Sunday 19 November 2017


This year we have been having a lot of fun helping friends harvest their olives. It is an amazing experience! A few years back we were fortunate enough to be able to assist our friend Pino for a few hours over two days while he was harvesting in an olive grove located just below Casperia's town wall that belonged to the town butcher, Armando Sileri. I am not sure how much we actually helped. It was our first time. 

We went down with our English friends Helen and Ritchie. The long mechanised rake Pino was using was a bit of a noisy mystery. We did our best passing it up and down through the olive laden branches but it seemed that we harvested as many leaves and twigs as olives. I think that we were more help cleaning the twigs and leaves from the olives in the nets. 

Bottom line I think that Pino, who was working by himself, was just glad of some company. Either way, a couple of days later, there was a knock on our door, and there was Pino with a tin of precious oil, freshly pressed from the olives we had helped him harvest.

2016 was a bad year for the olive growers here in central Italy so, even if we had wanted to, there were no opportunities to help with the olive harvest last year. More to the point though, there was very little new olive oil last year. The olives that were harvestable after a year of very uncooperative weather—spring rains had interfered with the pollination and those that developed ended up being badly hit by the olive fly—obviously were not in any condition to produce excellent oil.

The 2016 bad olive harvest caused panic. Those, like us, who did not have a large stock of Sabine oil from the previous year sought out producers who did and bought as many litres of oil that they could afford to tide them over until this year's harvest. As there was only so much Sabine oil from the previous year to go around, many were forced to purchase their oil outside Sabina... like from across the Tiber in the Province of Viterbo, or across the mountains in Umbria, or—gulp—even in Toscana. 

All this year we were anxiously checking the local olive groves to see if the flowers had opened and, later, how much fruit had set. Every time Richard and I would go for a walk in the country and would bump into an uliveto-owning contadino we would solicit their opinion: 

Quest'anno, ci saranno olive? Quest'anno, ci sarà d'olio?

Will there be olives this year? This year, will there by any oil? And each time the response would be a  pair of raised weathered hands and a resigned shrug. 

Sinceramente non lo so. Speriamo bene.

Who could tell? The summer had been incredibly hot this year. By the time late September rolled around the hills you could see around Casperia were red with what looked like early autumn colours but in reality the leaves of the holm oak, oak, beech and chestnut trees trees of the Colli Sabini had been burnt by the torrid summer heat and lack of rain. 

But what did that mean for this year's olive harvest? We asked a number of friends who had olive groves and the answer was inconsistent: 

Quest'anno poca roba.

Some had few or no olives. Others said that there were less olives than usual, but what was there seemed free from the mosca dell'olivo—the olive fly. The previous cold winter and the intense summer heat had spared what there was of this year's crop from the fly's larva's devastation. 

Quest'anno le olive sono sincere,

was another woman's response as we talked in a line up at the tobacconist. This year, the olives are 'sincere', which I took to mean that they were healthy and worm free. 

So what follows is a bit of an olive harvest journal written over a number of weeks which covers the two raccolte delle olive that we helped with. There is of course so added commentary to add some flow. Hopefully this will give you an idea of what is involved and the learning curve we went through.


Chris and Meg, Johnny and Fiona hard at work

Friday, 28 October 2017

Today we are heading north of Casperia's fortified historic centre to help our friends Fiona and Giles to harvest their olives. Giles and Fiona are from England but for a number of months out of the year live in their charming country house which is nestled among some olive covered rolling hills a few kilometres north of the centro storico. 

If you follow our cat Smokey's blog you will be familiar with Giles and Fiona. It was they who very kindly saved us—not only Smokey, Richard and I—but a number of other friends from what would have been a very unhappy day when Casperia was temporarily evacuated during last year's earthquake. It may seem odd, but for Smokey that afternoon in the green of the Sabine countryside was probably one of the happiest days of his life here in Italy. If you haven't read it already you can find Smokey's account of the day here.

We get a ride to Giles and Fiona's place with our friends Chris and Meg Phillips. They are the owners of the beautifully restored stone house at the top of the town called Il Sogno where Richard and I stayed during our first visits to Sabina... and here we are eight years later, living in Casperia, and going to pick olives together. What a strange and wonderful world.

Waiting for us, along with Giles and Fiona, was one more harvester, the seventh of our team... Johnny Madge

Johnny Madge is a bit of a local legend. An Englishman who has lived in Italy for over half his life, Johnny is not only an accomplished sculptor, he is also a self-made olive oil expert, an internationally respected olive oil taster and judge, and since 2010, a very popular olive oil and wine tour guide here in Sabina. Johnny is just plain popular. More than anything, he is a great guy with a wicked sense of humour so it was a real treat to be picking with him on many levels.

Giles and Fiona have owned their 1/4 hectare of property with about 500 square metres dedicated to olives since November of 2015. Besides their twenty-three olive trees they have twenty-two fruit and nut trees which include apricot, pear, apple, plum, persimmon and walnut. The first harvested their olives and made oil in 2015 but there were not enough good olives to harvest in 2016. They have high hopes for this year.

When we arrived shortly after 09:30 Giles had the tele―olive nets―already spread out below a row of trees and Giles, Fiona and Johnny were already hard at work hand harvesting the olives with yellow plastic olive rakes called rastrelli

Un rastrello, due rastrelli...

Johnny had brought the equipment; the nets and the olive rakes. There were a number of hand rakes that had been mounted on long poles in order to reach the olives lurking in the higher branches.

And of course Giles had a couple of ladders for those willing to climb into the trees.

Before an uliveto can be harvested, all the high grass, weeds and random shrubs that have grown up around the trees during the summer have to be cut down and cleared away. This is not only to make it easier to spread the tele under the olive trees, but it also helps protect the nylon tele from and rips or tears that can be caused if they are caught on something sharp growing out of the ground.  

According to what can be gleaned from  images of the olive harvest on ancient Greek pottery, early methods of harvesting olives involved hand picking and beating the upper branches with poles and gathering the fallen olives by hand.

Vase B226: Ancient Greek amphora depicting the olive harvest, circa 520BC - courtesy British Museum

I remember when I was nine or ten years old seeing this image of the harvest in National Geographic's Everyday Life In Ancient Times.

Like the image on the amphora cited above, naked youths are beating the olives free from the branches while others gather the fallen drupes on the ground. The olives are gathered in a pile in the left foreground, while to the right stones and human weight are used to press and extract oil from stacked nets of olives. Though sunny, it is a cool day here in Sabina so there is not going to be any nudity at this harvest!

Rather than beating the olives to the ground with sticks, today we will be harvesting by hand and rakes, pulling the olives from the branches so that they fall onto the tele nets waiting below. When the trees above the nets are picked clean, the olives in the nets will be carefully gathered together in a pile, any leaves and twigs that can be picked from the nets will be extracted and the olives then poured from the nets into plastic crates. 

Each full crate will equal roughly twenty-five kilos of olives with four crates equalling a quintale, or hundredweight, of olives.  

I am not sure when people in Sabina started using nets to harvest olives. Less than a hundred years ago, people were still harvesting like this, hand harvesting into baskets.

I  noticed two different tela shapes being used at today's harvest.

Una tela. Due tele...

One is a long rectangle. Wide enough to be spread between two lines of olive trees and long enough to be used under one side of two, sometimes three trees. Most of the olive groves here around Casperia are on slopes so the tele are laid on both sides of a line of trees descending the slope. Usually the tele are pinned together with mollette—clothespins—to keep the olives that fall into the net from slipping under and getting lost. 

The second type of tela being used is another rectangle but this has a slit running two thirds of the way up the middle and is designed so one tela can be used to harvest a number of trees in a line at the same time. The longer, split end points downhill and ideally the overlapping edges of the split part are fastened together by clothes pins. There is usually one person in the team who takes responsibility for the clothes pins. Today, it was Johnny.

Obviously, since you are usually harvesting on a slope, there is a danger that olives loosed from the branches by people working with the hand rakes will fall from the tree and roll down the slope so fast that they overshoot the net. To prevent this the lower ends of the tele are raised, sometimes using empty olive crates, but more often using stakes hammered into the ground. If it is a steeper slope and mechanical rakes are being used sometimes it is best to have the ends held up high by people in the harvesting team. 

Helen and Richard hold the tele up as Pino harvests with a mechanised rake
Giles and Johnny were very organised and had a number of sharpened wooden stakes ready for the lower edges of the tele.

Of the twenty-three olive trees on Giles and Fiona's property, only fourteen had enough olives to harvest this year. There is usually a mix of different types of olive trees in any given uliveto as some olive varieties are self pollinating, and others, to varying degrees, require the pollen of other olives to produce fruit.

The predominant varietal here in Sabina is the Carboncella. When the tree is full of ripe black fruit it is easily recognisable, even to novice, as the tree is covered with a myriad of small roundish coal-black drupes. Despite their small size, the Carboncella has a relatively high resa, or oil percentage of 22 up to 26% and is therefore highly prized. 

Carboncella is not self pollinating and therefore must be planted with other pollinating varietals of olives such as Leccino, Pendolino and Frantoio.  

A good number of Giles and Fiona's trees were Carboncella, but obviously, there were others but at first these were hard to identify. At least for me.

But the more you harvest, the more you pass your rake through the branches and touch the branches and leaves, as you dislodge the olives with your fingers, you begin to notice differences. Different olives even feel different as you pull them from their branches.

The most obvious differences you notice are the size, shapes, colours and even textures of the olives you are picking. Think of apples. You don't need to read the grocery store labels to differentiate between a Delicious and a Granny Smith, or a Russet and a Cox's Orange Pippin or McIntosh.  I found it was the same with olives. Even though I could only distinguish with confidence which was the Carboncella, I started to be able to see that there were at least three, four, maybe even more different varietals in Giles and Fiona's Uliveto. 

If Carboncella is small, roundish and black when ripe there were some olives that were quite large, plump and pointed at the bottom. There were some olives that were almost pear shaped and others shaped like a rugby ball. The colour range was surprising. If some were  bright, almost kelly or parakeet green, there were some which were a blend of green and rosy pink, even purple, and some that were even speckled. It was fascinating.

We went from tree to tree, using our rastrelli or hand raking the olives into the nets. As the olives accumulate on the ground it becomes harder and harder to move without stepping on them and crushing them. You have to look up to pick the olives on one branch and look down before you dare move to go to reach the olives on another. Even if seconds before there were no olives anywhere near your foot, the sloping ground lets bouncing and rolling olives which first touched ground metres away suddenly accumulate around your feet. 

Once you get the olives from a number of trees down into the nets, you next have to carefully gather the olives in the nets into one pile and then clean out the twigs and leaves before they you can put them in the crates. 

It is important to clear as much of the twigs and leaves from the olives before they go into the cases. Though these are mechanically separated from the olives at the frantoio, producers have to pay for the milling of their olives based on the weight of the olives in their crates.

As you can see from this photo, this stage of the work was a chance to tell stories and joke around a bit. 

We had a coffee and tea break half way through the morning then started on another row of trees.

At one point Johnny pointed out an interesting looking yellow shrub which he called Inula

According to Johnny, this plant is very important to have in an uliveto because it attracts a particular type of wasp which is the natural enemy and scourge of the olive fly.

Work continues for the rest of the morning. We rake the olives into the nets, gather the nets, clean the olives and dump them into crates then move the nets to the next row of trees. Johnny and Giles to most of the net placing. At times the nets are filled with black olives, then some with a mix of colours. Every so often we hit a tree with larger green olives. I have no idea what they are but they are beautiful.

And then, all of a sudden, it is lunch time. Fiona has made a gorgeous pasta, fettuccine dressed with toasted hazelnuts and sautéed cavolo nero. 

We savour the warm bowl of pasta and the gorgeous view. It is good to rest but there are more olive trees to harvest.

Johnny reckons that there are six types of olives in this uliveto: 

Ascolana Tenera and

Frantoio is a Tuscan varietal. It is self pollinating and has a high oil yield, usually around 23 percent. Leccino is another Tuscan varietal. It is a good producer with a yield of 18 to 20 percent. It is not a self pollinator. Pendolino is another Tuscan varietal and another olive that cannot pollinate itself but its pollen is invaluable to the Carboncella, Frantoio and Leccino. The Ascolana Tenera is native to the Marche region from the area around Ascoli Picena and is actually an olive di mensa or eating olive. 

The olive all'Ascolana is a favourite bar snack. The pit of the cured olive is removed and the space filled with a pre-cooked minced meat mixture. The olive is then dipped in flour, beaten egg, then bread crumbs before being fried in olive oil.

The sixth varietal in the oliveto, and Johnny was really excited to find this, is the Itrana or Gaeta olive. The Itrana is a large green olive with a purply-red blush which gets more purple as it matures and is used both as an eating olive and to make oil. It comes from the province of Latina in southern Lazio. It is not self pollinating so it is usually planted in the company of Ascolana Tenera, Pendolino or Leccino trees. Johnny showed us how when the olive was crushed that it had an amazing tomato aroma. 

We continue working through the afternoon, finishing up the last row of trees below the house before we head up to deal with the last and largest of the trees. 

By the end of the day we have filled four cases with olives. Giles suggests that we all bet how many kilograms we have collected and then how many litres of oil they will ultimately produce. 

We all make our bets. Giles writes everything down in a notebook but before he heads off to the frantoio in Montopoli with the olives we gather the nets and tools together and help load everything in Johnny's truck.

While Giles was off delivering the crates of olives to the Frantoio, the rest of us relaxed and enjoyed our first glass of wine for the day and watched the sunset. Down in the valley to the east of us other people were still labouring in their uliveto. Richard and I went for a walk along the gravel road on the edge of Giles and Fiona's property and admired the neighbour's olive trees. They looked like dancing Ents.

When Giles got back later that night we all sat down and enjoyed a lovely dinner together, a chicken stew that Giles had made earlier. 

Working for most of a day hand harvesting fourteen olive trees with a team of seven friends: three Brits, two Americans and two Canadians was an amazing experience. When you touch an olive tree here in Sabina. When you work your fingers through its curtain of branches and you pull the plump drupes from the twigs that hold them, you are not just touching a tree or playing at being a farmer. You are inserting yourself into something old. You are touching an agricultural history that in this part of Italy stretches back at least 2600 years. 

A half hour's drive to the west of Giles and Fiona's olive grove, almost visible from their house, is a small hill town called Poggio Sommavilla. 

Poggio Sommavilla - Courtesy Wikipedia

In 1896 a ceramic flask inscribed with what is thought to be the earliest example of Sabine writing was discovered in a necropolis there. 

The flask, which dates to the 7th century BCE and is now part of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts' collection, when tested was found to contain traces of olive oil!

A 30 minute drive south of Giles and Fiona's olive grove, their olives were being pressed and turned into oil in a modern mill in Montopoli. 

In the end, it turns out that our four crates of olives weighed 92 kilograms, just under a quintale. 

And you can see below who won the lottery. Richard was closest as far as the weight of the olives went and Meg was closest in her guess of how much oil they would make. In the end, 92kg of olives produced 14kg or 15.12 litres of delicious Sabine olive oil.

After the harvest we all tried very hard to schedule a get-together to taste the oil but sadly that didn't work out. Instead, Giles turned up at our door with two half-litre bottles of the oil we helped make. What a thrill!

We opened a bottle and sniffed. The aroma was intense, grassy. We couldn't wait to do our own tasting so we made some bruschette.


I found out later from Giles that Johnny had blind taste-tested their oil with six others. I asked Giles if it would be okay to have Johnny's tasting notes. Here is the text that Giles sent me.

"Ciao caro. Here are Johnboy’s tasting notes: 

'Nice fruit on nose. Appley, full; lettuce, escarole, grass (the legal one), raw peas. Long burn. Bitterness was not offensive. In a couple of months I’d like to taste again.'

He also said he gave it a 6 out of 10!"

Like I said, 


I hope that you enjoyed reading this post about our time helping our friends Giles and Fiona with their olive harvest. Our olive oil adventures continue, this time in Poggio Mirteto. 

Stay tuned for Part 2 of HARVESTING GREEN GOLD/OLIVES for OIL: THE HEART & SOUL of SABINA which will follow soon.


  1. Lovely account James! It was a lovely day and I was smiling to myself as you reminded me of all the fun we had x

  2. Very nice description of a work holiday. You do not so much work he he he, but you had very good esperience. I'm glad you appreciate one of most interesting moment of mediterranean life.
    Sorry for my poor English, in any case it was nice to read and see.
    Sergio Enrietta