The Olive Harvest

Family Harvest Time in the Italian Countryside

In traditional small towns throughout Italy, the olive harvest is a chance for family and friends to gather once more before winter closes in. As the weather cools, the olive crop starts to turn from green to purple. Each producer decides when to pick the olives based on color, texture and local custom. The crew is gathered. The olive mill is scheduled and harvest begins.

Large nets are spread beneath the trees to cushion the olives as they fall from the trees and avoid them rolling in the dirt and debris. The crew gathers around the perimeter of the tree and in ladders, carefully stripping the olives from branches. It is time to catch up on family gossip and make new friends.

As each tree is finished the nets are gathered to roll the olives to the center. The heavy mound of fragrant fruit is transferred to buckets or bins for transport to the mill. By the time the trees are picked the crew has exercised newly found muscles and is ready for a celebration.

The magic of the olive harvest is 'instant gratification'. The best olive oil in the world comes out of the press: green, golden and bright with flavor. A plate of toasted bruschetta simplice (a touch of garlic, some salt and a big pour of the olive oil you've just picked) is a just reward for all the work. The harvest party is the last of the year, and well worth the effort.

When are the Olives Ripe

Grapes need to be picked the moment they are ripe. Many times you see stories of Napa wineries working in the cool of the night to get it just right.. Olives are not so sensitive. They move slowly and unevenly from 'much too green' to 'fully over-ripe'. During the ripening process the olives on a single tree can be all stages of the color progression. Good planning is still essential to make sure the picking crew and equipment is ready when needed. Milling capacity must be scheduled so that the olives don't have to wait after being harvested. Every olive farmer has a strong opinion about when to pick the olives. That decision controls the yield, chemical structure, shelf life, and color of the oil. Unfortunately, there are no chemical tests of acidity, sugar content or oil characteristics that can guide the decision. The farmer waits for the mix of colors to be just right, to yield the flavor profile he is expecting from the olive varietals on his trees.

Ripening depends on temperature, sunlight, irrigation and varietal. An autumn heat spell can cause fruit to ripen quickly, pushing the olive harvest close to the last grape harvest. A cool fall may leave green fruit hanging on the tree close to Christmas. The olives on the same tree may mature at many different rates.

What do Ripe Olives Look Like?

All olives move steadily from green, to gold ("straw"), to purple and finally black. The flesh of the olive is very firm through the first stages and does not actually darken until well into the black stage. If you have only seen olives on a pizza or in a martini you'll be surprised to know that those colors are locked in by the curing process, not the varietal. The oil content, size and taste characteristics move at their own separate pace throughout the process.

Oil content peaks just as the olive is fully purple. Size continues to increase through the black stage. Taste is the great variable, the realm of conjecture, tradition and personal opinion. Green olives flavors are peppery, grassy and sharp - like a Tuscan oil. Black olives are sweet, mild and smooth - like a Spanish oil. Each processor aims for their own flavor profile by choosing the color mix that balances oil content with the desired sharpness.

Each tree can produce 25 to 125 pounds of olives. The farmer is interested in the highest quality oil so the fruit is rushed from the field to the mill for processing. Crushing the fruit within 24 hours is essential to preserve the freshness of the product and avoiding the natural spoiling possible with any ripe fruit.

Harvest Methods in California

Most California olives are processed as table olives. Until 10 years ago that was pretty much the entire industry. Today, a steadily increasing percentage of the olives groves are targeted for oil production. Trees are harvested in several methods depending on the terrain and the intention of the farmer.

In North and Central California there are large nearly industrial farms. They are planted in long hedge rows, like a vineyard. Varietals well suited to mechanical pruning and picking are planted to process as much fruit at the lowest possible cost. Machines adapted from vineyard or fruit tree harvesters are driven over the trees and pick everything in their path. The olives are not treating gently and the trees suffer as well.

Another type of mechanical harvester shakes the entire tree to dislodge the olives. These trees must be pruned throughout their lives to be suitable for shaking. The olives fall to nets or chutes under the trees so they are treated more gently. The trees are still treated quite roughly and not all the fruit will fall from the tree. This method does not do well if the farmer wants sharper oil from an early harvest. A lot of the table olives are harvested this way in the Central Valley.

Small olive groves, those on hillsides or operations where superior quality is desired will pick the trees very much like the family in Italy has been doing for generations. Nets, ladders, gloved hands and rakes are deployed throughout the grove and the olive is treated like the precious fruit it is. It takes from 10 to 20 minutes to pick a low pruned, medium sized tree with a half dozen people. Large trees will yield a lot of olives, but also take longer. Height and width translate into longer ladders and more people on the tree.

In the Ramona Valley, some farmers have started to process olives for olive oil in more than 'hobby' quantities. Watch for an olive harvest in a grove near you next autumn. Bring your gloves and get ready for a new, enjoyable outdoor experience. And, as in that Italian village, after the work look for the harvest celebration to top off the day.