May 20, 2024 | Rome, Italy

In the trees

By |2018-03-21T18:42:21+01:00November 23rd, 2010|Food & Wine Archive|
The author and his Umbrian branches. Photos by Sam Alberts.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness/Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun/Conspiring with him how to load and bless/With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run…

— John Keats “To Autumn”

A friend reminded me of this poem when I returned from my recent trip to the Umbrian hills, and while I may not have been picking grapes from vines running along thatched eves, Keat’s “mists” and “maturing sun” made quite an appearance.

Late one morning halfway through my Umbrian week I was on the couch reading John Grisham’s “Playing for Pizza” when I heard an excited rapping on the back door.

It was Elio and his friend Luca. Computer technician Luca had taken a few vacation days to join gardener, and recently retired teacher, Elio for the olive harvest. I changed and joined them.

Thick morning mist covered the grove on the downward slope and at first I had trouble making out the figures in the trees below. Luca was in one of them, knocking olives into the nets. Elio meanwhile raked what looked like a giant 10-pronged fork through the branches. Luca’s mother, our final fixture, was the only one without gloves. She stripped branches just the same.

Olives are not treated like grapes. They’re literally yanked from the tree. My own method was to grab a branch at the top and pull down whatever got in the way. Luca assured me this wouldn’t damage the olives and that the leaves weren’t a problem.

In all, picking the orchard’s 50 trees took us about eight hours, a full afternoon’s work that extended next morning. We counted 200 kilograms (440 lbs) of olives, a fairly small haul for so many trees.

The yield of olives trees depends on several factors. Some trees tend to alternate between lush years and starker ones. Those further up on the hillside tend to get less water than those below, limiting their production. More water means more fruit.

But Luca explained an upside. Olives from trees that lack water and other basic resources often more have character, and therefore more flavor, than those richer in nutrients.

At 5:30 p.m. it was time to take the harvested olives to the frantoio, or the olive press (an appointment is a necessity). The ever-smiling Elio drove the RAV4 to the loading dock, where Luca was waiting.

We immediately began dumping the containers of freshly harvested olives into a receptacle attached to a conveyor belt that carried the olives into the building.

Luca then excitedly called me over and introduced me to the plant manager, asking him if we could poke around. He responded with a favorite Italian phrase of mine, “Si, ma certo!” (Yes, but of course!), and our ragtag group headed into the pressing room with Luca as our guide.

Suddenly we were overcome by rich and musky perfume. Bottled olive oil doesn’t have much scent, but fresh out of the press, in the presence of thousands of liters, the aroma is powerful enough to permeate your clothes for days after.

The olives head first to what looks like a long and thin washing machine that separates the leaves from the fruit. They’re then washed in cold water (never hot because heat causes them to break down slightly, lessening the intensity of the flavor.)

Once cleaned, the olives — seeds and all — are ground into a chunky pulp known as la gramola. The pulp is then sent through a high-pressure press that separates solids from the liquids. The process was once done two or three times, as older presses weren’t powerful enough to extract all the oil the first time around. Newer presses get it done in one go.

Next, the liquid is sent through a centrifuge, essentially a canister that spins at high velocity, separating the oil from the water. This is then filtered to remove the accumulated scum. The oil is then ready.

Our final haul was 30 kilos of oil, about 33 liters. Luca had set the line at 16 kilos of oil per 100 kilos of olives. I bet the over and lost, but buying a bottle of dinner wine wasn’t too high a price to pay.

Umbrians enjoy this oil with nothing more than a slice of bread rubbed with garlic and a dash of salt. The perfect bruschetta.

About the Author:

Sam was born and raised in New York, N.Y., and made his first trip to Rome during his freshman year of high school, and from there his interest for the city only grew. After studying Classics and Art History at Davidson College, he seized the opportunity to return to Rome for a summer internship in 2008. Not finding two months sufficient time to delve into the city's history and culture, Sam remained in Rome. He now leads private tours, is developing the website YounginRome, and works as an apprentice in a well known restaurant.