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Olive Gathering Memoirs

Anne Robichaud

Whoosh. The sound of the leaves as my hand slides down the branches detaching the olives. A few leaves drift soundlessly into the bucket.

We nearly finished picking our olives today, and I feel as much sorrow as satisfaction. Picking olives was always my favorite farm task in the years that we worked the land. The intensive labors of animal care, chopping the firewood, haying, the pig slaughter and the wheat harvest are only memories now, but every November, we still gather the olives.  

The olive oil only enhances our food now. I  had once also used it to alleviate diaper rash on three little bottoms, as my farm woman neighbors taught me. I chatted recently with our farm neighbor, Peppa, about all the medicinal and cosmetic uses of olive oil.  I wish she had told me years ago that it would have alleviated the burning and itching of chillblains. 

During our first years on the farm, I suffered through chillblains on hands and feet most of the winter. We had no car.  I used to ride my motorcycle back home from English school after night courses in the winter.  The ride was about 40 minutes and temperatures were often in the freezing range.  Before my students arrived, I had to change into more suitable footwear. On the motorbike, I wore my big rubber farm work boots that could fit over two or three pairs of wool socks in addition to plastic bags over them (for further insulation).  When the students left and before closing the school, I put on the same footwear for the ride home.  I arrived frozen, in any case, often with my eyes smarting with tears. Once home, I headed straight for the open hearth to warm my hands and feet (our house wasn't heated - the huge kitchen fireplace with open hearth gave the only warmth) . I'd still get chillblains, but even already knowing this result was not a deterrent for me to try. At times, I acted more rationally: letting Pino warm my hands by rubbing hard on them, blowing on them, tucking them under his armpits ‘til the feeling returned.

I washed  our clothes in the outdoor stone washbasin the first year, ‘til we had the money to buy a used washing machine.  Getting our work jeans clean took the longest:  I scrubbed them on the slanted, grooved part of the basin, rubbing them with the pezza ("the piece"), an orange bar of wash soap (let me never see one again!).  Pino often wasn't there when I did the washing (he worked part-time as a stonemason in those days), so my only recourse for icy hands was the fire in the kitchen fireplace.  Result:  chillblains.  Peppa later told me that after doing the washing, she and the other farmwomen would roll up their hands in an old wool sweater that they kept tied around their waists in the winter just for that purpose.  "Never go right to the fire", she said.  Lesson learned too late.  In our recent chat, Peppa also told me that - inspite of all precautions - most of the farm people lived with chillblains. They rubbed olive oil on cracked hands and before bed, massaged it into cracked toes and then put on woolen socks. 

Olive oil kept hair healthy as well.  When Peppa was a child, the only soap for washing of hair was that made from pig lard after the pig slaughter in the winter. "There was no other soap.  Shampoo?! Who had the money to buy it?"  Mothers then rubbed olive oil into their children's hair before sending them off to school.  The olive oil brought back life to hair, "and it kept away the lice", said Peppa gravely. I asked why.  She explained that olive-oiled hair was combed with a wide-toothed comb, la pettona, which also combed out any lice eggs if there was any. Peppa laughed as she remembered the little boy in her class who came "too greased up" to school.  "And our fathers used a bit of olive oil as brillantina (' hair pomade')...."

Olive oil moistens the traditional farm sweets of Umbria, not butter. (We had few sweets as sugar had to be bought and cash in the farmhouse was nearly non-existent)  We all raised sheep in Umbria, a region of wooded hills and mountains - not dairy cows.  Olive oil makes a feast when drizzled on toasted day-old bread, bruschetta, instantly turning la cucina povera ("poor man's cooking") to gourmet.

As I picked this year, I thought about the first bruschetta we'd have with the new olive oil. Plunk. Whoosh. Plunk, plunk.  I thought, too, about our early years here on the farm (in the mid-70's) when Pino and I picked our olives together. Later on, for a few years, our children helped. But all three are grown now, occupied with jobs and study. Yesterday, Pino was busy restoring our stone house, so one of the stonemasons who works for him, Durim (from Albania), and his son Florian, picked with me.

Anne picking olives with her cat

Anne picking olives with her cat

We spread the netting under the trees and the three of us "combed" the olives off the branches and into the nets. (Nets are a modern innovation. When we picked years ago, we couldn’t afford netting  - nor could any of our farm neighbors - and fallen olives were picked up by hand at the end of the day).   Durim and Florian used ladders to reach the highest branches of the larger trees. Now and then, their voices, in quiet conversation, drifted my way.

Pino joined me for awhile just after lunch, taking a break from his restoration work on our farmhouse. I worked alone most of the afternoon on our smaller trees, slightly downhill from where Durim and Florian picked. Sometimes, I picked standing. Other times, kneeling or even sitting with the lower, younger trees. The steady plunk of the olives hitting my bucket and the swish of the branches were gentle, rhythmic sounds conducive to daydreaming. Plunk, plunk. Whoosh. The bleating of a lamb, temporarily separated from its mother, drifted over from a distant hill.

The sky muted from golden winter light to the purple of a ravishing sunset. The branches of the olive trees were etched against the indigo sky. The last olives hit the bucket. Plunk. Plunk.

Pino picking olives

Pino picking olives

Night drifted in. I walked across the field and into the old stone farmhouse, our home in the years that we farmed and which Pino is now restoring. Next year, it will be our home again. In the morning, we had placed a plastic mat on the floor of the former sheep stall (soon to become a living room), and as our buckets filled throughout the day, we dumped our olives there. Tomorrow morning, Pino will take the harvest to the olive mill in town to be pressed.

I emptied my bucket and headed towards the light in the kitchen of the house where we now live and thought wistfully that a full year must pass before we pick again.

Anne Robichaud lives near Assisi and gives lectures and tours. www.annesitaly.com

© Anne Robichaud, 2007. Do not republish without permission.

This essay was first published on Anne's website www.annesitaly.com. Edited by Slow Travel.

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