Author: Vittoria Marinello, Public Health Nutritionist at Nutrition Scotland
Every year, usually in late October, Italian’s begin the age-old tradition of harvesting olives to make extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), and typically families will harvest their olives to make enough oil to use throughout the year. When my family moved over to Tuscany from Scotland a few years ago and began harvesting their olives, I was keen to get involved (and they were keen for the free labour!). Although they claim proudly to be doing everything in an authentic Italian way, I feel it’s important to note before I continue, so as not to offend any genuine Italians reading this, my experience is definitely from the perspective of a Scottish person in Italy…
It could be argued the most labour intensive part of the harvest lies not the picking itself, but instead lies in placing very large nets under the trees to catch the olives when they fall, moving them as you go from tree to tree. Traditionally olives are collected by hand, or by using a rake-like tool to scrape down the branches. However more modern practice sees the use of hand-held battery powered machines specifically designed to increase yield and save on time- we opted for a mix of all three. Olives are picked, collected in the nets, and are transferred to boxes where they are stored until they are taken to the factory. It took our admittedly less-than-expert team of 4 to pick 18 trees over 4 days. Although the image of picking olives in the Tuscan sun seems quite relaxed and idyllic, it’s an entirely different story in the rain, and as you’re eaten alive by midges!
The moment of truth arrives when you get to the factory (frantoio) with your boxes of olives and await the all important weigh-in. It’s a busy place at this time of year, so there’s often plenty of time to side-eye the competition and see how your haul stacks up while you wait for your turn- tension is high! Although you can collect hundreds of kilos of olives over a week-long period, you may yield only about 10% of this weight in olive oil. We collected 196kg olives which gave us 35.6 litres of olive oil- an impressive 18% yield and definitely enough for the year (and some for me to take home!) Some locals may actually package their olive oil and sell it- authentic extra virgin olive oil can prove to be quite lucrative! I’m told the pressed olives are collected by large companies and re-pressed to make refined olive oil, and some locals even cheekily suggest it’s the re-pressed stuff we are actually sold as EVOO in the UK.
After a pretty long wait at the factory, it’s time for the best part- the tasting! Given that this is a nutrition blog, I would be remiss to not mention the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil. It is a monounsaturated fat with heart healthy properties, and has been shown to reduce bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol. It is also considered by locals to be particularly good for you in the first 14 days following pressing, when it is at it’s most fresh (although important to note this part isn’t evidence based, although the locals seem pretty sure of it!) One thing is for sure though, the freshly pressed extra virgin olive oil is delicious- simply drizzled on a piece of toasted bread with a pinch of salt, and followed by ‘Aglio e olio e peperoncino’- spaghetti in gently warmed olive oil with garlic and chilli. On the more unusual side, the olive oil is drizzled over fior de latte (plain milk) gelato, with a grind of black pepper for dessert – even this combination tastes amazing!
There’s something so satisfying about making your own oil, and going through the whole process from picking to plate. It encourages me to think more about the food I’m buying at home, and where it’s come from. I look forward to going over for the harvest each year now and bringing more liquid nectar back home!
We have factsheets so you can read more about polyphenols and their health benefits here, and monounsaturated fats here.