Well oiled . . .

olive oyl 1THE world’s biggest producer of olive oil is Spain – and the region at the heart of that production is Andalucia. So when you buy a small parcel of land in the Alpujarra region of Andalucia, and that land supports a few olive trees, it’s important to familiarise yourself with olive oil production. I’ve discovered that this is a steep, though well-lubricated, learning curve . . .

The olive gathering season is now drawing to a close, but just before Christmas I had a crash course in olive picking. My instructor was Jordi – a native of Catalonia and the chap we bought our house off. A young German traveller called Tobias also helped with the picking. This is how you harvest olives:

Place nets on the ground beneath an olive tree. Thrash the tree with sticks until all the olives have fallen. Drag the nets to the next tree, being careful not to lose a single olive. Repeat the process.

After three or four trees the nets become too heavy to drag, so you roll the olives into a heap and pick out the twigs. You then scoop the olives into crates and cover them with protective layers of twigs.

When you’ve harvested your olives, you take them to the mill and tip them into a huge hopper – being careful not to drop your specs in, as my friend Bruce did the following week. You then watch the precious green virgin oil trickle from a stainless steel pipe at the far end of the building.

Olive harvesting is a very satisfying though exhausting exercise. To get an idea of the physical exertion involved, take a clothes prop and thrash some trees for three days.

Tobias busy thrashing olive branches to dislodge the fruit
Tobias busy thrashing olive branches to dislodge the fruit
Jordi using an electric rake, the tines of which vibrate to dislodge the olives. It's an effective method but a bit noisy
Jordi using an electric rake, the tines of which vibrate to dislodge the olives. It’s an effective method but a bit noisy
Nets on the ground beneath an olive tree
Nets on the ground beneath an olive tree
Some olives are still green, but that's not a problem
Some olives are still green, but that’s not a problem
Others are turning black
Others are turning black
Jordi and Tobias removing twigs from a pile of olives
Jordi and Tobias removing twigs from a pile of olives

After my crash course with Jordi, I spent a further three days helping Bruce to harvest olives from his fifty-or-so trees (this was before his specs dropped off). Bruce uses long-handled rakes to strip his trees rather than sticks and brute force. This is an infinitely more relaxing and agreeable way to do the job. It allows opportunities to interact with your fellow workers – or “talk”, as we used to say.

And that’s how you harvest olives.

Incidentally, against all the odds, and from the midst of nearly a metric tonne of greasy olives, Bruce spotted his glasses whizzing along a conveyor belt and rescued them before they were despatched, in fragments, to the dinner tables of the world. So there you go – a happy ending.

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20 thoughts on “Well oiled . . .

  1. Very interesting. Cider apples are harvested by shakeing the trees with a tractor mounted tool, but the apples are probably ready to drop anyway.

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    1. Hi Alastair. They use equipment like that on the big commercial olive plantations. For the casual growers, though, it’s sticks and nets – a method that’s hardly changed since biblical times.
      All the best, Alen
      PS I think I prefer cider to olive oil, actually!

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  2. Are any of the olives damaged beyond repair in the beating process, or does it not matter if they’re being pulped anyway?

    It all sounds like living to me: productive toil, something to show at the end of it, a tradition and way of life. . . . It’s inspiring me to go out and beat my sycamore just for the sake of it.

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    1. I think your sycamore would benefit from it, Chris. Are they the trees that have those little whirly parachutes that spin down in the breeze?
      The olives are getting pulped anyway, so it doesn’t really matter, although you have to try not to stand on them because they degenerate more quickly once damaged and become more acidic. The idea is to get them to the mill within four or five days of starting the harvest.
      Cheers, Alen

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  3. I prefer olive oil (and olives) to cider – the smell of cider makes we want to throw up nowadays! (over indulgence in my youth). What on earth do the trees thing to being regularly thrashed? I’m surprised they keep going!
    Carol.

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    1. Hi Carol. There is a school of thought that says the trees can be damaged by thrashing. Almond trees as well, for almonds are harvested in the same way. Whether there is any real evidence for this, I know not.
      Pork is nice cooked in cider. You should try it. Or don’t you like pork either?
      All the best, Alen

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  4. I didn’t know that the olive harvest happened in winter! (Or our winter, anyway!) Very interesting, and loved your descriptions. I think I would favour the long-handled rake as well, and I’m sure the trees would agree!

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    1. Hi Jo. It’s very satisfying to drag a rake down a branch of olives and listen to the little beauties plop and patter onto the nets. It’s soothing, and gives a person time to think.
      And you can always use the rake to thrash the stubborn ones, so it’s the best of both worlds.
      Cheers, Alen

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  5. Hi Alen. I bought olives one day in a pickle with Oregano. My meaning was to share the stuff but they disappeared in thin air.
    Is it special varieties of olive you choose to press versus pack in pickle? Or has it to do with quality?
    I once saw a program in Danish TV where they learned that the market had coloured olives to get the best price.
    The quotation is from a Danish newspaper:
    “Black staining of green olives is done according to the Danish buyers because consumers demand black olives, which are considered a delicacy. But as it requires a long storage and ripening in brine before green olives naturally becomes dark or black, choose manufacturers large style to speed up the process artificially by black color green olive. ” *http://www.b.dk/danmark/groenne-oliven-farves-sorte

    Thank you for a great story how to reap olives, Alen. Very cosy pictures too 🙂

    Hanna

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    1. Hej Hanna. First, let me say that when it comes to olives I am no expert. From the information I have learned since coming to Spain, all I can say is that green olives and black olives are one and the same beast. They grow green, starting from blossom in the springtime, then begin to turn reddish and then black during September and October. Some don’t turn black at all, they just stay green.
      If you want to store them in brine in jars, then they are picked plump and green during the autumn. I am not familiar with the process of preserving black olives, so I can’t give you any information on that.
      I suspect that the olive trees in this area are of several varieties, because some olives were changing colour early, and some trees were not. When it comes to pressing them for oil, everything goes in. The olives are tipped into a hopper, then they go through a blower which blows all the leaves and twigs out, and through a machine that gets rid of all the stones and grit and things, and then they are pulped in a centrifuge and the oil comes out at the end of the process. There are also different types of pressings: cold and hot, which determine whether the oil is virgin, extra virgin or not. I haven’t got my head round that bit yet.
      I didn’t know you had olive trees in Denmark.
      All the best, Alen

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  6. Olive trees can grow in Denmark, but the problem occurs in winter. It can be done if you protect with a fiber cloth over the crown of the tree and sprigs of spruce at the root. They can thrive in pots, if taken into the greenhouse or patio in winter. If the tree comes into the warmth at room temperature, it will lose the leaves, and if it is exposed to -18 C the tree will wither. (So I read, but not experienced)
    I think it is in the production stage in Denmark, by filling the glass, the dye are added the brine by some manufacturers. The dye is an iron compound which gradually colours the green olives black…for some reason the Danish people like them black.
    Now I’m becoming aware of how healthy the olives are thank you, Alen 🙂
    Hanna

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    1. Thank you for that information, Hanna. I had a fig tree in my garden in North Yorkshire and it was very successful until the winter of 2010, when the frost killed it. However, it sprouted again from the roots and became rejuvenated. I suppose you can grow anything anywhere if you take precautions. Apparently, Holland is a major producer of tomatoes, but that might be an urban myth.
      I don’t like the idea of eating olives adulterated by a mysterious iron compound. It would be risky eating them during a thunderstorm.
      Cheers, Alen

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