I have a friend who says he simply cannot trust somebody who doesn’t like garlic. Though I wouldn’t go that far, I’m taken aback when someone spurns an olive.
To me, olives are the most sublime of all things pluckable from a tree—and what a tree it is, l’ulivo, with those feathery silver-green leaves that shimmer in sunlight, glint in brisk winds, glimmer after rain… The slender branches are extremely strong yet flexible; they don’t mind a good stiff shake. The bark of an olive tree is gorgeous, too, with a patina of silver that softens its rough grey-brown wrinkles. Then there are the tree’s roots—admirable contortionists, able to twist around big rocks and support trees canted at odd angles on steeply terraced hills.
Olive trees live a long time and remain hardy in old age; even when they seem near-dead, they often manage to grow back. The wind is their pollinator. They flower twice, two weeks apart, in the spring, and produce abundantly one year, modestly the next, on a regular cycle. They grow in places obvious and improbable, under good conditions and bad; they’re graceful survivors. Humans have long associated them with peace, perhaps because they tolerate hazards, natural and human-inflicted, and have a strong instinct for self-regeneration.
It takes about a dozen years for an olive tree to come to full maturity—so don’t go rushing out to buy one for your back yard or neighborhood street, expecting to pass around a little bowl of marinated goodies at one of next summer’s cookouts. Olive growers need patience and a dose of luck, assuming they know what they’re doing in the first place. And there’s a whole lot to know, as I recently discovered while helping Roberto, one of my neighbors here in the village of Castiglione del Terziere, with his annual harvest.
Castiglione is a medieval village in Lunigiana, a hilly, river-laced region at the northernmost tip of Tuscany. This part of Italy abounds in trees of all kinds, and is quite hospitable to olives. Although several properties in our borgo have a few trees, Roberto is Castiglione’s undisputed maestro degli ulive.
Roberto is adamant about the timing of his harvest, which he undertakes a month earlier than many other growers. He wants the best possible oil—not too fatty or acidic, with a delicate spicy overtone—and to get it, he insists on harvesting his olives before they’re fully mature. The younger ones, he says, render the best oil; not as much of it as he’d get if he waited, but no matter. As long as he comes away with at least fifteen kilos of excellent oil for each quintale (hundred kilos) of harvested olives, he’s content.
Roberto cultivates about a hectare of trees on a hillside above the old stone lane that leads to the nearby village of Croce. His trees produce olives for oil, not eating. Their color is a cheerful light green, and they’re hard and ovoid rather than soft and round. Roberto’s land is a five-minute walk from Castiglione yet feels distant, extracted from time and settlement. To reach it, my husband Antonio and I go down the main lane of the borgo, turn right, pass a few houses, and tromp through a muddy patch, skirting the dug-up earth where wild boar have been rooting. At one point we pass a handful of lovely wildflowers (miraculously abloom even though it’s mid-November), their color a regal purple. We hear nothing but the light squishing of our shoes and some birdsong.
Since we’ve never harvested anything before—not literally, anyway—we’re happy to have this chance to give Roberto a hand. He’s glad for the help; it’s been a rainy few weeks, and he wants to take good advantage of this week’s dry, clear, reasonably mild stretch of days. Roberto gets to work early, and is very well organized. First he puts nets on the ground beneath each tree; then he goes about pruning the most productive trees with a device that resembles a pair of very big scissors at the end of a very long pole. He wields this implement with skill, cigarette in mouth as he peers up into each tree, gauging the best places to make each cut. For the larger trees he sometimes needs a ladder, which he positions precariously in order to gain access to higher branches. (He leaps off when he senses the ladder is unbalanced and he’s about to come a cropper.) The culled branches fall onto the nets, and whoever’s giving a hand (often no one, for Roberto’s used to doing this hard work by himself) trims the big branches further, using tough garden shears. Thus are created a series of manageable, slender-branched piles, ready for the harvesters who’ll actually separate the olives from their source of succor.
The back-breaking way to perform that final step—to get the olives off their stems? You crouch down on your knees next to the branches, place a straw basket or flat wooden box-tray next to you, pick up a branch, and run your thumb and fingers aggressively along its length, stripping off the olives so they fall into the container. Sometimes you’ll have a branch with just a few olives here and there; sometimes you’ll encounter dense clusters; sometimes you’ll have to ferret out the littler ones hiding under leaves.
If you want to save your back and knees during this operation, you stand rather than crouch. Because they’re dropping from a greater height, a good number of olives miss the mark and land on the nets, but that’s okay—you can gather them in your cupped hands at the end, pinching up the strays that resist being gathered with their neighbors. Standing’s easier on the body, and you get to enjoy the view, too. And as they drop into their basket or tray, the olives make a lovely thudding sound, like rain on a roof.
Roberto fills us in on the basics of olive-oil production as the three of us work.
Olives aren’t picked at the end of summer, as I’d thought. They’re harvested in November or December—sometimes as late as January. You don’t let them lie around on the ground; you pick them up within a few days so as not to introduce anything nasty into the mix. Not more than five days after gathering them, you take them to the frantoio and, after pressing (at a temperature not exceeding 30C—hence the term “cold-pressed”), you put the oil you’ve obtained in a cool dark place and let it settle until April. It won’t be any good til then—too acidic. During those months the sediment will sink; when the oil’s ready, it’ll be poured off. If you’re Roberto, you’ll test it for acidity and purity, labeling each of your bottles with your findings.
Roberto’s oil has placed third in a regional olive-oil contest, and he’s proud of the fact that he doesn’t use any pesticides, doesn’t harvest too late, doesn’t press at a high heat, doesn’t mix his production with others’—doesn’t, in short, do any of the things that so many producers do. It’s mostly schifoso, he says of the olive oil found in supermarkets and even plenty of gourmet shops. Disgusting! He’s exaggerating, perhaps, but he’s right to be fierce in his views. It takes discipline, dedication, and time to produce olive oil in this way; there are no shortcuts. That said, olive oil’s a global business these days, and lots of people are looking for ways to make oil fast and cheap. Corruption is thus inevitable, not just in Italy but throughout the Mediterranean, where most of the world’s oil comes from. What the label says may have not very much to do with what’s in the bottle.
Born in Castiglione, Roberto grew not in Lunigiana but north of Milan, near Lake Como. His predecessors were Lunigianese peasants who cultivated the land of a padrone, the rarely-present owner of the property on which they labored; as payment, the padrone allowed them half of what they produced—not the good half. Working hard, Roberto’s parents managed to turn themselves into bersan, itinerant salespeople. They hawked underwear at town markets and in small localities.
The late sixties and seventies were good decades for purveyors of biancheria intime; slowly, Roberto’s parents transformed themselves first into merchants and then into full-fledged property owners—beneficiaries of the boom years in Italy’s economy. As a boy, Roberto dreamed of owning his own land. He also liked tinkering with radios, which led to work in electronics, which in turn led to a long run as a technician-specialist with Telecom, one of Italy’s largest phone companies.
Roberto spent years driving around Lombardy, helping Telecom clients—mostly big businesses—install and maintain their telecommunications systems. Although he liked this work, it was stressful; over time, he got sick of the long hours and endless road-trips, and kept dreaming of returning to Castiglione. He socked away some funds and invested them shrewdly in the stock market, planning his break from a normality toward which, after long years, he’d grown hostile.
In his mid-forties (he’s now close to sixty), he was able to buy his house in the village, along with some land. At last, he found himself able to spend much of the year here. His wife (whom he’s known since they were both fifteen) remains in their home in Lecco. She visits Castiglione from time to time; he goes to Lecco intermittently. But it’s clear where his heart lies. He tends his land; she toils as a nurse in an old-age home, working with Alzheimer’s patients. They’ve made a marriage that works because it’s not full-time.
Illness, too, has influenced Roberto’s choices. He has intestinal polyps that must be removed regularly. Castiglione’s rhythms are restorative for him; city living drains him. He doesn’t mind that olive trees don’t grow in a year or two, that you can’t snap your fingers and produce good oil. Having to be patient isn’t a bother, it’s reassuring: certain physical acts get to be performed repeatedly and to fruitful end, while the mind pauses.
You must know a lot about computers, I said to Roberto one day as we worked.
I did, he said. But not any more. On the day I quit my job, I took my computer and heaved it into the trash. I suppose someone found it there… Haven’t owned one since, so I have no idea what’s going on in computers any more, and I don’t care.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not taking care of your land, I asked. Oh, he answered, I play cards with friends around here, or go out to eat, or I see my mother in Gabbiana—she’s in her eighties but in pretty good shape—or my aunt, she’s nearby too… You know, I’ve always got lots to do. At night, for instance, I clean the leaves out of all these (he points to the olives we’re harvesting) while I’m watching TV. Can’t have the frantoio weighing the leaves as well as the olives!
Roberto’s story is that of multiple migrations, some physical, some imaginative. He was born into one class, switched to another, then saved enough to chose to switch back to the life of a peasant with financial security. But he’s hardly a romantic about any of this. Little of the larger world interests him; he loves his land, and that love gets expressed through its rigorous cultivation. He’s had the opportunity to return to Castiglione to fulfill a childhood dream, not because a padrone was generous or a rich uncle died, but because he happened to come of age in an economy that allowed his parents to spring themselves from poverty, and Roberto himself to earn a good salary and increase his gains by investing.
He now owns, in addition to his house here, several other properties, and is thinking of helping his daughter construct a home in Castiglione. But not in the borgo itself. No—her house, he imagines, will sit in the middle of his olive trees. He points to a clearing.
It’ll go here, he says. I’ve already arranged for the electricity.
I envision him sitting up at night, alone in his living room, making sketches of the house. Planning for it—not just as a means of expressing his feeling for his daughter, but also as a way to ensure that someone will take care of his olive trees when he’s no longer able to do so. For he’s no padrone, there are no peasants working for him. If he doesn’t cultivate this patch of terrain, it’ll revert to what it was when he purchased it: an unruly mess of undergrowth and poorly managed soil.
As I run slender branches through my fingers, tugging olives off them and hearing the mild ping when they land in the box at my feet, I think about the countless generations of men and women who’ve cultivated this part of Italy, reaping its bounty annually—olives, chestnuts, grapes, figs, persimmons… Many decades ago, somebody planted the trees that are now the oldest in Roberto’s orchard. Eventually, that someone else gave up (or was forced to)—yet some of those beautifully stubborn trees managed to hang on. Roberto liberated them from the natural disarray in which he found them, added new trees, and devised caretaking rituals for the whole. Those rituals give meaning and shape to his days.
But what if his daughter isn’t as enamored of olives as her father is? What if other lures, other pressures, keep her from spending the kind of time and energy he devotes to this hectare of land? Who else but himself, he must surely be wondering—himself and maybe, now and then, a friend or two, or a couple of strangers seeking their own exits from la strada normale—will take care of these trees in the years to come?
Martha Cooley’s monthly essays are in conversation, directly or slant-wise, with editor Jennifer Acker’s “From the 17th Floor” series. Together the two writers reflect on their recent physical and mental travels, on displacement and (re)settling, on explorations and discoveries that excite or discomfit, and, naturally, on literature and other arts.
Martha Cooley is the author of The Archivist, a national bestseller published in eleven foreign markets, and Thirty-Three Swoons.