Reaching for that last little cluster of olives, high on a branch just visible against the low-lying autumn sun, feeling the ache in the neck, in the over-stretched arms, filling basket after basket with olives ready to crush into the miracle of fresh, delicious, health-giving oil, olive picking, la raccolta delle olive, is an autumn labor that’s greeted with joy in Tuscany where the trees, the fruit and the oil are emblems of the culture, the cuisine and the agricultural traditions still maintained with such enthusiasm, such fervor, by farmers and townfolk alike. Even by expatriates like us.
This year is different, alas, because this year most olive farmers here in Central Italy have very few olives to pick. In a recent story in the New York Times, reporter Somini Sengupta explains some of what has happened: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/24/climate/olive-oil.html
Here on our mini olive farm high in the hills east of Cortona, the heat struck when the trees were in blossom and the flowers, instead of forming into tiny green balls that would swell over the summer and grow into green and then streaked and then black fruit by autumn, simply shriveled and dropped from the trees.
I’ve seen olive harvests devastated by the olive fly, and, down in Puglia, by the invasive Xylella virus, but never have I seen olives knocked down by heat and drought. Olives after all evolved to thrive in the hot, dry Mediterranean summer climate, they grow in virtual deserts in Syria and Tunisia, but this summer of 2017 in Italy was just too much for them.
It’s an uneven phenomenon, though. We have friends, major producers, who have no olives at all, and we have friends with an abundance. In between are those who have perhaps a minimum crop but of extraordinarily high quality. Here in our orchard, there are trees with not a single olive to be found standing next to trees of exactly the same variety that aree covered with the glossy dark fruit of our leccinos.
We won’t know what the oil is like for another few days. Despite the recommendation to machine the olives as quickly as possible, preferably within 24 hours of harvest, that’s almost impossible to do when you’re hand harvesting, even with the willing hands of a bunch of visiting helpers. And because our harvest is so small this year, we’ll be bunching ours together with those of at least three neighbors to make a batch big enough for the Landi frantoio where our olives are crushed and churned into oil.
I won’t be here this year for that first amazing taste of oil fresh from the press. Duty calls me back to the US but I hope someone here will ship me at least a liter or two so I can enjoy it on my breakast toast some chill morning in Maine. It won’t be the same as that drop-dead fresh flavor but it will be close enough. For this year.
And for next year, we’ll just keep our fingers crossed that this climate shift is only a temporary glitch and we’ll be back on schedule in 2018.