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November to December is the period in which the Raccolta delle Olive (Olive Harvest) generally takes place here in Toscana (Tuscany) and last weekend we were busy helping our friends who have several hectares of Olives near Pistoia to collect their harvest.
At this time of year the ground under the olive trees has to be kept clear, and any vegetation is cut with a trimmer or more traditionally a falce (scythe). This enabled us to spread the large nets underneath the trees which makes it much easier to pick up all the olives.
There are four main ways of harvesting olives:
This is the traditional method in which the olives are harvested by hand and it is undoubtedly the best in terms of the quality of oil produced because neither the olives nor the ramoscelli (twigs) are damaged. The downside is that it’s very labor intensive and time consuming. We usually use a kind of small rake to comb along the stems thereby pulling the olives off so that they fall into the nets spread out below.
This involves beating the branches of the tree with a bastone (stick) or canna (cane) to make all the mature olives fall off. This method is often used if the tree is too big to make collection by hand practical.
Scuotere in Italian means to shake, but the shaking in this case is done by machines, which are attached to the trunk causing the tree to vibrate and the olives to fall. This method would only really be used by big commercial growers due to the cost of the machinery involved, but in the long term it’s far more cost effective than hiring a labor force to pick by hand.
4. Cascola naturale
This is probably the least labor-intensive method. The olives are literally left to fall off the tree in their own good time into the nets set out in advance. The quality of the oil produced in this way is, however, pretty poor.
The method that we used was a mixture of Brucatura, hand collection with rastrellini (little rakes) and mechanical Bacchiatura. Instead of using sticks to beat the trees we used an Oliviero (a mechanical olive beater). This consists of a metal pole with a rotating head powered by electricity (provided by car batteries!). The rotating head has four plastic prongs, which beat the twigs and knock the olives into the nets and, well just about everywhere else! In fact you have to wear goggles and a hat because olives are pretty hard, especially when flying down from a height of four meters or so, ouch!
The raccolta delle olive on a small scale is more of a Festa (celebration) than work, a bit like the Vendemmia (grape harvest), and it was of course obligatory to stop for pranzo a mezzogiorno (lunch at midday) and to eat a few hunks of Tuscan bread, Pecorino cheese, salad and potatoes liberally sprinkled with this years best?….. Yes you’ve guessed it, Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva.