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Tuscan Olive Harvest

Melissa Gittelman

As we cruised along the winding path in the obese white van, Vilmo educated me on the history of the towns in Tuscany. This 40-something Italian farmer took pride in his region of Italy. “You know the Etruscans started the hill town of Montepulciano long before the Romans built Rome,” he smiled while zipping around a tight corner.

The roads in Tuscany never seemed to follow a straight course. We bobbed up and down and around as tractors tilled the dry brown soil and the colors of the hibernating vineyards flashed green, yellow and red like a traffic light. The treasure that was Tuscany unraveled before my eyes.

After an hour or so on the road from the Chiusi train station to the foot of the Monticchiello hill town, my senses were on overload and my stomach was grumbling. Vilmo parked his car at the stone arch that provided the entrance to Monticchiello, a small ancient Etruscan walled-town. Most of the towns in Tuscany were designed the same way, as walled fortresses atop the high hills. Monticchiello, in particular, is known for its theater performances every summer. This past summer, Vilmo arranged for his workers to take part in the production and performance of the play. He was extremely proud when telling me this. He quickly popped into the café by the entrance to offer them his newest bottle of olive oil, and then we drove down the road to his abode.

View Towards Montechiello

View towards Montechiello

Vilmo’s organic farm consists of 33 acres with 1100 olive trees, durum wheat, chick peas, lentils, barley and farro, and a small vineyard. In 2004, Vilmo could no longer afford to pay workers and the bank, so when he discovered WWOOF he jumped at the chance to welcome volunteers from around the world to help him on the farm. WWOOF, which stands for World-wide Opportunities on Farms or as some describe it “Willing Workers on Organic Farms” developed in the UK in 1971. This non-profit organization is an exchange between travelers willing to lend a hand on the farms and farmers who offer accommodations, food and a learning experience in the process of organic farming . Once “wwoofers”, or workers, pay a small fee for a one-year membership to one of the countries, they receive lists of farms and contacts. After joining WWOOF Italia, I emailed multiple farms, one being Vilmo’s in the hopes of lending a hand. Vilmo in particular needed urgent help with his olive harvest and responded right away to my email. Three weeks later I arrived in Tuscany.

As his van crunched over the gravel road to the Agriturismo apartment that would be my home, we passed another wwoofer collecting all the olives she’d shaken from the tree. Vilmo informed me I’d be working with three other women for the time being. The woman collecting the olives was 60 years old and came from Slovenia. A 30-year-old Canadian woman and a 60-year-old Austrian woman, who were out for the day, would also be working along side us. I was surprised to find all women workers on this farm and respected Vilmo for expecting no less out of us than he would of men.

My new bungalow for the next week or so consisted of a kitchenette/dining room-living room with burner, fridge, pantry, table and couch, a single bedroom for the Austrian woman, a bathroom with shower and a large room with cots and walls constructed of white bed sheets. The room resembled an army hospital but compared to all the grimy hostels I’d stayed in prior to this place, I felt quite satisfied with my new digs. And after a few days I wanted to stay forever.

Building in which the Wwoofers live

Where the Wwoofers live

Every morning the protocol would be to wake up at 8am, eat a small European style breakfast of biscotti and tea, and then head to the olive groves by 9am. We’d either tackle a tree on our own or work with a partner until 1pm. In order to collect all the olives, we laid out a net around the trunk of the tree and combed the olives off the branches with a hand-sized plastic rake. To reach the top branches, required someone to climb the tree or up in a ladder and rake them down. If all else failed, there was a machine called the oliviero that would rattle the branches causing the olives to jump off in every direction. After two days of this work, the raking motion became so innate in my hands that I barely thought of the process as I gathered all the olives, tree after tree. At the end of the day everyone carried crates called cassetta (cassette in plural) in Italian full of black, red and green olives up to Vilmos storage room. He then calculated the weight of the cassette in kilos that we and his family, who helped out, picked for the day.

Me with all the olives we picked from one tree

Me with all the olives we picked from one tree

Each day would have blended together as we picked and picked until our hands were sore and oily with the grease from the olives, if it weren’t for the distinguishable color hues of the sunsets and the sumptuous meals prepared for our lunch each afternoon. As much as I loved the simplicity of the olive picking lifestyle, it was the cuisine that adorned Vilmo’s table each afternoon that kept me extending my stay one day more. Vilmo’s mother prepared a feast for the workers every day, equipped with plates of mozzarella, tomato and basil leaves, hand rolled pasta, fresh grated pecorino cheese, salads, lentils, soups and our favorite, the newest bottle of nuclear green olive oil produce from the very olives we picked days before. This olive oil overwhelmed the palate with the earthy taste of organic olives and a spicy bite from being so fresh. We dipped white saltless Tuscan bread and cut peppers in the oil soaking up every last drop. Our bellies felt bottomless as we ravenously cleaned our plates and dished ourselves seconds and thirds. Every few bites washed itself down with sweet crimson wine. We laughed and joked like family although no one spoke the same language except the Canadian woman and me. A love of good food, wine and company seemed to be a universal language between us all.

Following lunch, we unbuttoned the tops of our pants like men and forced in a slice of panettone (a fruit-bread) and a glass of limoncello or vin santo, a sugary dessert wine. Then everyone retired to his or her beds or computers for some much needed siesta time. Returning to work in the fields by 3pm felt very taxing after we’d allowed ourselves to succumb to a food coma. We’d work until the sun collapsed exhausted across the horizon, dissolving into hues of fuchsia, lavender and blood orange. While hurrying to collect all the olives into the last cassetta, I also took time to capture pictures of every sunset with its distinctive blends of colors and shadows across the gold and brown fields of Tuscany. Each Cyprus wore a vale of rose and violet as the sun slinked lower and lower.

Tuscan Sunset

Tuscan Sunset

Vilmo valued all of his workers. We were not only a team but he got to know each person individually simply because he cared and wore his heart on his sleeve. Besides working on the olive trees, Vilmo toured me around Tuscany to Pienza, the Pope Pius’s dream city, Montepulciano where we brought hundreds of cassette, to the frantoio (oil press) to transform the olives into oil, and Bagno Vignoni, the ancient Roman Baths. He even drove the Canadian woman and me to Siena for a day off. When the day came when I finally decided I’d better leave and continue my travels across Europe, I left Vilmo, the other wwoofers and the olive groves with a heavy heart.

At the Chiusi train station, I waited for my train carrying two bottles of olive oil, a mind and camera full of postcard-like scenes of Tuscany, and a single olive I kept in my pocket and rubbed between my fingers.

Melissa is a 22 year old freelance traveler. She graduated from Emerson College in 2009 with a BA in Writing Literature and Publishing. This is one of her adventures as she backpacked solo through Europe from Ireland to the Netherlands over three months.

© Slow Travel, 2010

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