(Translated from dialect- and occasionally Italian- late November 2012)
‘It’s not like it used to be, now that the machines arrived. When I was a boy, we made honest oil, with brooms and fiscoli (the jute mats still occasionally used in the production of virgin and pomace oils). You know, you never tasted oil so good! Today though, they LOVE their machines, the more expensive the better’.
A harvester in his 70’s, nostalgic, I think, more for a time than for the actually final product. If you were to look at olive oil technology, the industry only quite recently, literally left the stone age, the technology having changed little for three thousand years. Then in one or two generations, with the application of the cerntrifuge, compression bladders and air conditioning unites to limit the heat given off with all the friction, quality spiked, so that now there is more high quality extra virgin being made than ever before, a fact incongruous with his memories of a different era.
‘But overall quality seems high here too, even if quantity and ripeness seem to be issues this year. The other two fields are testing out at .3 and even .2 on the coratina. Have him call me if it hits .4 in any of the other fields’.
The estate’s owner, monitoring over-all acid content with regards how to sell the final oil: the lower quality might be sold off to small town consortiums while the higher quality (lower in acid) will go under the estates private label. (which happens to be the oil we consume as a school).
‘And then he says, he says, you should come out to the sea with us tonight. And I said, But I don’t have my suite. And he said, he said, Perfect. Do you believe the nerve!!!
‘So then what did you say? He’s cute though, I’ll tell you that much, though….. I would have……gone!’
(Two lovely 19-year women harvesting alongside me, holding nothing back in regards to my ability to overhear their conversation. Twice I stopped to do the math and hated the outcome both times).
‘Mimmino brought the bread, and we have plenty of potatoes. So….chicory and some winter tomatoes and we’re set. Call Giovà (Giovanni)’.
A technician at the ‘press’, arranging a lunch for all the men. Crates of vegetables line a distant wall, a soup pot at a constant simmer.
‘And then I asked to see all the trees you’d need to produce all that ‘Tuscan oil”. There must be some farmer up on some hill really working hard!’
Another technician responding to my question about perceptions of extra virgin quality and Tuscany’s role in both production (not particularly ambitious) and legendary quantity of sales (a fiction that the multinationals no longer smirk about, but having broken out into thigh-slapping laughter).
‘I’ve seen the rush of oil like this for the last 25 years but each time we start up this machine at the beginning of the season, something about it still seems a little magical’
Said a third technician, pushing a stainless steel drum of the stuff to be graded. (Oil is kept in small batches to halt one of batch contaminating another).
No, no, it’s a good year for quality…..not a great year for quantity. For us personally, it’s great….but for those harvesting on a lower level……
The tester’s voice trails off as he stares me in the eyes, both of us thinking of families that depend on the year’s crop as their primary source of income for the year.
I’ve worked the harvest many years but this year it has been different, even oddly profound in ways. The more I get to meet folks in the smaller villages in the deeper, more rural parts of the Salento, the more I return to two things: that life here has always been hard, teased out only in heavy lifting and broken calluses. That, and that it’s been the olive that’s been our greasy whale blubber, our meadows of dairy cows, our golden fields of corn, the one crop that truly sustains us here in the part of the word, the part where the earth falls away and everything just eventually becomes the sea.