A shrill cry is heard from across the steep olive grove: “LOOOADS OF OLIIIIVES!”
Antonio, paraphrasing Harry Enfield’s ‘loadsa money’ sketch, is being drenched in a cascade of olives from the branches above him. It is hard, sometimes painful work, but he and his wife, Suzie, have been producing their extremely pure, high-quality organic olive oil for four years, and they are clearly passionate about their product at their farm, Suzie’s Yard.
Later, at the house, the first pressing of this year’s oil is sampled. Its cloudy green appearance and zesty, powerful taste is met with surprise from those of us used to a clear yellow liquid that tastes of nearly nothing.
“Good oil is hard to find,” Antonio elaborates. He bluntly adds: “Most of the stuff out there is no good. Total rubbish.” Picking early for the young, green olives gives a lower yield but a stronger, higher quality oil compared to the riper and fatter olives used in most mass-produced oil.
Suzie and Antonio were both very successful in previous jobs – Suzie in sales and marketing; Antonio in environmental consultancy. Originally planning to use their current house just outside the picturesque Tuscan hill town of Cetona as a holiday home, they realised how much of their work could be done at a distance from their current base in London. The growth of the internet as a medium for communication in the 1990s sealed their fate and led them here permanently. This move led them further towards farming, originally with a small olive grove for personal use, and away from their previous jobs. Their transition to organic farmers – including vegetable boxes as well as olive oil production – took place via a gradual politicisation through growing experience, rather than a pre-existing commitment to small-scale organic food production as a principle.
The picking process is physically demanding, but relatively slow and methodical; such that you only realise you’re completely exhausted once you stop. Large nets are carefully laid out on the ground, before the ‘clappers’ begin their work. The clappers are every seven year-old boy’s dream – long poles with huge, yellow combs of teeth that sound like machine guns. They effectively slap the olives from the branches extremely quickly but causing minimal damage to the tree.
Inevitably, twigs and leaves fall with the olives and, although the press has a system to separate leaves from the olives, larger twigs must be sorted by hand before pressing. Without this pre-sorting, the oil would be bitter, and allowing some leaves into the press is one way in which poor quality oil is made to taste stronger. The purity of the oil is especially important to Antonio, which, combined with rather over-zealous sorting by his WWOOFers, led to the mill owners teasing him for having the cleanest olives in the area.
As each net is moved from one tree to the next, it can become entangled with the twigs strewn by the clappers and the briars that grow across the groves. The nets regularly need mending, spilling handfuls of olives through holes ripped by pesky twigs and thorns. This task fell to Helen, who spent much of her time with needle and thread at the ready, braving the torrents of olives that flew from the trees at alarming speed. The falling olives, leaves and twigs were in fact a serious danger and, in previous years, Antonio had gone to hospital several times due to debris and cuts in his eyes.
At the end of the day, crates are counted and loaded into the van. The record for the largest number filled in one day was 23 – a record we missed by one and a half crates. Irrespective of how many crates are filled, a magic question is always on the tip of our tongues:
“ACLI?” Antonio asks, one eyebrow raised, knowing the answer that would follow. The ACLI bar is the bar in Cetona owned and run by the Associazioni Cristiane Lavatori Italiani,the Italian Christian Workers’ Association, a Catholic organisation promoting progressive social action, workers’ rights – and, it seems, very cheap alcohol. For 50 cents, we are presented with a near-overflowing glass of very drinkable red wine, accompanied by generous helpings of bar snacks. The bar had been ‘discovered’ a month or two earlier by two WWOOFers: Steven, a former London cycle courier and photographer, and Max, a Scottish WWOOFer who had since left but who had become infatuated by the burly ACLI barmaid.
We sit at what has become our usual table at the bar and survey our surroundings. The peach-coloured walls are adorned with A4 photocopied posters of local events, most long gone. In a large glass cabinet with a smudgy mirrored back are dusty boxes of chocolates and bottles of wine on display, and across the room from the cabinet is a framed jigsaw puzzle of the Sydney Opera House. Elderly men prop up the bar, as if they have not left that position in thirty years. This peculiar but cosy place became our second home for two weeks.
At the family house, the youngest child is causing havoc. Although only four years old, she is incredibly intelligent and, along with a certain irresistible charm, she has also developed something of a diva personality. She swans into the kitchen and flamboyantly gasps “for goodness sake!” with hands on hips and a sigh before correcting Michelle, a Canadian WWOOFer, on her drawing of a house. She gestures to a plate of food being eaten by Michelle and rhetorically asks “what’s that food? Stupid food?” She is a whirlwind of energy and sometimes destruction, but with a wit and presence that is incessantly endearing.
Her elder brother, however, is less animated and retains an air of mature level-headedness throughout. A committed swimmer, at the age of 12 he trains five times a week, and his physical tiredness often leads to long bouts playing shoot-em-up games on the computer. I challenge him to a one-on-one game, but this chiefly involves running around in circles, indiscriminately firing into space and being expertly picked off within a matter of seconds. I console myself that he probably has too much spare time on his hands and that failure in a match with him is more about his expertise than one’s own shortcomings. Likewise, over the course of three particularly intense bouts of Monopoly, in which all WWOOFers were soundly beaten by a 12 year-old, it is hard to find a reasonable explanation beyond the expert strategy developed by our formidable opponent.
Another formidable opponent during the olive harvest is the weather. Any rain or dampness in the air increases the water content of the oil and affects its quality. For a full day the drizzle spat from the air, and for much of a second day thick fog held its moisture close to the trees. Between sessions of cooking, harvesting crocus flowers for saffron and thumb-twiddling, last year’s oil resurfaced. Soap-making was the order of the day. At the correct mix with caustic soda, olive oil loses its distinctive oily consistency and hardens to an excellent soap. In its liquid form, however, this mixture is less than appealing. Opinions varied from pea soup, to vomit, to chip-shop curry sauce, but whatever the correct description, the consistency and colour was a far cry from the delicate yellow-green of the hardened product that emerged a few days later, variously infused with rose water, orange and lavender oil.
The rain held off long enough for the anglophones to lobby successfully for an outdoors party. Firing up the wood-fired pizza oven for a huge feast of home-made pizzas that would eventually defeat our meagre bellies, it was hard not to look back on the long road through Italy. After arriving in what appeared to be a rude, noisy Italy and longing to return to the incredible French hospitality (and patisseries), it is now hard to leave what is in fact – under its stand-offish surface and despite deep-set corruption among the elites – a warm and welcoming culture based on close ties to place and strong practices of local solidarity.
Leaving Cetona to embark on a nine-hour coach journey to Ljubljana and the beginning of the Balkan leg of our trip, we are both clearly nervous. After six weeks in one country, one month of solid traveling through no less than five countries – each with their own many cultures, dialects and (often troubled) histories – is a worrying prospect. It is hard to shift into this new consciousness, where you learn a few key phrases in a language and spend your time in youth hostels or tourist honey-traps. Nevertheless, into a bitterly cold Slovenian night we step and, like Orpheus, try our best not to look back.