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.
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.
On 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.