We had dragged
the tarps from the last tree to this one, studiously laid them out at its base
in a surrounding catch-all pattern that took the slope of that part of the
field into consideration, making sure the edges of the tarps appropriately
rested one upon the other to accommodate the roll of falling olives. With everything in place, Lucinio was up in
the tree, cutting the limbs he selected to be removed and those just to prune. The rest of us pulled down at the branches we
could reach from the ground and stripped them of their olives with a jack-pot
stroke that made the drop of olive clusters sound like a hard rain on the tarps
we stood on, then picking off the lone hold-outs to be sure none were left
behind. This process was repeated with
the branches that Lucinio dropped from above before we threw them on the debris
pile among the other debris piles that would eventually be burned where they
lay. Our routine… arriving at this or
that particular field on the given day, laying out the tarps in a circle under
each, stripping it of its yield, and then moving to the next tree, again, and
again, and again… had been going on all month long. The work continued every morning, unless an
early October’s rain, heralding the season’s transition, put everything on
hold. The next morning dawned with us invariably
arriving again to finish what we started.
September in Portugal is the grape harvest, but the grapes don’t take long to cut and collect, the work less labor-intensive, and after only three or four days, the grapes are all collected and the process of turning them into wine can begin. However, as the fall moves forward after September’s Harvest Moon into the Hunter’s Moon of October, it calls for a different harvest altogether: it is the month for collecting the olives that have ripened and are ready for pressing. It’s the same in Italy, Greece, and Spain as it is here in Portugal. The work goes on for three to four weeks in its season, and people… families, friends, neighbors… can be seen in the countryside doing the work that has been done for centuries. They gather not only olives, but also themselves as they come together to spend the days outside in the company of each other, in conversation, moments of thought or laughter, small talk, the exchange of ideas, and just plain gossip.
While watching and listening to Lucinio instruct Patricia on proper pruning, I felt lucky to have the neighbors I have, and the relationship we have together, the tasks that need to be done with the seasons. Patricia wasn’t hesitant to press Lucinio with questions of what and where with regard to cuts and the right choices for removal of tree branches. Patricia wants to learn this work more closely than she did as a child. I’m sure her mother Elisa, working just a few meters away, wasn’t only proud, but also relieved to have children that have stayed close to home, even though they have their own careers, and are still keen to do the work that maintains a family household. Married with two kids, Patricia herself is a GNR law enforcement officer. Our group on that particular day consisted of Lucinio, myself, Aldina, Patricia’s husband, Franklin; and her mother Elisa, the Matriarch of our little lane where we all live. For the most part, when Elisa says jump, the rest of us just ask how high. On another day, we might have had others, like Elisa’s son, Jaime, or her cousin and his wife. Each day was a little different with different trees in a different field in another part of our little “freguesia”, or parish, one of four tucked in the small municipality of Vila Nova de Poiares; but throughout the month, the routine stayed the same every day from 8:30a.m. to 6:00p.m.: Head off to the day’s given field with all the proper equipment in tow, spread the tarps, collect the olives from the trees, put the olives into tubs, bring them back to Elisa’s house to run them through a “limpador de azeitona e cereais”, a clever little machine that blows away all the little twigs and leaves that still remain from picking, leaving only olives as much as possible, then the yield is bagged into large plastic sacks. Some days, we’d break for a short mid-morning snack of cheese sandwiches made by Elisa, and some beer; then it was back to work until about 1:00PM when Elisa would adorn her kitchen table with everyone gathered around for “almoço” of soup, meats, vegetables, home-made wine, fruit for dessert, and coffee with “aguardente” to finish things off. After all that, a short nap was often in order, but just as often, we got back out into the fields where we had left off.
It didn’t matter to any of us regarding the larger picture of Portugal’s olive industry, that this year’s 2021/22 collective harvest for the country was allegedly on pace to reach a record-high of anywhere from 180,000 to up to 230,000 tons by the time the season ended, or that Portugal’s olive oil production ranking is set to dramatically rise in the next ten years, possibly rising to the third largest in the world. Currently, Portugal trails behind the likes of Spain, Italy, Tunisia, Greece, Turkey, and Morocco in terms of olive oil production. The first olive trees allegedly appeared in the country more than 3,000 years ago, and some of the trees we were harvesting in our little corner of central Portugal have most likely been standing in their fields for a 100 years, but those facts were of no concern to our little neighborhood group. Farther south, the Alentejo region could laud its place as home to the largest number of high-density olive plantations, we had work to do here for ourselves.
After a couple of weeks, I couldn’t figure out whose field we were in, and didn’t ask. As we went from early to late October, I lost track of how many trees we went to and from, and whether the olives belonged to Elisa, or Patricia and Franklin, or Lucinio, or Aldina, or those of cousins and siblings, friends, and other neighbors. I was just happy to get whatever I could from the twenty-two young olive trees in my humble plot of land across from my house. Living in rural Portugal can feel like the subject of a Pieter Bruegel painting at times, if the circumstances lend themselves to such a moment’s thought of classical fine art.
At the end of four weeks of hard work, it was time to take our olives where they needed to go for the payoff we had had in mind the whole month in the fields, but it wasn’t going to be in cash. In the village of Bobadela, just a crow’s glide from the town of Oliveira do Hospital, is the “Museu de Azeite”, Museum of Olive Oil, a beautiful and innovatively designed museum that tastefully provides all the information one could ever want to know about olive oil in general, and of Portugal’s olive oil history in particular, but that wasn’t our destination when Lucinio and Franklin set off with the pick-up at 7:30 in the morning with me following behind in my own vehicle. Our objective was right next door to the museum: the olive press factory. It was important we got there early, as by the time we arrived a short while’s drive later, there was already a queue of other small trucks, vans, and even cars with back hoods open and tied securely to accommodate their cargo of how ever many sacks of olives they could fit in the trunk. Lucinio told me it was going to be a long time here, about five of six hours, and it was; but everyone was in a good mood. People stood about, talked freely with strangers, smoked cigarettes, had a coffee in the factory’s bare-bones room where the expresso machine was, while they patiently waited for their turn to dump their season’s yield of olives into the large grate that was set in the asphalt and where the process of weighing, washing, compartmentalizing, crushing, and extracting the oil began.
I’m not sure of the name, or if it even had a name, but it was a big operation, and it was obvious this factory had been here for quite a long time, apparently operated by the same family for years according to Lucinio. A noisy place, with the sound of motors, wheels, conveyer belts, water, shifting levers, and olives traveling from one juncture to the next in their journey of transformation from a crop to a cooking ingredient, liquid gold, the rich flavor of olive oil. A man checked the weight of the loads on a computerized scale before taking the pencil from behind his ear and jotting the number down in a notebook, then the olives moved through a rinse before being separated into 50-kilo loads at a time by another computer. After that, they moved farther along up to where they headed to the press machines.
Eventually in the day, our turn finally came and we started our own olives on their industrial journey through the process. Lucinio said it would be another hour and a half before our oil was ready for the taking, so we headed to a café in town for some afternoon coffee. When we got back, seeing the oil from our olives being poured into the containers we brought was like being a witness to beautiful magic. Our takes were divided accordingly, and from the roughly 77 kilos of olives from my little trees, I got 10 liters of olive oil. Nothing compared to what the others got, but I couldn’t have been happier.
By the time we got home, Elisa had prepared a feast to celebrate. The olive harvest was finally over, at least for us. The following week, I saw others still at it, and could anticipate the tired, but contented feeling of a day’s work they’d be carrying home with them for the evening. Stocked with the fresh oil of an abundant year’s olive harvest gives rise to thoughts of good meals near a warm fire against the rainy winter months ahead, months during which I could now conveniently omit one item from my grocery list for my trips to the local market.