We awoke early and headed to a friend’s olive grove, the oxalis – yet to show its yellow flowers – was crisp underfoot in the cold air. Two gigantic nets were laid beneath the first tree and off we went, agitating each branch with bamboo sticks to remove the olives.
Hitting and shaking the branches resulted in an aerial bombardment of olives – get one in the eye and you know about it. Another person helping – an expert – clambered up into the trees to dislodge the interior legion of olives. ‘These trees need cleaning!‘ (pruning) he ejaculated as we launched into an a cappella version of ‘The Trees’ by Rush: ‘the trees are all kept equal, by hatchet, axe and saw.‘
By the end of the day our legs had paid a visit to Sweeney Todd; the red flesh of the olives, like bloody raw beef, staining our knees as we knelt to collect them.
Trees clinging onto the terrace edges meant the nylon nets were draped four metres onto the terrace below. More than once we slipped and started sliding, legs thrashing, like Robert Shaw heading down the boat deck into the mouth of Jaws.
The next morning we were reminded about hitting branches for eight hours; our untrained arms and backs ached like we’d lost a bout of mud-wrestling.
With six, 30-kilo bags loaded onto the van (this was an off year for olives), we headed to the local olive mill to witness what happened next. The mill is owned by a co-operative of 30+ people, many of whom help with other people’s harvests – and take their cut of course. A rough rule of thumb is that if the olive/land owners let others collect their olives, the owner gets 25% of the oil produced. Help out yourself and that ratio increases. Locally a litre of good olive oil fetches €4, but some people head to other countries (like France) and sell it for much more. Spain’s olive oil is special – even Italy imports it and pretends that it’s its own.
At the mill a trickle of vans arrived, each loaded with far more olives than we’d collected, dumping them into a large drum, ready for the leaves and twigs to be blown away. This being Spain, where health and safety is almost non-existent, we were allowed to walk among the whirring machinery, churning blades and moving ramps at will – just don’t turn up in a kimono. We even managed to negotiate the most hazardous thing in our lives, ever – descending a vertical, three metre oil-covered ladder. At the bottom, relieved, we had a group hug.
From such heights the olives got weighed, crushed and churned, spun in centrifugal drums to separate the stones and water from the oil, spun again to get rid of more water, then bottled. Immersed in the roar of the machinery, what a joy it was to sit and turn that tap after hours of work and, like your first kiss (but this time thinking you’d kinda done OK) it was a moment to remember.
The result? a modest 50 litres of grassy cold-pressed, organic, extra virgin olive oil. Not much but it’s delicious and will be better still in a month’s time.
The ratio of oil (litres) to olives (kilos) is normally around 20-25% – so getting 50 litres from just over 180kg of olives was pretty good. Andalucia has had a tough time this year with olives, with the crop down by 40% on last year’s harvest. You can read about it here.
© con jamón spain