Olive Picking in Umbria

When I was an undergraduate, studying French, I always wanted to try the romance of the “vendange” (grape harvest) but had to work in the summer holidays to pay for a holiday with my girlfriend, now wife, Lorna. This remains one back-breaking dream unrealised. The surprise of this autumn was an invitation to from a couple of our friends from the U3A Italian group to help them gather in their olive harvest. Little did we know what a satisfying experience it would be!

Their house is one of a few sitting along the crest of a ridge above Lippiano. Towards the south east the back garden slopes downwards, slightly terraced, facing Umbria, with chestnut woods climbing up densely from the dry river bed. On the other side we face Tuscany and the juvenile Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot vines belonging to Franco, the neighbour, still hold their colourful foliage. The vintage has already fermented and shows depth of fruit and promise. This will be almost entirely for family and friends’ consumption.

There are only about fifty olive trees to pick. This proves to be a three day job working mornings only. We are five pickers to do it. Last winter was very frosty and some trees have a poor crop. Others, in sheltered spots have done well. The autumn has been very dry and Franco, next door has already declared a diminished vintage. Our English hosts, Rod and Fran, like us in their 60’s, have persuaded their son Johnnie to come over to do the donkey – or should I say, the monkey work. He is a big lad, over six foot and struggles with his agility amongst the branches. He climbs up the ladder and combs the olives gently downwards. They are all hues and sizes and they bounce off our heads and roll down the slope until arrested by the catch nets. There are 5 types of olives which have been selected to produce their best in different latitudes down Italy. We quickly establish a gentle rhythm of operation – Rod and Johnnie directing when to move on to the next tree. We are given broom handles with plastic combs on the end, stretching upwards and squinting in the autumn sun as we look up to spot the fruit laden branches. As the plastic boxes become full I climb back up the slope and put them in the cool and dark of the cantina. A separate operation is to pick out the bits of branch and the majority of the leaves. This would be done if it were to rain. There is no harm if some leaves are left in – they add colour and fragrance. Fortunately, deferred gratification is not something we have to endure. In 24 hours we will be sampling this golden bounty on toasted bruschetta with a smidgin of salt and pepper. We transport our 13 plastic cases down the hill in the boots of our cars and take our place in the queue for the weighing. Rod is delighted that we have surpassed last years crop – 250 kilos – which should produce over 40 litres of their own Extra Virgin oil – mostly for family and friends.

After the weigh-in we gingerly descend the stone steps to the bottom of the press room. In the corner, a big log fire smoulders and we inhale the aromas of the smoke. This is a sociable moment for the local “contadini” (smallholders) to compare notes on the year. Some olives arrive in white plastic sacks on the back of tractors, others come in white vans or piled into creaking moribund Fiat Panda 4×4’s. Down below our neighbours offer us a glass of new vintage red wine and some bruschetta (bread toasted on the open fire and drizzled with their olive oil) as we watched the greeny-gold unfiltered oil trickle into the awaiting stainless steel urns. They have to shout above the noise of the presses and our comprehension of the local dialect faces strict examination. A broad smile and a nod seems enough to salute the quality of the trickling nascent oils.

This process, custom, habit, ritual, whatever you want to call it, has been going on immutably for decades. The Umbrian “contadini” are small producers when compared with the prestigious Tuscan estates. Commercially they are in the shadows of the super Tuscans way over in the Chianti hills. The oil proves to be grassy, peppery and delicious. It will now sit in the cantina in the urns and gradually settle until Rod and Fran come over in their car in the Spring. On reflection, olive oil production, in comparison to wine, requires a relatively small amount of human energy and input. Franco, the neighbour does the pruning, the leas from the pressing are used as top dressing in the spring and fickle Mother Nature does the rest.

I was allowed to escape the picking about midday to go and prepare a fortifying soup of lentils, dried porcini and potatoes. I hope you will give it a try.

Olive pickers lentil and porcini soup.(serves 8 generous portions -can be frozen)

1 packet of Castelluchio lentils (soaked overnight)
2 large red onions finely chopped
2 sticks celery finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
2 cloves garlic chopped.

3 handfuls dried porcini (re-hydraded in warm water then squeezed out , keeping the water)
3 large waxy potatoes cubed
1 teaspoon tomato puree
small glass of red wine if available
1 litre light stock (vegetable, chicken or veal)
Water to add.
4 ozs pancetta or smoked streaky bacon
2 bay leaves.

Drain lentils. Sweat off onion, celery, garlic and bacon until lightly browned. Add rosemary, ceps and tomato puree. Reduce the red wine for a couple of minutes, add stock and some water. Bring to boil and skim. Cook on top of stove above a simmer for 20 minutes then add cubed potatoes. Add salt and black pepper. You could add some of the porcini water at this point but be careful it can be rather bitter. Serve in soup bowls with parmesan, chopped parsley and, of course, a goodly swirl of the best extra virgin olive oil of your choice .

Jim Grimes
Self Fulfilling Gourmand
and Part Time Truffle Hunter

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