The time has come on my Portuguese smallholding for the annual olive harvest. It’s time-consuming work and the weather’s usually rubbish, but there’s something quite sacred about harvesting this ancient fruit. And that’s not so surprising, considering that the olive tree is thought to have been cultivated for more than 7,000 years. This cherished tree features in the Bible and the Qur’an, and olive branches were even found in Tutankhamen’s tomb.
While radiocarbon dating has verified one living olive tree in the southernmost Algarve region of Portugal as over 2,000 year old, mine are not quite such relics! But they must have been planted by a distant relative of one of the local villagers, so as I clamber about plucking the tiny fruits from the branches, I know that I’m continuing a ritual that runs deep through life in Portugal.
During the first season I spent here I watched an elderly woman from the village casually knocking the olives from the tree with a long stick. It looked easy enough so I tried to emulate her technique. What a failure! When families work the same land, as they do here over many generations, they retain knowledge and skills that someone like me who came from the city will take years to master through epic trial and error! This wonder of knowledge is an inheritance that many people living in modern cities never experience, but many of the young people around me know when to prune the grapes or how to harvest the olives because they’ve watched their families do it all their lives, as their parents did and their parents before them.
Still, I try my best and appreciate the history behind the activity as I eye the olives for bug-holes and pluck off any stems that have made their way into the bucket. An amateur’s best method, I deduced, is to spread a big net under the tree and have one person teetering on a ladder and chucking olives down while the other sorts through them. Once all the olives are collected, which is quite some work here as I have 40 trees, I wash them in the bathtub. I plan on making table olives so we have to be thorough. It’s quite a site, a beautiful bathtub full of rich purples and greens!
Next a brine solution must be prepared and the olives must be submerged completely, with the brine changed weekly for two or three months. If you ever happen to be standing by an olive tree and someone urges you to taste one, they’re playing a dirty trick on you – olives start with a bitter taste that will make you wrinkle your nose in disgust and will linger for hours, so don’t do it! The brine curing process gradually removes the bitterness while preserving the olives, so that if stored correctly they can be kept and enjoyed for years. Here’s hoping this years crop come out perfectly!