It’s olive harvest time in Tuscany. From mid-October until mid-December it animates the countryside around Lucca where the hills are covered with olive trees and vines.
Our olives are mostly used to produce oil, for which Lucca has been renowned at least since Roman times. Many estates produce olive oil for sale to the public, but lots of private individuals own some trees and produce oil for their own consumption.
It’s one of the few agricultural activities which, when done according to best practice, takes only a day. It’s now understood that in order to preserve in the oil the true flavour of the olive, you need to get the olives from the tree to the oil container on the same day. This makes it ideal for my guests, since they can see and understand everything from start to finish. And since olive oil is essential for all except northern Italian cooking, it’s something you’ll want to know about if you’re interested in Italian food.
Come along with us as we go to harvest our olives.
You will see groves where nets are put under the trees weeks before the farmer intends to harvest his olives. These farmers don’t want to miss a single olive that might drop off earlier. But those olives will sit in the nets on the ground starting to spoil, and when they’re pressed, they’ll give the oil an undesirable flavour.
If you can afford it, you have your own press which makes it easy to press each batch on the day it’s picked. If you don’t have your own press, you take your olives to a public frantoio, and it might take you three or four days to pick enough. You have to choose which kind of frantoio you want to go to — traditional or modern.
At both types of frantoio first you weigh in your olives (and pay by the weight). Then a big fan blows away the leaves and the olives are washed.
From here on the processes are very different. The machinery of the modern frantoio is designed to exclude oxygen as much as possible, whereas the paste and oil are exposed to the air throughout the traditional process. Let’s go to the traditional frantoio first.
Before we see what happens next, let’s run over to the modern frantoio and watch the same processes. First of all, we notice there are no gigantic stones.
Reducing the olives to paste takes only seconds.
The definition of cold pressed olive oil allows the olive paste to be heated as high as 28C.
Modern and traditional methods converge for the last process.
Our final visit is to the back of the frantoio.
This residue may be used to fertilise the olive trees, or it may be sold to industrial plants that add chemicals and high heat to extract more olive oil that can’t be labeled either ‘first pressing’ or ‘extra virgin’, and generally has little flavour. Once you know this, you’ll think twice about buying inexpensive ‘olive oil’.
The olive harvest has a special place in my heart, because it was the first agricultural activity I took part in when I moved to Italy, and it gave me the idea for my culinary tours. It’s the centrepiece of my October tour Truffles, Olive Oil & Chestnuts. Come and experience the olive harvest yourself.
Erica Jarman invites you on inspiring culinary tours of life behind the scenes that you won’t find in any guidebook — get to know the food artisans and craftspeople of Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Piedmont and Liguria. Come join me and my Italian friends and dip into a lifestyle where lunch is more important than business. Find out more at Sapori e Saperi Adventures and follow Erica’s own adventures on her blog.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.