Sacred Olives

You don't buy an olive grove. You serve it. Olives are at the core of Mediterranean history by

First published in
The Briansground Press, Brian’s Ground, Stapleton, Herfordshire, England. May 2008

“Olive trees?” the man sounds shocked “You mean to say those are all olive trees? Hell, what a mess.”

Having lead countless tourists and students around Tuscan gardens, I have learned to rephrase some of their strangest statements into something appraching logic, but in this case I’m stumped. I have no idea what the man means. We are on the terrace of Villa Gamberaia in Settignano, the sun has come out of the clouds and is shining over the view of the Arno Valley. In the distance lie the red roofs of Florence, peppered with the obligatory towers and domes. Olive trees shimmer all around us. Idyllic, even postcard-perfect, it would seem, especially in September, when the trees are laden with green fruit, still hard to distinguish from the foliage.

gamberaia olives Villa Gamberaia surrounded by its olive groves
  “What do the locals do about it?” the man continues  “I mean, olives make so much dirt on the ground. What do they do here about the mess?”

I had to think hard: “Well, sir, olives are a crop, they are grown because of the fruit, not just because they’re pretty. We call them the Green Gold. They are one of the biggest products of this region, this whole Villa and gardens still partly depend on the money generated by olives. And people pick them, so I can’t say I’ve ever seen them on the ground.”

“But how do you stop them producing?”

I can only hazard a guess:

“You’d have to keep the flowers from being fertilized. Short of netting the trees in spring and keeping them from being pollinated, or pruning them drastically every year after flowering, I don’t know how you’d do it. Or why. Here in Italy, they are a precious fruitful tree.”

“I know, I know – he bats this argument off impatiently – but what if you have all these olives on the ground, I mean isn’t it a problem?”

I smile and give up on understanding: “Well, I think it wouldn’t be called a problem here, it would be called a waste. A sin.”

Come November, and in Tuscany the trees are covered with olives, splitting open under the weight of black and green fruits, so many that they form a regular dot pattern across the silver mass of the tree. The olive harvest has started. In the country the traffic is slow: all the roadside edges have groups of pickers spreading mats on the ground, hemming country lanes with canvas, and carefully picking each tree branch clean of olives. On the trees, men and women with large pronged combs are literally combing the long silver tresses of the branches, while children and old people on the ground sweep up the fruit, putting it into containers. This past weekend, the unusually warm days were alive with the sounds of all the families and friends in the olive groves, and lively colours flashed by of children’s clothes. Immediately on monday the fields went quiet again, as the weekenders left and in the suddenly sharp air it was only the old people at work in the fields. Wizened old men, wearing their workmen’s blue trousers, blend into the trees they are silently grooming, their bodies knotted and twisted by labour into a compact frame, strangely like an olive tree. The wind is biting.

Tractors trundle by, swaying carefully round the bends with massed bags of blue-black olives behind them, but many of the olives are packed into small crates and decanted into the back of cars. Old Fiat Pandas with toy-size trailers attached follow even more ancient Ape-cars, the three-wheeled mini trucks that splutter tenaciously up dirt tracks. The small-holders pack their mechanical mules to breaking point with olives, and then go, in a queue of felt-hatted grizzled drivers, to the “Frantoio comunale”. All over the Chianti there are communal ‘frantoi’ (oil presses), and that is where the slow weekend traffic is directed these days. 

olive landscape Olive trees in Puglia can be centuries old

Each region of the Mediterranean has its own varieties of olive trees, chosen for flavour and hardiness, and pruned to the shape which suits the local tradion. Olives are hard to date because the tree can continue growing outwards from a dead core, eventually forming a ring of younger trees – core samples show that individual trees are centuries old, but their roots may well be boring into millennia of history. In Southern Italy, in Puglia, the trees descend from those planted by Greek colonists, over two thousand years ago. They are so tall now that some branches are supported by columns of tufa, so that the olive groves resemble the mightiest cathedral. They stand in fields which are swept clean before the fruit are ripe, and year after year drop their crop on mats, for their human attendants. They’ve seen it all: the rise and fall of Rome, the waves of Christians and Muslims moving through the countryside, then the return of Christians. The tools have changed, as brooms replaced bare hands to clean the ground, and now a vacuum cleaner does a faster job, but the olive still fruits the same way, over centuries. 

How not to be in awe of such a tree, the very symbol of the Mediterranean?

In Greek mythology it was created by Athena, who won a competition among gods for having created the most useful plant: it provides rich food which can store for long, has fed the lamps to carry us through the night, and to light our devotions to our saints, idols and icons. As a symbol of peace it was given as a wreath at the Olympic games, which traditionally introduced a suspension of warfare. It was an olive branch that was brought back to the ark by the Dove after the Flood, as a token of peace, and for that reason still appears on the United Nations flag. Olive oil burned in ancient Menorahs, and olive trees still shelter the sleep of the most virtuous Jews buried on the Mount of Olives. Olive oil marks the entrance and exit of life for a Christian: Baptism and Last Rites. When even the apostles had fallen asleep, on Christ’s last night on earth, it was olive trees who listened to His pain. They are earlier than any religion and embrace all beliefs - their only threat is the wave of cement, the bulldozer that could uproot them if greed becomes the only religion.

The olive grove adopts you, it gives you passage into a local way of life, it lets you participate in ancient rituals and symbols

You don’t buy an olive grove, you serve it. The olive grove adopts you, it gives you passage into a local way of life, it lefts you participate in ancient rituals and symbols. As the trees are adapted to the specific localities, so their human attendants, whatever their origins, get rooted into local traditions. Tuscan olive oil must be green, thick, peppery and strongly tasting of olives – the others are insipid by comparison. The key to this taste is freshness: the olives are picked off the trees, not let to fall on the ground, and they must be processed as soon as possible. Ideally one should bring the produce to the Frantoio by the end of the day, but for a small farm with few people that may be impossible, so the olives are kept in perforated baskets, carefully stacked to let air through, until there’s enough to warrant the journey. A trained palate will be able to tell from a hint of acidity if that extra day has passed, and if the olives have piled up carelessly they may go slightly rancid, since they are still fresh and partly green. Thus at the end of the day in November and early December the biggest activity is outside the local frantoio, where people bring their precious cargo at sundown. Regular dinner time will be suspended until the harvest is over, but until then the mills will be crowded through half the night. Cheeks red from the wind, hands black from combing through fronds, you walk into an atmosphere so laden with smell that your eyes water. It’s like stepping into a vat of freshly squeezed olives – a pungent, earthy smell – oily of course, but not greasy. Your hair and everything you wear becomes saturated by the minute particles of oil that are suspended in the air, and as the olives are poured down the chute into the grinder, their misted essence blesses you. 

It’s with mystical reverence, while the granite wheels and centrifugal spinners do their own version of a Mass, that you wait for the first stream of oil to come trickling from a spout, holding a plate with a slice of bread and a pinch of salt. You can taste the oil straight, by the spoonful, or on bread, but it will be with eyes closed, to better savour the taste. The summer’s drought or rain, the success of last year’s pruning, the speed of the pickers and the race to the Frantoio – all will be in that first taste, the Green Gold which tickles the back of your throat. Even if well stored, it will lose that pungent freshness day by day over the next few months: it is a pleasure of the season and moment alone. 

When all has been gathered and pressed there is the final dinner for all the people involved. La Cena dell’Olio Novo, the New Oil dinner, celebrates its main ingredient by keeping all else simple. Bread is grilled to make bruschetta, and there are vegetable soup, beans and black cabbage, maybe some grilled meat – all this is liberally doused with a new oil so strong that no pepper or other spices are needed. In the growing cold of winter it’s the last harvest celebration, it smells of frost and wood fires.

Even the city is affected – there’s a hum about, a growing craving for the Olio Novo, and sudden disappearances for working weekends. No crop is too little to be left unharvested, and nobody  is too young, old, or urban to be called up to help – Florentine students will dole out throughout winter the minimum pay received: a bottle of oil for each working day. On lean years, when the olives are few and parched by dry summers, even that pay will have been un-economical for most small producers. Foreigners who believe they have made a great deal by buying a house in Tuscany, complete with olive grove and vineyard, are soon shaken out of their dream of self-suffiency: if they don’t have a large family to provide free labour, they better start hatching, or make lots of friends. 

Olive trees in Tuscany are pruned to stay short, in a typical three-pronged shape that keeps them productive and, presumably, easy to climb; the groves also require basic maintenance, as the soil is turned over to keep brambles and other infestants from taking hold, and they may require spraying if infested by parasites. A Scottish friend calculated that, factoring in the annual maintenance of the olive grove, paying for pickers and then for the pressing, her oil was nearly twice as expensive as what she could buy from a good producer. Small-scale olive oil production is not economical, it’s a luxury. It had cost her more than money: she’s even broken a vertebra falling off an olive tree! So why do it? Because of the Cena dell’Olio Novo which brings everyone together. Because there is nothing that will taste quite as good as the produce that you’ve grown. Because she felt it a duty towards the land that was her home, to fit into the traditions that had shaped the landscape. 

I’d been very disturbed by the Californian tourist who’d asked me what we did with all the “dirt” produced by olive trees, so I asked an American friend who is more familiar with the lifestyle of the rich and famous – why am I being asked for olive contraceptives? It appears it’s a common question. Many people on the American West Coast buy estates with olive groves, which they don’t use, so they are bothered by all the fruit falling and rotting on the ground. The correct answer would have been: there is a spray! The flowering trees are sprayed in spring, to make them drop the flower unfertilized, and render them cleanly sterile. I’d forgotten the power of the chemical industry – the power it has to detach humans from their symbiosis with the natural world, and to make anything natural seem all the more remote by being decorative and useless.

olive landscape 2 The trees grow outward from a central core, making them hard to date exactly

The thought of a sterilizing spray makes me sad. That a plant which is at the very core of Mediterranean culture, and of all religions born in the region, should be cultivated in such an anti-cultural, anti-historical manner, is blasphemy. I thought of the people who had planted and tended those olive trees in California, trees which take twenty years or more to become really productive, and how their heritage, probably Spanish or Mexican, could be wiped out, sprayed out so easily. Maybe these early settlers had their own oil press, maybe they carried their crop to a communal oil press, but certainly they had, at the end of the harvest, their own dinner of the New Oil, with wine and dances in the firelight, to celebrate the bounty of their home in the New World. When circumstances – sudden wealth or sudden poverty – forced them to abandon the olive groves, surely someone else would have used at least part of the produce. As we do here, where an abandoned olive grove gradually gets picked by the neighbours who, not having enough to make oil, experiment different ways of preserving the olives: toasted, preserved in brine, cured in salt – somehow used.

An olive is not just a plant, it's a totem


An olive tree is a domesticated cultivar of the wild species – it’s about as wild as a Golden retriever or a Thoroughbread horse. It has grown alongside human settlements and nourished them, it has been passed on to us by previous inhabitants. An olive is not just a plant, it’s a totem: to remove its fruit is to deprive it of meaning. Buying an olive grove without wanting its fruit, is the equivalent of buying a dog and never walking or feeding it, never caring for it – you’d be neglecting the very symbol of fidelity. There are animals and plants so charged with symbolism that breaking our relationship with them is akin to sacrilege. Gardens should keep their symbolic value – they cannot be appearance alone. If you don’t want the produce and hassle of a symbolical plant, don’t plant one, but it would be a nice party game among gardeners to find, among our more useful plants, one that has no symbolical connotations. There are few, they inspire yawns, and they do have some associations: carpet bedding, hanging baskets, hybrid pelargoniums – love them or loathe them, they all have associations we studiously exploit or avoid, they are never meaningless objects to manipulate.

olive braced Large limbs are supported by blocks of tuff

Plants teach us humility. They place our limited lifespan, our petty concerns with convenience and appearance, within the deeper stream of the generations of symbiosis between humans and Nature. As we become human agents within their symbolical world, we also aquire dignity – we have a role. An olive tree should induce us to reflect on our true position in a garden. Isn’t it disrespectful, after generations of our ancestors have venerated and bred this plant to ensure productivity, to tell it to stop producing? From the minuscule height of a human lifespan, to stomp our foot on the ground and shriek at a centenary olive tree: “I don’t want you to have a function, a history, a symbolism! Even the weight of your fruit on the ground bothers me! I want you reduced to appearance only, convenience only, to degree Zero of meaning.”

Olive litter is an issue, and not just in America. An Italian garden designer recently confessed to me that was having a problem with olives in gardens. Having studied Garden Design in the Uk, he followed the trend of planting olive trees in London gardens, where they rarely fruited. Now back in Italy, he wasn’t sure about using them as often: these fashionable trees fruit prolifically here, producing inconvenient litter in small urban gardens. He also wanted a solution. I suggested alternative small trees or silver-leaved shrubs. I told him that a wire broom or even a vacuum cleaner will do a fine job in a small garden. Sweeping up and throwing away a few fallen olives, is it a big enough war to call for chemical weaponry?  I even gave him my neighbours’ recipies for preserving olives. I didn’t tell him about the spray.

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