OLIVE HARVEST, DAY 3: Clothes smell of oil. Arms and legs smell of oil. Hair smells of oil. Oil penetrates the skin and gets under the nails. It soaks the nets, soaks the sacks. It lubricates tool handles and the leather of boots. Crushed olives stain the grass and kitchen floor like trodden beetles. My world has become an olive oil production plant. The full sacks mount up slowly – 11, 12, 13 . . .
Coals to Newcastle, cheese to Cheddar, oil to Orgiva. I have learned to regard olive oil in a fresh light. Apparently, the olive has been cultivated since Neolithic times. Those cavemen were more sophisticated than we appreciate. Virgin olive oil on their sun-dried tomatoes and basil, washed down with a primitive Rioja. They knew their stuff and lived the good life.
My olives are all destined for the local mill to be turned into oil. But I have a few black olives curing in salt in a shoebox with sprigs of rosemary and thyme, by way of an experiment. Green olives require a more complex curing process: soaking in large amounts of fresh water and then brine or vinegar. Might try a few jars next year – but the rest will go to the mill.
Black olives and green olives – do you know the difference? One is more ripe than the other, simple as that. Last year the local olives were mostly green, but this year they have ripened early and the crop is overwhelmingly black. I don’t think it makes much difference to the oil content, but black olives, being in a state of greater advancement, tend to fall from the tree more obligingly when attacked with a stick. Black olives make life less arduous. They are the new black.
OLIVE HARVEST, DAY 4: Life has become a set of rituals. Drag nets to tree. Climb tree to saw off high branches. Return to ground to knock olives from sawn branches. Clear away sawn branches. Knock olives from remaining branches. Shake nets to form heaps of olives. Pick twigs and detritus from heaps. Scoop olives into crates and pour into sacks. Start again.
Yesterday, my friend Bruce Mac Nally (pictured above) and I honed this process into a fine art, stripping a tree in little over an hour. Today I am on my own and a tree takes more than two hours. Olives fill my thoughts and dreams. If my wife unexpectedly bore a daughter (very unexpectedly), we’d call her Olive.
All across Andalucia men and women are gathering olives in a similar fashion. The bigger farms use tractors that shake the branches and catch the harvest in mechanised nets. Spain is by far the world’s largest producer of olive oil, followed by Italy and Greece. The largest consumer per capita is Greece, followed by Spain, Italy and Morocco. Britain and the US lag far behind. The lesson here is buy more olive oil – it’s good for you.
Early afternoon and the last tree has been stripped. That’s 43 trees harvested – leaving seven that have no fruit worth bothering with. I have 17 sacks of fresh olives. What do you do with 17 sacks of olives? I’m hoping someone is going to tell me.