FOR THE LOVE OF THE OLIVE TREE
Recently I was driving with my friend Andreas along a narrow road in Tuscany. Olive trees graced both sides of the road, their silver leaves fluttering in the spring rain. I was in the midst of helping his wife Electra with the olive pruning on their organic farm but due to the damp weather, I had the day off. Andreas took this opportunity to answer some of my questions about the olive trees and their care.
“ The olive tree is not really a tree at all,” he said. “It is a bush that we change into a tree by careful pruning.”
He went on to tell me more.
“The tree and man have a dialogue. First we prune the tree. Then the tree decides how it wants to grow. Later it’s our turn again to impact the tree by pruning. And so we work together over many years.
Electra, Andrea’s wife, is known in the region as a gifted pruner. Her artistry is so apparent to experienced farmers that they can see a tree and know by looking at it, that Electra pruned it.
The springtime pruning is demanding. The branches are heavy and must be turned into mulch, burned, or fed to the goats.
Picking olives during the month of November in the Chianti Hills is a meditative activity combining relaxation and mild exercise. We start our work in the morning, after 9:00 am when the morning moisture has dissipated. First, like fishermen, we cast nets on the ground where the olives will fall. Then we can remove the olives safely from the branches with our hands or we can use a rake like tool that resembles the Afro pick I use to comb my hair.
Later we collect the olives from the nets and store them in plastic crates. When we have collected a number of crates, we take them to the community olive press and watch hungrily as the precious green oil is extracted.
We stop work at midday for a meal of salad greens, cured meat, cheese, bread and wine, and then we work again until dusk.
Sometimes we can hear the trumpets, drums and braying dogs signaling that the men of the village are intent on catching a chingale and are corralling one nearby. We continue to pick our olives but we think about the stews and sausages we will enjoy later in the winter as a result of this hunt.
After the evening meal, we go to bed tired but happy looking forward to the next day’s work. As I undress, olives in shades of green, brown, and black tumble out of my clothing and roll across terracotta tile floor of my bedroom. There is something restful and healing that comes of working outside in the sun and gazing at the green hills. All I need to think about is today and the olives I will harvest- nothing more complicated than that. Everything else can wait until I’m ready. Chances am that some of the things that worried me will be forgotten or solved on their own when I next have the leisure to ponder.
I invite you to spend two weeks with me in Tuscany discovering the story of the olive tree and the relationship between the Italians and this very unique tree.
( Below are a few sample activities –free time and other activities will be arranged)
Welcome Reception: Learn about history of the olive trees and their importance in Italian culture. How do you care for olive trees? What is their lifecycle? How do we influence the tree and how does the tree impact us? Of course there will be oil tastings, an introduction to Tuscan bread and sampling of other Tuscan treats.
Live in an agritourismo: and pick olives on an organic olive oil farm in Chianti. Press the olives into oil at the local Frantoio.
Cooking together: focusing on using the fresh pressed oil followed by a special feast where teachers and students will sit down and eat together. Our antipasto might include: Fettunta (or Bruschetta), Pinzimonio (raw vegetables dipped in olive oil and salt, Fiori fritta- fried zucchini flowers.
Art and the Olive: Discover the olive tree’s influence in art. Walking and gallery tour in Florence, led by a renowned art historian focusing on the olive tree and its importance in local art.
Olive oil beauty and relaxation: Visit to a spa (or spa will come to us!) to enjoy massage and other treatments using natural products made from olive oil. Yoga and Pilates can also be arranged.
Tour and tasting at a local winery/farm. In addition to olive oil, we will sample home made cheese, sausages, honey, and wine.
Hike the trails and explore the local wilderness with an experienced guide
Cultural exchange– this is why we travel, to learn about another culture and to share something of our own. In the end, we return home different people having made new friends in unexpected ways.
Health/relaxation benefits: two weeks in the countryside eating local products and nurturing ourselves will help us regain the equilibrium we so often forget.
New friends: the people we meet, here in Italy and friendships forged along the way, will forever change our lives.
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