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An Italian experience!

italian olive grove

italian olive groveI have recently returned from a week in Guardagareli, located on the Eastern side of Italy. The landscape is mountainous, the soil was a very heavy and sticky clay, and the area has been known to suffer the odd mild earthquake. That being said, the area was beautiful, and the people very welcoming.

My wife and I were over there to spend a week’s holiday, putting the break on our modern fast paced lifestyle. On the third day, we were asked if we would like to go olive picking. Well, the old adage is when in Rome, do as the Romans do. So we did, no wages, but you are fed on the day.

The olive grove comprised about three hundred mature trees, some were laden with olives, others had a thin crop. There were about eight people gathered, an old fiat crawler tractor with a PTO driven compressor, and a tractor with rather large trailer attached. There was a clear demarcation in labour, the females laid out nets on the ground under the trees, the men operated air driven reciprocating brushes, which were used to knock the olives off the trees. The olives were gathered on the nets, before being transferred into large bulk bins, in readiness for being taken to the olive press.

It was hard work for the day, but the food and hospitality were second to none. Lunch was cold meats, salami, home made cheese and bread, washed down with liberal volumes of wine. The evening meal was three courses, which included pasta, meat from the home grown pig, and fruit, again washed down with liberal amounts of wine. The end result for the days labours were a collection of five bulk bins of olive oil, ready for pressing.

These were taken to the local press. The building was a portal steel framed shed, built into the side of the hill. Upstairs formed the living accommodation, downstairs was the commercial press room. The first stage of the process was to press the olives using massive stone wheels to form a “mash” of olives. This pulp was then pumped in a semi liquid form onto plastic circular nets. The pile of nets grew, to the point where you could actually see olive oil oozing from the bottom layers.

olive treeWhen the pile was about five feet high, it was then wheeled over to a hydraulic press, whereupon it was squeezed to the point there was no oil left. You could see the precious golden yellow liquid gathering at the side of the pile, before it was pumped into a holding tank. The oil was cold filtered, and pumped into a tank, awaiting collection.

The remaining organic matter was then separated from the plastic meshes, and used for either cattle feed, or as a fuel for the central heating boiler. Nothing is wasted, and I have to say the hard “biscuit” rally burns well, as some of the oil must remain after pressing. Growers pay for the pressing by forfeiting 20% of their crop. No money changes hands.

olive oil vatThe building is especially designed to house the press, so that any vibration caused by the reciprocating stones, or any loads generated by the hydraulic press are kept on the floor plate. It does not transmit back to the steel frame, otherwise there would be a possibility of the building being shaken to pieces. Other than the use of electricity or hydraulic power, the process remains unchanged from centuries ago.

As for the oil, well, poured on fresh crusty bread, and washed down with speaking wine, it was a delicious aperitif, one that did everything to celebrate living off the land in a carefree society that hasn’t changed for many years. The only problem noticeable however was that there were no young people around to help with the harvest. Perhaps the countryside there is about to experience a dramatic change, as traditional methods of production are lost in the midst of time. Whatever happens, the country gave my wife and I a wonderful restful holiday which was thoroughly enjoyed by both.

Tony Rowland SBK TLG


Tony Rowland BSc(Hons) MSc MRICS