I’ve been noticing that the ‘oliveiras’ (olive trees) have been teeming with olives lately and I thought I might try and ask around and see if I could find out more about how they get picked and what happens to them afterwards...
I started off by talking to our lovely neighbour Célia, as I know she picks her olives and gets them pressed into olive oil (indeed, for the last few years she’s even let us have some). I said that it must be time to pick them soon and asked her lots of questions, poking around trying to find a story. Célia found the idea of having her picture in the paper very amusing and told me she would be sure to let me know when they harvested them so I could come along and see how it was done...
Take your pick
True to her word, she rang me up a few weeks later and, on a beautiful sunny morning, I went and found her and her friends Odélia and Ricardo, happily chatting away to each other as they laid siege to an olive tree.
They showed me how they cover the ground with a green tarpaulin and then shake the olives down with a stick. Ricardo was there with his ladder and was doing the more extreme work of actually climbing the trees and cutting back the branches so that they don’t get too tall. Célia and Odélia then stripped these fallen branches of their olives and put them in a bucket. It was all going well until Ricardo started shouting that he was being attacked by red-headed ants (one of the hazards of the job).
They explained that they were trying to get some picked before the weekend as rain was forecast. It was then that I found out my first secret of olive picking. Apparently, you shouldn’t pick them when they are wet, as it's not good for them and it will be bad for next year's harvest. Picking olives, as it turns out, is like making hay and should only be done ‘while the sun shines’.
I asked them what happened next and they said that once they had picked them all, they took them to be pressed at the ‘Lagar Santa Catarina’. Now, I originally thought that I might have enough to squeeze a story out of what they had told me, but getting home I soon realized I needed more. The next logical step therefore was to go to the place that really specializes in ‘squeezing’. And so, later that week I headed off into the mountains on the next part of my adventure to find this olive oil press just outside the quiet little countryside town of Santa Catarina da Fonte do Bispo.
The Big Squeeze
Life, as it turns out, has taken me past this place a lot but I never realized what it was. I had also never seen it so busy as I did when I arrived that morning. Parked all the way up the side of the road and far into the distance were cars, pickup trucks, tractors (with trailers) all completely overflowing with olives. I think it’s busy here every day at harvest time, but seeing as the weather forecast had indeed been ‘on point’ (and as we know, nobody dares pick them in the rain) everybody, it seemed, had decided they may as well come down to the press.
Enjoying the mayhem and cheerful hustle and bustle of the locals waiting outside, I watched as cars and trucks manoeuvred around each other to make room for the next vehicle to reverse and dump their olives into a great big sieve where they were carried away on a conveyor belt and into some truly super duper looking machines.
Walking in and asking around for Renato Rocha, I immediately noticed two things. One, the incredible and rather overpowering (as you might expect) aroma of olives, and second, that it was extremely noisy. I started to worry that even if I did find Renato, I wouldn’t be able to hear a word he said.
Renato had very kindly agreed to see me on short notice, even though he CLEARLY had a lot going on. Luckily for me, when I did find him, there were a lot of secret pockets and places around the building that if you went in and shut the door, the noise seemed to magically stop.
Once we found one of these quiet spots, Renato explained to me that there aren’t very many places where locals can take their own olives to get them pressed anymore (like they did in the old days) and so they provide that service. Indeed, they have been providing it for more than a century. The Lagar Santa Catarina is a family business that was first founded in 1913 by Manuel Belchior Pereira. He passed it onto his nephew Alberto S.P Rocha, who continues to run it, aided by his sons (Renato being one of them).
From the beginning, they have tried to invest in the best technology for the job. Switching from manual to hydraulic processing in 1941 and the installations on continuous lines in 1991. Nowadays it really is a very swish and (sorry, I can’t resist this) ‘well oiled’ machine.
Renato explained that since olives are a fruit, another way to think of what they do is squeezing them to make juice. With that in mind, we then headed back out into the commotion so that he could show me how it all works...
After depositing your hard picked olives, they are sorted, their pips removed and then weighed. You then get a ticket with how much olive oil you are due.
Following the olives journey on from there, Renato showed me how it all gets crushed and ground into a paste which then gets twirled around and around until, eventually, the ‘liquid gold’ comes flowing out. It then goes through various other processes to ensure its quality until eventually there’s a sort of petrol tap where, if you choose to bring your own container, you can extract your olive oil.
Thanking him very much for his time, I let him get back to work. As I made my way back to my car, I stopped to chat with a few locals waiting patiently in their pickup trucks for their turn.
I asked a lady if she uses any of her olives to make, well… olives? She told me she certainly does. The key apparently is to put them in water and change it every day for a week and then to put them in salty water. She then told me that most people use ‘Névoa’, a herb that grows wild here, to add flavour.
So, if you’ve ever wondered what to do with all your olives and fancy a bit of work and an adventurous day out, then find out more by visiting their website: www.lagarsantacatarina.pt/