When they crank the jolting Heath Robinson conveyor belts at the cooperative olive mill into action, the skies darken. Fact. Not sure why, but black clouds provide a dramatic tension, as does a bigger than normal jam of broken-backed trucks and trailers, lorries, dented Citroens and Seats (and Peugeots) stuffed with white olive sacks, all reversing anarchically in the direction of the grills to drop their loads. Nuestra Señora del Rosario Cooperativa is now a-buzz, the social hub, lit up at night like something industrial in America, and will be until January. You can hear it, and smell it – green, waxy, cloying, oily – a mile off.
Last year I stripped the olives from 400 trees myself using a stick which took a month (if you include time spent lying in the nets too tired to move, with a dog licking my face). This year I recruited a team and a shaker machine, and it took a week.
I was in Puglia some months ago covering an extra virgin olive oil fraud story, and had the luck to spend some days in the company of the deCarlo family. They compete to find a space for their exceptional, award-winning, artisan-produced Italian Extra Virgin olive oil in a global market awash with fake slop.
They pointed out that olive oil is a fruit juice, and should be pure, fresh, bitter, with, depending on type of olive, varying notes of grass, tomato leaves, artichoke. And they showcased the best by pouring two types of their own liberally over the best of southern Italian home-cooking during lunch at their family home.
Obviously I looked at my own fields with interest on my return. To ensure plenty of bitterness, which isn’t rated too highly locally, I was the first farmer off the block with the harvesting, picking the fruit while green and fairly hard – and far too early according to my neighbours. I sold the bulk to the cooperative (to join the rest of the area’s haul, to be crushed, filtered and bottled by them under their own label), but this year kept back 500kg, which thanks to a miscalculation was actually 830kgs, sent it down a different shoot and had it pressed separately, and bottled the stuff that came out at the other end of the system one hour later. Having 167 litres of oil for home consumption is excessive, but it’s genuinely, accidentally, very good. Getting it there is probably what did for the car suspension.
Incidentally, Extra Virginity, The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by the helpful and affable Tom Mueller is a superb, shocking and entertaining read.