You would think it wouldn’t be too hard to find an olive oil tasting experience in Tuscany.
You’d be wrong.
Back in September, Michael and I tried but the tourism office said wineries grow olives as a side business, so we’d have to go for a wine and olive oil experience.
Which, let’s be honest, wouldn’t be so bad.
But we had been to wineries and vineyards. We’d never been to an olive grove.
So we returned to Valencia where, a month later, the International Women’s Club of Valencia passed on information about an opportunity to harvest olives and do an olive oil tasting! With almuerzo (mid-morning snack) and lunch included.
I was eager to go but wanted a sure-fire way to get Michael to join me.
“Here’s what I’m getting you for your birthday,” I told him. And off we went.
“Dress warmly,” the WhatsApp message from the tour coordinator told us. But when we stepped out onto our terrace, it didn’t seem too terribly cold. So we decided sweatshirts would suffice.
The mini-bus picked us up just minutes from our house. Forty minutes later we were traipsing over tilled land alongside the olive grove at Olenda. As wind whipped around us, I noticed everyone else chose to wear winter coats.
“First, we are going to harvest the olives as they would have done it traditionally,” María told us.
“You have to milk the olive trees,” she instructed as she cupped her fingers around a branch and slid her hand along its length, the olives tumbling down into the nets below the tree. For the higher branches, she brandished a long pole and showed us how to use it force the olives down.
“As you move around the tree, watch where you step,” she said, not wanting us to crush the precious harvest. Precious because this year’s weather has not been ideal for olives: the wettest March on record, the hottest August followed by the warmest October.
Like the vineyard owner we met in Tuscany, the olive farmers chemically test the fruit to know the best time to harvest. Which is why you can’t exactly plan a harvesting day months or even weeks in advance.
“Which is why we’ve picked most of the trees already,” Maria told us, “but we left some for you.”
After we harvested as much as we could from the branches we could reach, the modern method was introduced: a man appeared with what looked like a weed whacker. At the far end was a pincer which he put around a branch. With the push of the button, the branch vibrated, olives falling like hail. A second man used the pole to whack the branches of any remaining fruit. (Yes, olives are considered a “stone fruit” like plums, peaches and cherries.)
María then asked us to move aside the rocks that had been used to hold the nets in place, then we worked to gather up the nets and move on to the next trees.
Music accompanied our work in the form of a two men dressed in traditional clothing playing the dolçaina (a relative of the oboe) and a tabalet (drum). Two women accompanied them, dressed in long skirts, an apron tied around their waists, scarves draped over their shoulders and tucked into their skirts. “This is how they would have dressed for the harvest,” María told us.
As the wind whipped at our faces, María laughed and said, “this is summer, compared to what it used to be.” And she would know: she’s the fifth generation of her family to farm this land. She tells us how they would have fires in the grove and use the warm stones around them to warm their hands.
After harvesting a few trees we enjoyed a mid-morning snack and I had the opportunity, not for the first time in my life, to drink from a porrón. Imagine a small watering can of wine or beer. . . your lips never touch the spout and thus it can be passed around.
Marinated green olives, harvested two weeks before, accompanied a traditional bread that I can only describe as a Spanish version of focaccia — this one topped with meats that looked like sausage and bacon, but I really have no idea what I was eating.
The traditionally dressed folk played and danced for us, María explaining that this is what they would have done to keep warm!
Sufficiently satiated, we got back to work. But could we really call it work? Michael and I couldn’t stop telling each other how fun this was, and our day was far from over.