Finally, the weather clears and we pick Maurizio’s olives!

After one cancellation the previous weekend due to rain and wet conditions in the olive groves, we got a “green light” from Maurizio, and Anne Boulamakis called me to tell me they were going to pick olives on Sunday, November 9, and I was invited to come along. I had hoped to pick grapes, too, but the grapes would not wait for me, and were picked the day I was flying into Florence with Cheryl. Anne said that the harvest (“vendemmia” for grapes), was over quickly, with Maurizio losing a lot of his crop to the wild boars and birds, but he was satisfied that he had enough grapes for all the wine he needed, and was not unhappy to share grapes with the animals. (In his area, hunting the wild boars is prohibited, so the pigs are prolific and feed on the grapes and gardens of nearby farms.)

I arrived by train (only 5 minutes away) to Anne’s home at the Firenze Rifredi station, posted prominently for the 24-hour train and bus strike that was about to begin that evening. That had been the other consideration—whether or not I could get to Anne’s to go along with them for the ride to Montecarlo, a small town near Lucca to the west. No issues with transportation, though—the strike was from 9 p.m. on Sunday to 9 p.m. on Monday, so I was on my way.

Arriving early, I guess Cheryl rubbed off on me a bit. I noticed a grouping of stickers on the windows of an insurance office, saying “Don’t Abandon Us—Friends on Four Paws.” I guess they must have been friends of Cheryl’s—or would have been, soon, if they’d ever met.

Next, I found a stairway across from Anne’s apartment building, which was an interesting graphic pattern. I found out later that the building had a problem with pigeons roosting there on the stairway, and so there is a sound track with a succession of noises that keep the pigeons at bay, and the paint and railings clean.

After about an hour on the autostrada (toll highway, take a ticket when you get on, pay the man when you get off—but rather inexpensive), we arrived in Montecarlo, where Dee, Barbara and I had stayed for a few days almost exactly two years earlier. Then, in 2006, we managed to get some of the “nuova raccolta” (“new harvest”) olive oil to bring home, but had to work hard to find it because the picking was still underway.

Anne, Alain (her “significant other” for several years now, who is French and worked with the French Foreign Service in Italy, and has been a resident of Florence for about thirty years), and I arrived to meet Maurizio, whom I have met several times before with Anne and Alain. Maurizio manages the vines and olive trees for an estate owned by Belgians, whose Montechiari label of wines I have tasted, thanks to Maurizio, but he has his own vines and trees, too. These were the ones we were picking, now that a break in the weather gave us the chance.

The trees were covered with olives, and there were several different varieties, with both large and very small olives. Maurizio said that the “mélange” of all the varieties was better than any one alone, so we didn’t need to keep the olives separated, since they would all be pressed together in one mix.

The nets were already spread beneath some of the trees, so we just got busy stripping off the olives. I was using my bare hands, Anne was using one of the “combs” on a stick, and Alain was assigned the ladder duty, to reach and strip off the olives that Anne and I could not reach.

I climbed into a couple of the trees, even though I had to use a ladder to get up high enough to get a perch in some instances, and we just pulled olives off onto the nets and were careful not to step on them. (“Cold pressed” is not supposed to mean that we stepped on them in the nets.) When each tree was cleared of olives, a couple of people together gathered in the net, carried the olives in the net to a crate or barrel, and poured out the olives.

Maurizio was up on the steeper ground, harvesting with a machine that helps strip the olives. He had decided that we novices would pick the smaller trees on the flatter ground (we still had to be careful that the olives didn’t roll downhill off the nets!). It was sunshine, a warm day, birds singing in the quiet countryside, and olives.

We hardly heard Maurizio at all until he arrived and announced that it was lunchtime. Anne and Alain spread out a blanket on the ground, opened up the sandwiches they had brought for our lunch, and Maurizio had his own lunch from home, along with a bottle of his red wine from last year. I should have know, but it was WAY better than the bulk wine I have been buying and drinking here. He is, after all, caring for the vines of a commercial winery, too—and he knows what he is doing when he makes wine!

The remnants of Maurizio’s vegetable garden were nearby at lunch, at least what the wild boars had not eaten. Quite a few fennel bulbs were ready to pick, and a few heads of broccoli were still left from the crop, too. Anne is Hawaiian, and Maurizio and Kiyoko, his wife, met as students in Hawaii. It should have been no surprise that huge bushes of Hawaiian white ginger (whose flowers smell like gardenias) were in his garden, too, and in bloom.

After lunch, we just “continued to march.” Maurizio disappeared uphill again, and we continued to spread the nets, strip the olives into the nets, and then empty the nets into the crates.

Kiyoko, Maurizio’s wife, came at lunch to join us, so we were a team of four against the grove we were assigned to finish.

Kiyoko never seemed to tire or slow down—some of the trees were too tall to strip from the ground, so she had a bamboo pole and another for me, and she showed me how to knock down the olives with the pole.

Alain arrived with the ladder to finish the trees we had started from standing on the ground, and we spent the rest of the afternoon moving down the rows of trees and filling crate after crate with olives.

The little rakes we used (I used my hands) were plastic, with tines far enough apart not to damage the branches, but close enough to catch the olives and send them dropping into the nets below. I had seen them in use before, but we had only one with a handle, and one on a pole. Alain used them, mostly, to reach the olives while he was up on the ladder, and I made a specialty of the lower branches or the ones I could reach by climbing up into the tree.

As we were losing the light of the day, the crates were beginning to accumulate. If they were overfilled, the olives spilled out the openings for handling and carrying the crates, so we paid careful attention not to lose any olives.

We had green, black and mixed olives, in several stages of ripening, too. Maurizio appeared to help carry the crates to his workshop for storage until the rest of the trees were picked, and I started hammering him with questions. He had said at lunch that he would be satisfied with 500 kilos of olives—that would yield enough oil for the year for him and his family and friends. That led to my question: How much olive oil results from 500 kilos of olives? The answer, from the test pressing he had done, was about 13%. These later harvest olives were more mature, and had a higher olive oil content, he said, so he could expect about 65 1 liter bottles of oil. That’s not bad, considering how much of an olive is pit!

In his workshop, the evidence of his winemaking was on display, as were his loyalties to Hawaii and California. His 2008 “rosso” he called “Maui Wowie” on the barrel end, and his California flag has seen years of service on the wall of the shop. He has demijohns full of fermenting juice, too, and the grape press is in the center of the shop, with one of his favorite hats hanging from the gears. In the background, a calendar from Hawaii has been taken apart, and all the photos of Hawaii lend their nice ocean views while Maurizio works making the wine or stacking up the crates of picked olives.

We went back to Maurizio’s house in old Montecarlo, inside the city walls, where Kiyoko made us green tea and we waited for Maurizio to finish hauling in the crates and join us. He looked about 40 pounds lighter without his work overalls on, and we talked and enjoyed Japanese pork and chicken appetizers in front of the fireplace, and then Anne, Alain and I headed for Anne’s apartment on the autostrada. I got a nice photo of the gate up into Montecarlo just as the last light was leaving the sky, looking up the street where Maurizio and Kiyoko live with their two daughters, Midori and Yoko. That was it—finally I had a chance to try my hand at picking olives!

Back at Anne’s, the three of us had a quick pasta dinner, and Anne drove me back to the flat in Florence, where I was wise enough to take ibuprofen right away, before my tired hands and neck (from looking up all day at olives) realized that they deserved to revolt. I woke up without any aches and pains, thank goodness, and hope that Anne and Alain had the same good luck. I was lucky to have a way there, and a chance to try my “hands” at picking olives. Next time, though, I want to be in some of the photos, too!

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