Olive trees have been cultivated for thousands of years and are even mentioned in the bible and in ancient scriptures. Today, their fruits and oil are consumed all over the world with many reported health benefits both topically and ingested.
Portuguese olive trees have been farmed for many years, dating as far back as the 4th century under the reign of the Visigoths and later by the Arabs. In the Middle Ages, the health benefits and qualities of olive oil was realised and over the years, man has adapted and transformed the trees to try and improve the oil and grow large quantities of fruit in drought conditions.
There are a number of different varieties of olives which produce oils varying in colours, taste and aroma. On our little quinta we have Galegos (the small black, pointed olives) and Cordovils (the larger round olives).
Olives can be picked by hand, or where there are larger olive groves, by using machinery. Most of the old equipment used on our Quinta was included in the sale but as we are new to managing a farm, it was a case of identifying what bits of kit went with what fruit. Mark checked out our collection in the store to see what we had and what condition it was in. We found a large net which had obviously been nibbled by mice, a leaf blower, a couple of small plastic wide toothed rakes and a large sieve. There were also a number of plastic sacks and some fairly large black tubs.
Fortunately, when we’ve moved here from the UK, Mark had acquired half a dozen large stepladders which he brought with us. These were going to prove to be invaluable when doing our picking (thanks James).
The net was for spreading out under the trees so that the olives could be dropped down on to it ready for gathering into the tubs. The plastic rakes could be used to rake the branches encouraging the olives to fall and the sieve and leaf blower formed part of the cleaning process. We figured that we would need more that one net so popped off to Ecocampo and then we were ready to pick.
A couple of weeks earlier we had picked some galegos and cordovils for preserving. I found a small barrel in one of the outbuildings which was perfect for the job. It’s quite a straight forward process where un-blemished olives are covered with a mixture of salt water and then literally just left for a few months to pickle. If you have ever eaten an olive that you have picked straight from the tree you will have noticed that it is extremely bitter and inedible. That is because raw olives are full of oleuropein, a bitter tasting compound which needs to be removed, in our case by salt water, before the fruit becomes edible. Hopefully we will be able to enjoy eating ours in a few months time.
After the bumper olive harvest at Linda and Andy’s in Lourical, we were keen to get on with picking our own olives in the hope that we too would see a high yield of oil for our efforts. The daylight was always going to be a limiting factor, not the physical picking, so after scratching our heads we came up with action plan. Where we live, it is dark until 7am when a glow appears as the sun begins to rise and then all of a sudden, as if someone has switched on daytime we have a glorious bright morning. The November sunshine and long shadows allowed us to work outdoors in just t-shirts until around 5.15pm, when we have the reverse of the morning with lights out at 5.30pm prompt.
With around 96 olive trees and only 10 hours of daylight each day, we knew we had to work quickly. The olives ideally should be taken off to the press within three to four days of picking to avoid any of the fruit from oxidising and becoming mouldy. The maths meant that we would need to pick 24 trees a day or around 2.5 trees per hour. We had averaged around ten a day at the Hipwell’s although there were more people doing the picking, so we were under no illusion that we would not get them all done.
Over the past few weeks I’d made lots of meals that could be easily reheated at the end of a picking day and stashed these away in our little freezer so that as much time as possible could be spent outdoors harvesting. We set the alarm for 6.30am and by 7am we were working on the trees. The days were sunny and warm and it felt so good to be gathering in our first crop. Mark had been given a wi-fi speaker as a present so we were able to sing along to Radio 2 as we picked. We even had a shout out from Steve Wright which was lovely.
When picking olives by hand, there is also a lot of leaves mixed in with the crop and these have to be removed before bagging and taking to the press. To maximise our daylight hours we decided that this was a job that could be done at the end of the day, in the courtyard using a couple of spotlights that we’d brought with us from the UK. This is were the sieve and the leaf blower came into their own. we switched the blower onto suck and the leaves were sucked up and separated from the olives before being jettisoned from the back. Positioning was key as Mark found out on a number of occasions when he strayed into my jet-stream and found himself spitting out olive leaves.
Hand-picking was definitely very time consuming and we were very grateful when Steve and Angela came over to give us a hand for a day. They were professional pickers for a number of years and have certainly not lost any of their skills. It was great to spend time with them laughing and joking and also picking their brains about not only the olives but also the other fruit trees we have on the farm.
Many of the local farmers hand-pick in exactly the same way although we have noticed a few growers using a long handled, vibrating tong to shake the olives from the branches and onto nets spread out under the trees. These seems much less labour intensive and definitely a consideration for next year.
By the end of the fourth day, it was time to pack the truck so that we could have an early start the following day heading off to the olive press. Mark strategically placed our bags and crates on the back of the truck and carefully covered them over with a tarpaulin. Not sure what weight we had loaded, we knew we would have to drive slowly and fastened the tarp down with ropes and ratchets to keep it all secure. In an attempt to avoid the long queue that we’d joined when taking the Hipwell’s olives to press, we decided to set our alarm for 5am.
By 6am we were on our way, figuring that the early bird catches the worm. It was an hours drive to the press which opened at 7am so we thought that if we were one of the first in the line, all being well we should be unloaded and back home by lunch.
At 7am we arrived at the press in Montforte de Beira and couldn’t believe our eyes. There were 28 vehicles all loaded with varying quantities of olives in front of us. Dismayed, we joined the line thankful that we had packed some lunch just in case. Other vehicles seeing the length of the queue slowly drove past us, down the line and then drove off obviously not wanting to wait.
by 11.30am we hadn’t moved! People were walking up and down the road stopping and chatting and some were reading a scribbled note that had been stuck on the van in front of us. Eventually, from time to time we edged slowly forwards inching closer to the prized press. We had brought Wanda with us so I walked her up the country lanes around the villages several times. She also had a packed lunch which she enjoyed as well as sleeping on the back seat in-between her hikes.
By 4pm we were still some way from the entrance to the olive press and there were now half a dozen or so vehicles behind us. Concerned that we would not get in before the press closed at 7pm we went in search of one of the olive press operatives who we knew spoke good English.
He apologised and explained that we would not be getting our olives unloaded that day. He went on to tell us that the handwritten scribbled note on the van in front said that it would be the last vehicle of the day and suggested that we camped out for the night so that we would be first in when they re-opened the following day. Gutted, and feeling very deflated we could do nothing but plead with him to let us in explaining that we had been waiting since 7am and that we had travelled over an hour to get there. We had not read the note and as it was written in Portuguese we would have struggled with our limited knowledge to understand it. We’d noticed some people reading it and had thought that perhaps the vehicle was for sale. How wrong could we be!
The operative and Mark went of to see the foreman who then went off to see the owner who then thankfully agreed that we could be the last vehicle and so we settled ourselves to wait even longer.
The yard in the press smelt lovely, there was a continuous processing of olives going up the conveyor belt into the machinery and the air around smelt earthy, like green freshly cut grass mixed with a nutty aroma. We noticed a group of people gathered at the back of the yard and we were invited over to join them. There was a huge granite open fireplace with large logs spitting and burning and it gave off a lovely warm glow as the night began to close in. We were made to feel welcome and we chatted in a mixture of basic Portuguese and a bit of English. The chatting and laughing went on into the night with beer and wine being shared around. Some people even came just for the social aspect and didn’t actually have any olives of their own. By midnight most of the crowd had dispersed, our truck was in the yard waiting to be unloaded and the gates had been closed behind us.
We waited for our crates and tipped in our fruit. Over to the weighbridge and we were really happy to see that we had picked almost three quarters of a ton. By 1.30 am were were on our way home, somewhat bewildered, extremely tired and so thankful for the kindness of the people in the press. We were told that the operatives would continue working until 3am to clear some off the backlog before grabbing a couple of hours sleep and then back to work at 7am.
Two days later we returned to collect our oil, this time winding our way through the narrow streets to the back of the press. These little streets were definitely not designed for trucks and a couple of times we almost scratched the sides. Arriving at the rear entrance we handed over our ticket and asked how much we needed to pay. We were told 17 Euros which we queried as this seemed unbelievable cheap. The clerk explained how it has been calculated and assured us this was correct so we paid and loaded our containers on to the back of the truck. We had a yield of 115 litres and learned that it had a ph reading of 0.6 which we were told was a very good quality extra virgin olive oil.
With our 23 containers firmly secured we set off back home very pleased with the results of our first harvest.
We had only been driving about 20 minutes when we decided to turn around and go back. There was something not right about the amount we had paid and we couldn’t understand how it could possibly be so little. Re-negotiating the narrow streets once again was not quite as successful and when we finally pulled up outside the back door of the press we had two scratches to the paintwork and a big scuff on the bumper.
Catching the attention of the clerk he hurried over to see us looking extremely relieved. He had thought we had already paid for the pressing and only needed to pay for the containers. As we had left the press so early in the morning we hadn’t written our telephone number on the slip so he had no way of contacting us. We paid the outstanding balance and then keen to sample our oil headed home once again.
Definitely an experience to remember.
3 thoughts on “The early bird ….”
Enjoyable reading Cuz, I learnt something about Olives and found it interesting. happy New Year and stay safe both of you.
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Hi Gill have been following your adventure and am really enjoying it. What a lovely way of life, although I do recognise the hard work too. Our finca in Spain isn’t a permanent home so every time we go there’s a major job. A new wall, a new kitchen, replacing some areas with gravel to cut back on the ‘derelict’ look every time we arrive there etc! We have lemons, oranges, figs, pomegranates, grapes etc and 2 olive trees. Our neighbour collects our olives for us luckily! Keep the posts coming, they’re really enjoyable. I hope you and your family are all well xx
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Hi Gill – thank you for your message and it’s lovely to hear that you have a similar project. It is such a massive difference to life in the UK but a bit of sunshine seems to put a new perspective on everything doesn’t it? Good luck with your renovations xx