How many olives to make a bottle of oil?

You gain a new appreciation of the olive oil you slather on your salad or cook your vegetables in when you know that every litre is made up of 1,375 olives that took 47 minutes to pick.

How many olives to make a litre of olive oil?
In the US and Canada, the more common bottle size is 750 ml or 25.4 Fluid Ounces. That’d be 1031 olives, 35 minutes to pick.

Electric olive rakeOn Saturday I got to pick olives once again. Years ago, I lived on an organic olive farm in Umbria run by the then-retired chairman of Greenpeace, David McTaggart. Every year around harvest time, we’d start making the calls to folks who might like to volunteer to spend some time in the Italian sunlight (provided it didn’t snow) enjoy some good honest labor (from sunrise to sunset) and take advantage one of the few excuses you get as an adult to climb around in trees. We generally had plenty of takers for what was supposed to be a paid job, but which plenty of folks were willing to do in exchange for food and hospitality.

We didn’t mention that it could be miserable — if the weather was wet or you wounded your hands even slightly, or the ground turned to mush that sucked at your boots — or that you worked whatever the weather and the work was bone-achingly, muscle-pullingly, RSI-inducingly hard.

But when I see these folks today, what we tend to remember most is the good stuff. The incomparable light falling across the hills where Hannibal marched his army toward Lake Trasimeno, shimmering far below us in the distance, the taste of good coarse bread and Montepulciano wine, the sound of the wind and, here and there, the scent of truffles where a boar has pawed up a gourmet meal at the base of an oak tree.

So when I found myself in Rome for a meeting in the midst of the picking season with a Sunday to spare, I gladly volunteered to help pick at the old farm, which has passed into the hands of Domitilla Senni. The weather was stunning, the company good, and I really needed the kind of zen space that manual labour can get you into.

There was a new-fangled invention come to the farm. Now back in my day, we disdained even so much as the plastic rakes that were common among the seasonal pickers that came through, preferring the 100% organic-by-hand method and only allowing for the occassional glove when there was actual snow on the branches.

The talk of tree-shaking machines was always disdainful: something only no self-respecting olive farmer would do to a perfectly good olive tree.

But I wonder what my old boss, David McTaggart, would have made of the Electric Rake that we were using on Saturday.

Let’s start with the negatives. First strike against: it’s electric. They say it’ll go an entire day on a single charge, but still: it’s electric. It’s noisy. It contributes to climate change. Second strike: it ain’t organic. Among the millenia-old methods of picking olives, of which there are a few, a rotating set of plastic fingers on a carbon-fibre stick is not one of them.

But among the things that David truly valued in the picking season was speed. He was a Calvinist when it came to the job of harvesting olives. It was mostly about hustle and hard work, though you’d catch him humming from time to time in his red flannel shirt in the sunshine.

He once asked me to calculate how many olives an average picker picked, and it set me to thinking a dozen corollary statistical questions about olives. How many olives does it take to make a litre of oil? How many olives in an ounce of oil? How many litres of oil does an average picker pick per hour? Philosophically, what is an olive? More practically, how do you measure productivity by the standard benchmarks of olive picking (the box, the sack, the quintale, the litre of oil). This was what I came up with:

olive data(The holes at the left of each page are remnants of my preferred data-storage method in those days, my now-retired FiloFax)

You gain a new appreciation of the olive oil you slather on your salad or cook your vegetables in when you know that every litre is made up of 1,375 olives that took 47 minutes to pick.

Now, on Saturday morning, six of us picked 20 boxes of olives with the assistance of the electric rake. By my calculations, if all of us manual pickers picked the same average as the pickers of 1992 and 1993, that means the electric rake doubled our productivity.

Here’s my reckoning. 4 pickers picked from (I’m guessing — I got there late) 7:30 until 12:30. That’s 20 picker-hours. Add to that the 4 hours picking I did, plus the 3 hours Domi did. At 7.1 kilos an hour, that should have yielded 191 kilos of olives, or 9.5 boxes. So the rake picked an additional 10.5 boxes on top of what we would have expected. That’s a lot of olives. 52,500 to be exact. Or 42 additional litres of oil.

The rake also speeds things up in that you don’t have to set as many ladders. Or climb as many trees. But there’s where the biggest downsides have to be confronted: the aesthetics of the experience.

I admit, I gave a try to the thing. And when I went back to picking by hand, I felt slow. But I also found myself leaving the high stuff for the machine. Why climb? The machine will get it. Why reach? The machine can pick those olives twice as fast as I can. And so it begins — the mechanisation of an ancient human experience.

And there was something else I missed. A sound. Only if you’ve heard it can you appreciate the sound of olives bouncing from the rungs of a wooden ladder in the quiet of a November Umbrian day. When the rake is around, you hear the rake.

So where would McTaggart stand on this? I reckon he’d take one look at the stats, and buy four of the things. He may have been an aesthete, but he was also a capitalist. And anything that made the harvest move that much more quickly would have been worth it to him.

Me, I’ve got my doubts, though they are the doubts of one far away from the prospect of getting the job done. If you had asked me in the first week of the harvest, with perhaps five weeks of sometimes mind-numbing and physically exhausting labour in front of me if I’d take up a gizmo that would cut the whole experience short by a week or two, I’d probably have leapt on it.

But maybe not. It may be slower and more impractical, but there was some deep pantheistic magic in climbing into a tree that was around when Christ walked the Earth, with a ladder that had not varied in design since another millennia before that, picking a fruit that had graced the tables of Socrates and Aristotle, and feeling at one with that continuous line of nature and human civilization. That’s just not the kind of sentiment aroused by a motor on a stick.

10 thoughts on “How many olives to make a bottle of oil?”

  1. I’ll think of salads differently from now on!

    Slaver? Did you mean “Slather?”


    Brian replies:

    Whoops. Spellcheck is not proofreading. Spellcheck is not proofreading. Spellcheck is not proofreading.

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