Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Olive Harvest

A good friend of ours lives in Porto, but his family shares a holiday house in the Douro river valley.  This is somewhat common in Portugal because as families migrated to the cities, it was not unusual to hold onto the family farm.  My friends family built a small guest house on the family plot which also contains a few hectares of vines, and a small plot of olive trees.  They pay people from the village to help tend the vines, and then sell the grapes into the local collective which then brokers the grapes to the local wineries.  The olive trees require only a little pruning every year, but the harvest is hard work.  Since they only have a few trees (less then 30) they do the harvest themselves.  This year, they invited me to help.

For my friend's family, I think the harvest is seen as a bit of a chore.  It's done in January, so it's usually cold and rainy, and the main work is basically beating a tree with a stick while a shower of olives, leaves, dewdrops, and anything else in the tree showers down on your head.  I think they were a little surprised when I told them that I was interested in helping, and they probably thought that I would get tired of it quick, but for a city boy like me, it's great to get out in the country and to a day of really physical work.

We started the morning right at sun-up, and as expected, it was foggy, damp, and a little cold.

Hard to see how spectacularly beautiful it is with the fog
Harvesting olives hasn't changed since ancient times.  There are three steps, first you spread a sheet on the ground, then you attach the tree with a stick shaking the olives loose.  Finally, you lift the sheet, remove the leaves and twigs, and collect the olives in a bucket.

First tree
Once we had done a few trees, we had things down to a pretty well defined routine, and we could complete a tree in about 30 minutes.  Some trees are bigger then others, and some are growing on difficult, uneven ground, so there was always some variety, and an occasional challenge.

Result from one large tree
We worked from sun up until the light ran out (about 7:30 until 6:00 this time of year).  After a day and a half, we had filled one large box which probably holds a little over 400kg:

The olives are processed by the town's local collective.  It is possible to schedule with them so that you get the oil from the exact olives you bring, but we were happy to just exchange our fresh olives for the collective oil.

At lunch, we tried some of the collective oil from last year.  Words cannot describe how incredible it is.  It has such a beautiful golden color, and the flavor is so nice that I can easily imagine being happy with a lunch of nothing but bread and oil, or even drinking some straight!  As payment for my labor, they are going to give me 5 or 6 liters which would normally last a year, but this stuff is so good that I think our intake of oil might go up.