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Window on Italy - A Surprise Olive Harvest

Colleen Simpson

From April through October, each week I visit the vineyards and olive groves of Monte Vibiano Vecchio located in nearby Mercatello. We tour the groves of ancient trees, some over 500 hundred years old. We get to drive right through the vines in electric carts and sample the wonderful organic wines and olive oil produced by the cantina, which is surrounded by sunflower and wheat fields in the summer heat. Now it is October, definitely autumn, and the first picking and crush of grapes for wine has already taken place. We watch the weather daily waiting for the olives to reach their plumpest perfection before the frosts come.

My friend, the Count Lorenzo Fasolo Bologna, CEO of Monte Vibiano Vecchio, promises to telephone me the first day of the olive harvest. I wish to see the workers pick just what they can press and bottle in tiny portions of the green and golden olive oil that is the best I have ever tasted. I have watched these olives grow from tiny flowers to seeds to ripen from green to black these many weeks, and I want to be among the first to taste the new oil!

The last Saturday of October that telephone call comes. I bundle up my guests Joe, who will soon celebrate his 84th birthday in the Villa, and his daughter Katie with husband John, and head out to the groves. We meet at the Cantina below Mercatello and I am surprised to see a group of Lorenzo's friends also assembling. The group is growing beyond just me and my guests. We mingle outside as we wait and I discover we are a very interesting and diverse group. In addition to us, there is a photographer from a prominent food magazine, a Norwegian catering executive from Thai airlines with his wife from the Philippines, a Swedish advertising rep, a British actress who lives in Shanghai, and several Italians, who turn out to be the least exotic of the whole lot.

We pile into electric carts forming a long convoy through the perched village along the little gravel road, past Lorenzo's ancient castle to arrive at one of the groves of olive trees. I spot three trees with ladders perched against their branches and nets spread out under them. But I am rather puzzled as I do not see any workers picking.

Driving to the olive groves

When Lorenzo points to the pile of work gloves stacked upon an overturned bucket, all at once I begin to understand. We will become, for a day, the olive pickers! Gamely, Joe dons some gloves and starts to rake his hands through the lowest branches of a tree while Katie, with excitement, climbs to the top branches and starts tossing olives onto the net below. Soon all three trees are covered with people picking, laughing and singing as we work. This is a lot more fun than just watching. As I am starting to discover, this whole day will be full of unexpected and unanticipated pleasures.

Girl singing

I work beside Lorenzo and am amazed to find that the olives come readily off the branches, much like picking blueberries back in Seattle. I see that Lorenzo is having the time of his life. He tells me several of his friends come each year for a day of his harvest and the actress from Shanghai has returned three times. Lorenzo's hospitality is legendary; any weekend at the castle finds an assortment of guests around the huge square table in his ancient kitchen preparing and eating the simple meals of Umbria with only the freshest ingredients of his farm. From nobility to film stars to workers from the estate, Lorenzo treats everyone with the same grace and humility that his ancestors have been accustomed to for centuries.

We only pick the olives for several hours, but I feel like I could do this all day long. It is a beautiful sunny and crisp day in the groves and the group develops an easy camaraderie as we work together. I marvel that now I get to pick these plump olives that were mere seedlings five months ago. Lorenzo tells me that he never tires of the olive harvest. He has been doing this every year since he was a young boy. I do know that his ancestors have harvested olives in this very spot for hundreds of years. The foundation of the Castello Monte Vibiano Vecchio where he was raised as a child and now lives with his wife, Maryam, dates to the first century, B.C. You could say that he has olive oil in his genes.

Beautiful Olives

This is a good year for the harvest as we had an unexpectedly wet month of May and the olives store all that moisture during the heat of summer to ripen to full lusciousness. As we carefully roll up the nets full of our harvest, I am suddenly very anxious to taste the fruits of our labor, perhaps even today.

The olives are carefully poured from the nets into crates and loaded on the back of my electric cart. I am elected to protect our bounty with my feet lodged against the crates to prevent them from spilling overboard. Off to the cantina we go and as we bounce along the gravel road, I am conscious of my sacred duty. I feel like a contortionist with my booted feet awkwardly straddling the crates.

Pouring Olives into Crate

At the cantina, our very own olives are poured onto a conveyor belt to be separated from leaves and stems and moved along to the pressing machines. We gather around to watch, finding every step to this process fascinating. Lorenzo, of course, acts like this is his very first time also; he is like a child in his passionate approach to every aspect of managing his wine and olive business.

The olives move into the pressing room through a series of pumps, and although we cannot see inside the apparatus, we can soon smell the pungent aroma of oil being freshly squeezed as the sound of the pressing machine overpowers our conversations. Lorenzo is dancing around with two pitchers in his hands waiting for the liquid green gold oil that will soon come flowing from the pipe. We all crowd around to see the first drops of our very own fresh-picked olive oil and break out into spontaneous applause when it first appears!

Freshly Pressed Olive Oil

We are ushered down a hallway into a beautiful room with wall-to-wall windows overlooking the empty autumn fields, once filled with summer sunflowers, to find a burning fire of big embers to toast bread, bruschetta, for our fresh oil. There are also two large pots of soup simmering on a stove, one of local lentils that Umbria is so famous for and one of wheat berries from Lorenzo's farm.

Joe, is just amazed at how our day has unfolded and remarks to me excitedly that this day "is one of the best days of my life!" I am basking in pleasure for I know that I will not only remember this day, but my guests will treasure it just as much as I do. The unplanned surprise which this harvest has become will be the memory we get to create together.

The table is leaden with wine and water and we are asked to help ourselves to this simple harvest feast. Lorenzo pours copious amounts of oil over the freshly toasted bruschetta bread. We are invited to pour as much as we want over the soup.

Olive Oil Laden Lunch

Pots of hot soup, bruschetta and freshly pressed olive oil

This has been an absolutely perfect day and just when I think it cannot get any better I am surprised once again. Lorenzo disappears for a short time and emerges from the bottling plant with small cases of oil in individual 10ml bottles all labeled for us to take home. Definitely the valuable fruits of our labor and I am still guarding some of my very own oil in the freezer for very special occasions.

We have only picked the fruits of three trees this day of our special harvest. The unfiltered olive oil from the 12,000 trees that surround Lorenzo's ancient castle are world famous and have won blind taste awards. All of the olives are harvested by hand; workers pick only the amount that can be pressed daily. Using cutting-edge technology, the oil is bottled and frozen before any air oxides and ruins its purity. Each bottle of precious oil tastes just like it was freshly picked when you defrost and taste it. The method of preserving the pungent taste and purity of this remarkably fresh product is the brain child of Lorenzo, and as he is fond of saying, "I am manic about eliminating any errors so that only the freshest and purest oil comes from Monte Vibiano Vecchio."

I am sure that in future years I will take great pleasure being a part of Lorenzo's group olive picking, but surely nothing will surpass my very first surprise olive harvest! But, again, knowing Lorenzo, he will try to come up with something.

Colleen's Window on Italy is a series of articles on Slow Travel. Read the article "Colleen's Window on Italy - Introduction" for more information.

Colleen Simpson lives most of the year in Piegaro, Umbria and operates L'Antica Vetreria (www.anticavetreria.net): a villa and four apartments for vacationing guests. At other times, you can find her in beautiful Seattle.

© Colleen Simpson, 2012

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