona…

So, if the likes of Rome and Florence, awash with jaw-dropping architectural and artistic treasures, are akin to a swanky antiques shop, then I would say that Ancona is probably more akin to a collectables emporium. The antiques shop is filled with artfully displayed period furniture, glass-fronted cabinets full of delicate porcelain and crystal, and artworks with ostentatious gilt frames hang from the tastefully painted walls. Every which way you look, your eye falls upon one period gem after another, but after a while your eyes glaze over and you succumb to antiquity overload. The collectables emporium, by contrast, is probably crammed to the roof with every conceivable variety of knick-knack and bric-a-brac with little thought for logic or aesthetics. Stacks of second-hand books lean lazily on dusty shelves, floral table lamps with wonky shades prop up one-eyed dolls, and you have to negotiate a forest of mis-matched dining chairs to reach that interesting-looking glassware in the corner. And yet, for all its clutter, the place somehow draws you in; there is a warmth to all the jumble, a human story behind every battered piece, and you soon find yourself happily poking around among the chaos. Then suddenly you stumble across a real treasure, and it stops you in your tracks. And in that instant, as you turn your precious find in your dusty hands, you just know there must be more. And you are hooked…

So here, then, are our best finds so far in Ancona’s Emporium of Collectables:

  • The Romanesque Cathedral of San Ciriaco is built from white stone quarried from nearby Monte Conero and named after Ancona’s patron saint. With sweeping views over the bay, it stands on the site of the city’s ancient Greek acropolis atop Monte Guasco, and dates back to the 10th century, although it was changed and added to numerous times throughout the Middle Ages. In more recent times, it was bombed in World War I, then rebuilt and rededicated, only to be bombed again in World War II. It was rebuilt and rededicated again in the 1950s, but the earthquakes of 1972 caused yet more damage. And even today, huge timber buttresses support one transept that was damaged in the earthquakes of 2016.
  • Across the bay on the summit of Monte Astagno stands The Citadel. This mighty fortress was commissioned by Pope Clement VII as a display of papal wealth and power. Designed by Antonio da Sangallo younger, who Clement VII commissioned to build similar fortresses in Perugia and Florence, it was completed in 1538 and includes five imposing bastions. It played a crucial role in the defence of the city in succeeding centuries, but fell into disrepair following the earthquake of 1972. It has since undergone substantial restoration work and is once again one of the city’s most significant monuments.
  • Down in the harbour, meanwhile, nestles another papal commission – Clement XII this time. Here you find the striking, pentagonal Lazzaretto, which is also known as the Mole Vanvitelliana. Built in the 18th century on an artificial island, it was originally a quarantine station and leprosarium for the city and as such had no physical link to the quay, but was later connected by three bridges. In the 19th century it became a military fort, and is now home to the ground-breaking Tactile Museum that seeks to promote a multi-sensory enjoyment of art.
  • Further round the harbour, stands in splendid isolation on the edge of the north quay one of the city’s oldest and most iconic monuments. The Roman Senate ordered the construction of the triumphal in AD115 Trajan Arch, which is built from Turkish marble and stands over eighteen metres high. It was conceived as a gesture of gratitude to Emperor Trajan who substantially expanded both the city and the port at his own expense. These improvements subsequently assisted him in his defeat of the Dacians across the Adriatic, thereby expanding the Roman Empire to its furthest extent.
  • At the base of the steep, pine-clad cliffs on the eastern flank of the promontory of Monte Guasco lies Ancona’s only town beach, Il Passetto. Although seemingly well-hidden and accessed via several flights of narrow stone steps, this narrow strip of shingle that plunges straight into the sparkling sapphire sea is hugely popular with the Anconetani. Apart from its restaurants serving the local speciality, brodetto all’anconetana (a mixed fish stew) it is best known for the small grottoes carved into the cliff-face in which previous generations of fishermen stored their boats. Now used as beach huts, they are jealously guarded by their owners who hand them down from one generation to the next.
  • Away from the waterfront in the heart of what remains of medieval Ancona is the Piazza del Plebiscito, complete with its 13th century city gate, the Arco di Garola. Made up of a pleasing mix of different 15th century palazzi, this grand square is dominated by the baroque church of San Domenico, and is filled with cafés and restaurants whose terraces spill across its cobbled pavements. In the maze of narrow streets that surround the piazza are lots of tiny artisan jewellery workshops, each with just a couple of craftsmen or women hunched over their work-worn benches.
  • Running inland from the waterfront are Ancona’s main shopping streets, the elegant Corso Giuseppe Mazzini and parallel to it, the equally elegant Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi. Just off the former, hiding down an unpromising-looking side street is the once-lovely fin de siècle covered market, the paint now peeling from its delicate cast and wrought iron, but the stone fronted stalls down one side, still filled with today’s catch and those down the other filled with today’s crop from the family orto (market garden). Towards the waterfront end of the latter you will find one of the city’s most famous bars, the tiny Bar Torino. Barely any bigger than the average sitting room, it retains its stylish 1960s décor and has been in the same family for several generations. It is famous for its vast range of cocktails and down the years it has attracted many a celebrity whose signed photos now proudly hang behind the bar.

And we can’t help thinking we are still just scratching the surface…

Ancona: books and covers

“OK, you’re familiar with the ‘boot’ of Italy, yes? With its toe looking as if it’s kicking Sicily? So, now think of the slight bulge of the calf of the boot. Well, it’s at the outermost point of that bulge.” It’s my tried and tested means of locating Ancona for first-time visitors who will in all likelihood being flying into its modest airport that lies at the north-western edge of the city.
“Our place is about forty minutes to the south-west,” I typically continue, and round off my brief orientation with “Don’t bother about detouring via Ancona itself; it’s really not much to write home about.” Well, until recently I did, anyway. For over the last few months I have discovered that I had been doing the city a great disservice and owe it an apology: it is a surprisingly beguiling place that Mr Blue-Shirt and I are becoming really rather fond of.

Admittedly, the messy sprawl of post-war concrete that forms an arc around the city is not immediately encouraging: faceless trading estates, criss-crossed by a tangle of flyovers and underpasses, mingle with clumps of low-rise cream and ochre apartment blocks. It is this undeniably ugly first impression that for years put us off visiting the place properly, and consequently, discovering its long history that turns out to be as fascinating as it is turbulent. And that helps put the ugliness in context.  I now realise, for instance, that in World War I the Navy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on whom Italy had declared war only the day before, subjected the city to sustained naval bombardment that inflicted heavy damage on the port and surrounding areas. Then in World War II, it endured extensive bombing during its liberation from Nazi occupation by Allied Forces (in the form of the Polish 2nd Corps) who, as part of their advance north, needed a seaport closer to the front line. And fewer than thirty years later, it suffered a series of earthquakes in 1972 and then a landslide in 1982. All of which makes it much easier to forgive the apparent disregard for conservation principles and the seemingly insensitive urban development: the city’s beleaguered and exhausted residents needed housing and jobs – and fast.

And once you look beyond its concrete exterior, you will be warmly greeted by a vibrant, gritty, and proud maritime city with two thousand years of tempestuous history as a strategically important seaport on the Adriatic coast. It was founded by the Greeks in the 4th century BC to facilitate the expansion of trade from the Greek peninsular. Indeed, it was the Greeks who gave the city its name. Ancona derives from the Greek word ‘ankon’ which means ‘elbow’ and refers to the way the harbour is cradled in the crook of the protective arm formed by Monte Astagno to the north and Monte Guasco to the south. These are the twin extremities of the distinctive Conero Promontory whose forested bulk rears up behind the city.

Three centuries later came the Romans, and shortly after he crossed the Rubicon, Julius Caesar took possession of the city because of its harbour’s proximity to the Roman province of Dalmatia on the other side of the Adriatic. Emperor Trajan subsequently enlarged the harbour, in gratitude for which the Senate erected a triumphal arch in his honour in AD115 – and the Arch of Trajan still stands in splendid isolation on the north quay today.

In succeeding centuries, it was attacked by Goths, Lombards and Saracens, who sacked and burned the city in the 7th and 8th centuries. A couple of hundred years later it became a semi-autonomous maritime republic, during which time it built its cathedral on the summit of Monte Guasco, sent ships to the crusades, and was devastated by fire and by the black death. Two centuries after that, it became part of the Papal States, and the main architectural  legacy of this period is the imposing citadel that still keeps watch over the city from its position high on Monte Astagno.

By virtue of its position as the gateway to the eastern Mediterranean, the city has long been a melting pot of creeds and cultures: towards the end of the Renaissance it was home to a large community of important Greek merchants, and also to a substantial Jewish community that had been established in Roman times. In fact, Ancona was the only city within the Papal States that tolerated Jews, thanks to the wealth they brought to the city via their banking and trading activities, and even welcomed Jews escaping persecution elsewhere in Europe. The city still has two synagogues, and the 16th century Monte Cardeto cemetery, one of two in the city, is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe.

During the Napoleonic era, the city briefly fell to the French, became the Anconine Republic, and was incorporated into the short-lived Roman Republic following Rome’s invasion by one of Napoleon’s generals. After a couple years’ to-ing and fro-ing, however, Ancona returned to the Papal States which were restored in 1799. But only sixty years later, the Papal States were defeated once and for all in the Battle of Castelfidardo (which lies just 20km to the south of Ancona), this time by the forces of the Risorgimento that brought about the unified Kingdom of Italy in 1861.

There followed a brief period of peace and prosperity, during which the railway came to the city, linking it to Bologna to the north and Pescara to the south, a tram service started operating, the southern quay was built, and the population grew to just shy of sixty thousand. But within barely fifty years, the continent was at war again and those Austro-Hungarian battleships out in the bay had the city in their sights…

 

Tallying up

Old habits die hard. Having managed all the finances of the business Mr Blue-Shirt and I ran for fifteen years, I still find myself doing an annual profit and loss account at the year’s end. Only these days, the debits and credits are no longer measured in pounds and pence, but in terms of quality rather than quantity, of the intangible rather than tangible.

So how does our triumphs and tragedies account for 2019 shape up? Well, the debit column is, understandably, dominated by three devastating and genuinely life-changing events: the burglary in spring, the death of Mr Blue-Shirt’s mother in autumn, and just seven weeks later, the death of his father. All three cast long, deep shadows across the year, plunging us into months of fear, anger, pain and loss; shadows whose sorrowful darkness has yet to recede. And all three rendered every other frustration and niggle, glitch and hiccup mere small change; just a handful of coins lost down the back of the sofa of life. Indeed, I am struggling to itemise other debits that any sensible accountant wouldn’t write off for being within an acceptable margin of error. The bureaucratic annoyances of importing first the car and later the van? Well, that’s just par for the course, so neither debit nor credit. The repeated wild goose chases involved in hiring construction equipment, then? Same thing: zero impact on the final balance. OK, so what about a horribly and uncharacteristically cold and wet May? Pfft! Not even worth a line on the spreadsheet. The frighteningly vicious storms that tore through the region in July and ended a blistering heatwave, then?  No damage suffered, so no entry necessary.  In fact, the only other debit that has affected the final balance to any degree was the sudden and desperately premature death of Stanley, one of the two lovable young cats we had acquired in January and who immediately captured our hearts.

The credit column at first glance appears much more mundane, with no obvious show-stopping gains to cancel out those huge losses. Our application for planning permission was granted, we successfully got ourselves as Brexit-proof as possible, Mr Blue-Shirt razed the despised pigsty to the ground, constructed new terraces and built a pergola. We enjoyed mini-breaks in Matera, Gibraltar and Tuscany, and welcomed six sets of visitors to Casa Girasole. My job remained stimulating and satisfying, I met my new great-nephew and I maintained my running and writing habits. We spent summer Sundays at the beach, dined outside from June to September, made new friends, had a good olive harvest, and continue to enjoy the affectionate presence of Stanley’s sister, Tilly. And the  most valuable assets of all: we have survived everything that life has thrown at us this year in the home that comforts and sustains us; the place that is our refuge, our place of healing; the place that  fits our needs more precisely, and where we have felt more truly ‘at home’ than anywhere else we have ever lived. A home that is located in the most magical spot whose ravishing beauty makes our hearts sing and whose reassuring constancy nourishes and grounds us each and every day.

So where does that leave us? What is the final tally when multiple small triumphs and pleasures are weighed against a few enormous losses? Was it, in crude terms, a good year or a bad year? Well, I am gratified – and not a little surprised – to find that the credits do amount to much more than I first anticipated.  The sheer scale of those losses, however, has cost us dear and our reserves are undeniably at low ebb. So the result, on balance, is a deficit – albeit a far smaller one than I had first feared, and one that we can surely be hopeful of reversing in 2020.

Maybe I should carry on doing the accounts after all.

In Praise of ‘Stuff’

Decluttering has been ‘a thing’ for well over a decade now. The process of getting rid of accumulations of unnecessary objects from one’s home with a view to achieving a soothing, minimalist environment and a calm, stress-free state of mind has spawned countless books, created online ‘influencers’ and turned decluttering gurus such as Marie Kondo into multi-millionaires. I have to confess, however, that I’ve never much subscribed to the tenets of this very millennial cult, partly because we are not prone even to collecting, never mind hoarding – fifteen years moving from place to place with the armed forces saw to that. But having lost so many members of first my family and now Mr Blue-Shirt’s, I am more certain than ever that there is a place for, and even a value in ‘stuff’.

With Christmas coming only weeks after the funerals of both Mr Blue-Shirt’s mother and then his father, there were two yawning voids at our table this year. Metaphorically speaking, you understand: we didn’t religiously spend every Christmas together – and couldn’t always have done so, even if we had wanted to. The thing is, though, whether physically present or not, because his folks were always part of our lives, they were always involved, always part of our celebrations. There are the family traditions we adopted from childhood. For years now Mr Blue-Shirt has relied – tongue firmly in cheek – on his beloved dad’s all-purpose get-out clause “I’m doing the stuffing!” to try and avoid other less interesting Christmas chores. Just as we have long adhered to my parents’ tradition of opening presents only after the Queen’s Speech, and having bubble and squeak for Boxing Day lunch. And then there would be the swapping of recipes, the advice on wine, the calls and messages on Christmas morning, and the exchange of carefully selected gifts and cards. Until this year, of course.

What did much to ease the almost overwhelming sense of absence and loss, though, was in fact ‘stuff’. Our Wedgwood Christmas crockery, we realised over our roast turkey, had been his parents’, the engraved EPNS serving spoons his grandma’s, Mr Blue-Shirt’s beer glass his father’s, my silver napkin ring his mother’s. Among the jumble of battered, mis-matched utensils we had used to cook our lunch had been his mother’s – or mine. Indeed, it occurred to us that our bone-handled cutlery had been my parents’ Sunday-best, and that we had sipped our Christmas fizz from my grandparents’ 1930s, paper-thin champagne coupes.

What we ate and drank from, they had too; what we had touched and held, they had too. It comforted us, it connected us. It brought the past into the present; it made what we had lost feel less distant.

I have always been a fan of William Morris’s golden rule of style: “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”, to which I would now add a third category: …or nothing that you do not recognise to have meaning. For what the likes of Marie Kondo would doubtless condemn as mere ‘stuff’ means the world to us, and we wouldn’t part with it for anything.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to one and all.

Pressing Business

So the burning question was: how much oil would we get from this year’s olive harvest? Mr Blue-Shirt had arrived at the oleificio with our freshly picked crop as the purple dusk fell and too late for it to be pressed that day, but in time to find that we had harvested a very satisfying 196kg of olives: just enough for a proper single pressing. Better still, Rodolfo the owner had invited him back to watch the whole pressing process the following morning.

The oleificio we use to get our olives pressed 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 the previous year by following the recommendation of our neighbour Enrico and the signs off the main road to Morrovalle, the next village from us. Despite the wave of storms that had dragged nearly all the fruit from everyone’s trees in the final critical weeks before the harvest, we had managed to garner just shy of 100kg. Batches under about 200kgs are usually pooled and you end up with a pro-rata share of the resulting oil, but Rodolfo was willing to reward our efforts and run our meagre pickings through the press before he shut up shop for the year. We ended up with an impressive twenty-five litres of oil that Rodolfo had approvingly described as ‘buono’ – good. He had even said that some of our fruit was good enough to cure for table olives. So hopes were high for this year.

“Did you go to Rodolfo’s, then?” I asked the next evening when I got home from work. Mr Blue-Shirt looked at me as if I had lost my mind.
“Was I likely to miss the opportunity to poke around someone else’s workshop? Of course I went!”
“Yes, daft question, I suppose. All that shiny gadgetry: I bet you were in seventh heaven!”
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.
“Tell me all about it then,” I said, lowering my bag of books to the bottom stair and easing off my shoes.
“It was brilliant! He’s actually got a much more complicated set-up than I realised – and all squeezed into a space only about the size of a double garage.”
“Really? When we went there last year, I got the impression he just had the basics so he could do a bit of pressing on the side. He’s mainly an olive farmer, isn’t he?”
“Yes, but with the amount of money that lot must have cost, he’s definitely not doing it just on the side!”
“Do you want a cup of tea? I’m gagging.”
“Yes, please. There were a few old codgers there too – you know the type: all flat hats and leathery faces. They were really friendly, though, and kept explaining to me what was happening in each machine.”

I finished making tea, carried the steaming mugs into the sitting room and settled onto the sofa: this could take some time, for I knew that not the tiniest step in the process will have passed Mr Blue-Shirt by.
“Well, go on then: what did it all involve?”
“Right, so first of all a chap emptied all our crates into one big one that then tipped the whole lot through a stream of air that blew away all the twigs and leaves and so on.”
“I thought you got rid of all the leaves and twigs, though.”
“I picked out what I could, but there was still loads of debris in there that you don’t want to end up in the oil.”
“So where did they go next then?” I asked, sipping my tea.
“Well, the hopper they landed in fed them onto a large round tray. This bit was amazing.”
“What was?”
Mr Blue-Shirt put his mug down and rummaged around in his pocket for his phone.
“I took a video. Look! They still use huge rotating stone wheels to crush the whole olives into a sludgey paste. All that hi-tech everywhere, 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 then there’s another bit that’s just a modern take on ancient technology: it’s actually an Archimedes screw that feeds the goo into the next machine. A stainless steel one, but look: an actual Archimedes screw!”
I peered at the shaky video that showed the black paste winding through the screw and into the slot-shaped nozzle of the next machine. This spread a generous layer of paste onto a circular mat made of stainless-steel mesh. Mr Blue-Shirt stuffed his phone back into his pocket and took a swig of tea.

“Then the bloke from the start re-appeared: when the mat was fully covered, he lifted it off, replaced it with a fresh one, and threaded the full one over a thick pole mounted on a round plate that sat on a low trolley. By this time, the next mat was ready, so off it came and onto the pole. He went on like that until he had 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 happened to the stack?”
“Right, then came the pressing itself. The chap wheeled the trolley into a huge press which slowly pushed down on top of the stack of mats.”
“Was the press 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.
“Only you would know something like that!”
“One of the old codgers pointed out the pressure gauge to me,” he grinned. “He told me it would take a good half hour to press all the oil out, too. It just trickles down the sides into a big steel tank in the floor.”
“You surely didn’t stand there watching it all that time, did you?”
“No, not even I’m that much of a nerd! I went to the cashpoint in Morrovalle: Rodolfo doesn’t take cards. It’s strictly cash only.”
“Something else that hasn’t changed for centuries, then!” I observed wrily as I leant over to put my empty mug on the coffee table.

“So what was happening when you got back?”
“Well, the oil is a horrid opaque khaki colour when it drains into the tank – look…” I squinted at a photograph of what looked like a vat of used motor oil.
“Yuk!”
“Yes, there were still quite a lot of solids in there at that point – pulp, skin, bits of pip and so on. So to get rid of them the oil is pumped into a centrifuge that separates the sediment from the oil. It spins at 7000 revolutions per minute, and so when it poured into our flagon that Rodolfo had already positioned below the spout, it had finally started to look like olive oil.”
Mr Blue-Shirt thrust his phone back into his pocket.
“And that was it, done!”
“Wow! It must have been so satisfying to see our oil pouring into our flagon!”
“It was! I can’t wait to taste it, but Rodolfo said we need to let it settle for a couple of days. It still looks a bit cloudy.”
“So go on, tell me: how much have we got, then?” I asked.
“Thirty-one litres!” said Mr Blue-Shirt smiling broadly.
“Oh…”
“What?”
“Well, that’s not much more than last year – from double the amount of fruit. That’s a pretty rubbish yield, isn’t it?”
“That’s what I thought, but Rodolfo says it’s not all about quantity. Apparently, the long, hot, dry summer affected everyone’s yield, and ours was still pretty good.”
“Well, that’s something, I suppose.”
“Yes, but the thing is, all that heat and sun has actually improved the quality of the oil, according to Rodolfo. He reckons it will have a richer and more intense flavour.”
“Really?! Well, that makes me feel loads better! Can we go and take 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 and 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…

That time of year again…

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…”