Every fall for the past nine years my plans have been set in stone. I know that sometime between October 15 and November 1 I will find my way back to the farm in Tuscany my family has owned for 40 years to help harvest the olives from our 150 trees and take them to the mill to be pressed into extra-virgin olive oil.
My mother, who divides her time between the Tuscan farm and her hometown of Camden, Maine, will have arrived in September, when the heat of the summer has passed and she can assess the olives’ ripening. Once I hear whether it will be an early or late harvest, I start seriously trying to talk people into coming over and joining us.
When I stress the joy of eating delicious food and drinking fine Tuscan wine in the beautiful countryside, it’s very convincing. I sort of gloss over the fact that in order to be a part of it you are going to be cooped up on the farm with 12 other people for breakfast, lunch and dinner while we pick olives—weather permitting—day in and day out, from sunup to sundown, for about a week.
I definitely don’t mention that we sometimes have scorpions and there’s an occasional viper out in the fields until you’ve purchased a nonrefundable round-trip ticket. Around the time you start to pack, I’ll casually mention we don’t actually have any central heating and you’ll probably need a flannel nightgown and thermal underwear.
My father was a foreign correspondent, and when I was a child we lived all over the Mediterranean as he moved from post to post, chasing stories. It was a bit of a gypsy lifestyle and there wasn’t a lot of stability. My parents dreamt of having a place of their own, a place to call home permanently and to put down roots—perhaps, if the world went to hell in a handbasket, a place they could grow their own food and live off the land.
In 1971, when I was five and we were living in just-about-to-be-war-torn Beirut, my parents went to visit a writer friend who had bought an old stone farmhouse in a tiny “depressed” hamlet in rural Tuscany on the border with Umbria in the hills behind the ancient Etruscan citadel of Cortona. They returned to Beirut after three weeks having bought their own tumbledown, 200-year-old stone farmhouse with 30 acres of land that we would spend the next 30 years restoring, sometimes from very far away (when we moved to Hong Kong) and sometimes from very close by (when we lived in Rome).
The area was in those days intensely rural and primitive. Electricity had only been installed a few years earlier, and indoor plumbing wouldn’t arrive in most people’s homes for another 15 years. The farmers of the village practiced a type of self-sufficient farming called promiscuous agriculture, otherwise known as integrative or mixed. In Tuscany this meant terraces of wheat with grapevines growing along the edge of the field and olive trees planted spaciously down the middle.
The farmer who worked or owned the land raised wheat for his bread, and grapes for the wine that nourished them throughout the year and gathered enough olives to press into oil for the year’s supply. It was a centuries-old way of living that was about to completely change and join a rapidly modernizing world.
From the age of eight my summers were spent there, running wild in the fields and the forest exploring the land and the people. Our neighbors, the Antolinis, who when I first met them lived as their forbears had for centuries, embraced us and absorbed my family. They were as curious about our way of living as we were about theirs. I spent hours as a child following Mita the matriarch about as she grazed the pigs, fed the chickens, weeded and watered the garden and attended to the myriad of chores involved in keeping their farm running and the family fed.
Over the years our family has spent countless meals as honored guests at their dinner table, lapping up the delicious food prepared from the animals they raised, the produce they grew and the wild foods they foraged. Panzanella, a bread salad with fresh tomatoes from their garden in the summer; meaty chunks of wild porcini mushrooms foraged in late September, deep-fried in olive oil; hot chestnuts cooked over a brisk fire then peeled and dropped in homemade, highly acidic wine on a cold winter’s night gathered around the fire.
My parents always saw the farm as a return to a more agrarian life, but, other than the large garden my mother carefully tended throughout the summers we spent there when we lived in Rome, the agricultural productivity of the place declined. The pristine terraces that ran down to the river slowly got eaten up by chestnut saplings, broom and blackberry bushes running wild. The neighbors exhausted the soil in some of our larger fields planting tobacco over 10 years as they shifted from a self-sustaining agrarian system to cash crops that could pay for modern luxuries like electricity and a tractor instead of the old mule they had when we first arrived.
When they gave up growing tobacco in the ’90s and the forest threatened to eat up the last fields and maybe even the house itself, my mother had had enough. We didn’t spend enough time there anymore to have a garden and there weren’t enough farmers in the village left who were interested in planting traditional crops on anyone’s land.
We had adapted to the Mediterranean way with olive oil, cooking exclusively with it, devouring it over salads and vegetables, pouring it over a freshly grilled fish or steak, seasoned with nothing more than salt and pepper and the flavor of really good fresh oil. Over the years my mother, Nancy Harmon Jenkins, became an expert on the Mediterranean diet and wrote multiple cookbooks extolling the virtues of the olive-oil-rich cuisine.
With the knowledge that the village and the area had once produced enough olive oil for the inhabitants to live on, my mother decided that planting olive trees on four remaining terraces was the easiest way to keep the forest from overtaking the house. Once established, the trees would be reasonably easy to maintain. A spring pruning, a couple of summer mowings to keep the grass down and we’d pick and press enough olives to keep our family well stocked with the fine Tuscan olive oil to which we’d become accustomed.
With the help of Maurizio Castelli, an enologist and agronomist highly regarded in nearby Chianti for his expertise with both grapes and olives, she selected four varieties of olives to plant: Moraiolo predominantly for their resistance to the cold winters we suffered at 600 meters elevation. Pendolino and Frantoio for their help in pollination. And finally, some traditional Correggiola for good measure in the classic Tuscan way where the blend for wine and oil was created in the field and not in the wine cellar or olive mill.
One hot summer, fresh from a winter cooking in the Caribbean and a dazzling trip through barely safe Cambodia, I arrived to fields filled with tiny olive saplings, my only responsibility for the summer to water them each day it did not rain. In Tuscany they say to plant olive trees for your children, as they take close to a decade to become productive. Slowly the trees grew, while I spent the next four years working in Italy, first for a winery’s gastronomic education program and then in a trattoria in Florence. I spent as much time as I could at the house, relishing arriving after a long hot day in the Valdichiana or a six-day work week in Florence to the clean air and the silence and hopefully some of my neighbors’ pastured eggs to scramble in olive oil or make the greatest pasta carbonara ever.
Eventually I felt the siren call for something bigger and decamped here to New York City to cook. My first years, I flew back to Italy for August summers, checking in on the trees as they grew, marveling with my mother that the neighbors were finally cutting the grass on a regular basis, delighted when my brother took it upon himself to study the art of potattura, or pruning, and come over in the very cold springs and work his way through the now-150 trees on four different fields and terraces—trimming and pruning and holding our breath for when the trees would bear fruit.
Finally in 2007, 10 years after the trees were planted, they began to produce enough for us to have a real harvest. That first year that we picked I came with my nine-month-old son, rushing to have him meet Mita and Bruno, my “adopted” grandparents grown old and well into their dotage, eager to have him taste extra-virgin olive oil for the first time straight out of the press—an Italian gastronomic baptism.
That first year I spent more time inside, cleaning and cooking, than out in the fields, watching my child in fear he would get bitten by a scorpion or fall and crack his skull on the sharp tile steps or shock himself with the 220-volt current Italy runs on. I deposited him in a playpen and set to cooking the pickers a feast for lunch, then another for dinner.
When I came there as a kid, there were always big family feasts around the table with friends and neighbors for holidays or just Sunday-night suppers, but in recent years as my family had dispersed, chasing careers and grown-up lives, it was more often just one or two people at the house.
Cooking for a crowd of hungry harvesters gave me an opportunity to pull out the stops and cook more elaborately than when it was just me and my mother flitting about the house. I scoured the market for porcini mushrooms and gratefully accepted fresh-laid eggs from my neighbor. And I made frito misto, batter-fried vegetables cooked in last year’s extra-virgin olive oil.
For some reason Americans have been told you can’t cook with extra-virgin olive oil, but 3,000 years of gastronomic history in the Mediterranean belies this. When you produce your own olive oil and it is more or less the only fat you have, of course you cook with it. Traditionally in Tuscany the newest olive oil, spicy and peppery and complex in flavor, is used raw in salads or on bruschetta or drizzled over just-cooked vegetables so that the heat warms the oil and opens up its perfume and flavor. Over the year between harvests, as the polyphenols mellow, the flavor softens and the spiciness fades, leaving a milder, more neutral oil. When the new oil comes in, that’s the flavor you want and so the previous year’s gets used for cooking.
I fired up the massive stone fireplace and cooked a whole pork roast on the clockwork spit as we always had. As fast as lunch was eaten and our pickers (mostly family and local friends that first year) went back out into the fields I set to washing the plates and sweeping the floor and planning the next meal. At the end of four days picking and a trip to the mill, we had as our prized possession 50 liters of liquid gold: bright-green, grassy and spicy extra-virgin olive from our own trees, picked with our own hands.
In the years since, the trees have matured and now the harvest is bigger, requiring more people and greater effort. Each September when my mother arrives, we start to get the updates on the state of the olives. In recent years Italy has been so hot and dry that olive production has suffered terribly. Some years the olives have been slightly wizened from the heat and are so black by the time we pick that we get a less-than-perfect oil. Riper olives have fewer polyphenols and so produce a softer, more subtle oil whose flavor dissipates faster.
Tuscans always picked their olives as early as they could because of the cold winters and because pressing greener fruit creates such a distinctive spicy flavor. In other parts of the Mediterranean where the winters are more benign, people traditionally harvested later, picking a riper fruit in the mistaken assumption that they got more oil that way.
We worry in the early summer about hail damaging the early fruit or knocking it off the trees prematurely. We worry at the end of the summer about the heat and whether it will ever cool down enough for the olive juice to convert to oil, and we worry about who we will persuade to come and brave the scorpions and the cold and the isolation in November when it’s dark at 4 p.m.
Now that my child can simply run around in the trees, sometimes picking an olive or two but mostly playing ninja with my brother’s old Japanese bamboo training swords, I spend as much time out in the fields as possible. It takes about four days of steady picking with 10 guests of various commitment levels to pick all the olives. The days begin early when the sun starts to peek up over the hill. Stumbling out of a warm bed in the cold house, one hopes to be the second or third person downstairs with the wood stove already lit, with coffee made already. If you miscalculate and get downstairs first there is raking the ashes and laying the fire in the stove before coffee can be had. Breakfast is simple, if olive oil centric: We usually have a classic Tuscan olive oil cake around, and my mother and I like to grill bread and pour somebody else’s fresh green new olive oil over the bread. A rub of raw garlic and a sprinkle of salt and we are ready to spend the day out in the fields trudging from tree to tree hand picking each and every olive.
In Southern Italy, people beat the large, old trees with sticks and shake the ripe olives off the branches onto nets laid out below, but in Tuscany, where fear of rain and frost has always encouraged picking the olives early and the trees are generally smaller, we pick each olive by hand, trying to be as gentle as we can. Bruising the fruit begins the process of fermentation and can lead to a defective oil with a “fusty” flavor.
Each olive goes into little traditional baskets handmade by a spry old man at the weekly market. We buy new ones every year because we worry one year he’ll be gone and then there won’t be any more or they will make them out of plastic in China. The baskets get tied around your waist and as they fill up the contents get dumped into larger baskets that can be stacked without crushing the contents. The sun can be warm during the day, and it’s wonderful to be out in the trees rhythmically picking, trying not to pick too many leaves, boots crushing the wild herbs underfoot and perfuming the air with mint and lemon balm.
From the moment we start picking it is a race against time as the longer the olives sit the more the fruit deteriorates, and we want to get the olives to the mill in as undamaged a state as possible and as quickly as possible. So we pick away, each of us choosing a tree, chatting and getting to know one another, as we often have people of all ages from all of my family’s different lives we have lured over to help get the job done. If one tires of the conversation, it’s easy in the beginning to find an unoccupied field, silent but for the birds and the occasional snuffling of a wild boar in the forest. Ensnared in the center of the tree picking tiny black Moraiolo olive after tiny olive, it is possible to completely drift into a dreamworld of imagination and fantasy. Eventually lured back to the group, one can spend the day moving between monastic and Zen focus and silence to a raucous crew of gossiping, chattering, laughing people from at least two and sometimes three different continents.
My neighbor Arnaldo may show up for a few hours picking. He whirls through the trees much faster than us, leaving broken branches behind and dropping entirely too many leaves with the olives for my mother’s or brother’s satisfaction. Our friend Salvatore Dennaro, a Sicilian chef who works in nearby Umbria, will come as likely to pick for a few hours as whip up a luncheon feast with vegetables brought from his garden. At 4:00, when it’s dark and beginning to get cold again, we clean ourselves off and retreat to our rooms or into the shower, but soon enough everyone is gathered back in the kitchen around the table with the massive wood stove pumping out the only heat in the living areas.
People cook randomly, pulling out cheeses and salami to snack on, one person making a salad with spicy arugula from a local farm, slivered red onions softened in salt and red wine vinegar, crumbles of pungent aged sheep’s-milk cheese and of course lots of olive oil; another making a pasta often using the region’s true, properly cured pancetta or guanciale, a flavor from my childhood that is hard to find in the U.S.; and yet another simmers a chopped-up rabbit and some Arborio rice into an approximation of paella, cooked in the pan my mother brought back from Valencia, the wood stove’s concentric cast-iron rings opened up for maximum cooking heat.
One night, cooking for such a large group offers an opportunity to make a couple of three-inch-thick, dry-aged porterhouse steaks from the prized Chianina, the magnificent white cow, the workhorse of Tuscan history going back to the Etruscans, still raised down the hill in the valley and carefully butchered and aged by the owner of the shop. At that time of year there are usually incredible artichokes and sometimes, if the weather has been right, a delicious parasol-type wild mushroom that we never saw before we started regularly gathering to pick the olives.
At the end of three or four days, the reason I’ve asked everyone to rent their own vehicle becomes abundantly clear as we struggle to load the crates of olives into our small Italian cars for the ride down to the mill along the curvy 20 kilometers of two-lane mountain road that is still little wider than the donkey track it once was. Every year we have more olives and it’s more of a problem; soon we will have to get my neighbor to haul the olives to the mill with his tractor, but the tractor moves very slowly, at about 10 kilometers an hour, taking twice the time to get to the mill as with the cars.
When we arrive at the mill it’s a bustle, with people from all over bringing in their olives, unloading and standing around and jostling into place to have them weighed and be assigned a pressing time. Every time the miller tries to put us off for a few days and every time we push and push to have it pressed earlier because the faster it’s pressed, the better the oil. Inevitably after having the olives weighed, we have time to kill before the pressing, an afternoon at least or more. It’s Tuscan ritual to be there when the olives are pressed, once upon a time to make sure the oil you got came from the olives you brought.
After four or five days stuck up in the mountains eating three meals a day in the kitchen, we usually go up the hill to the town of Cortona and feast at my favorite ancient hole in the wall, Slacomi. The food is not great but it’s decent and unpretentious, and for the first time we don’t have to clean up after ourselves. The choices are basic: tagliatelle with classic tomato sauce or tagliatelle with a porky beefy ragu. Entrées are pretty much a choice of grilled steaks or my personal favorite fegatelli—seasoned pork liver cooked wrapped in lacy caul fat.
The wine is so mediocre I cut it with bubbly water. But it’s warm in the tiny dining room, and the family that owns it has been here since we first came to the valley. They remember us and joke with my kid the same way they joked with my brother when he was small. The restaurant decor hasn’t changed since they first opened in the late ’60s, and the vinyl paneling on the walls shows its age, but they still grill steaks on a wood fire in the kitchen.
After lunch it’s a hike around town to show off the sights, the Luca Signorelli deposition of Christ or the 3,500-year-old Etruscan stone oil lamp turned over in a field a century ago. Everyone is eager to be a real tourist finally, buying pottery and postcards. Eventually we get a call from the mill telling us we are next and we race back down to watch the long slow process of cold pressing.
We choose to use a modern pressing technique called a continuous cycle instead of the old-fashioned grinding stones and matts, which is ever so much more picturesque but leaves the olive paste exposed to air and oxidization. In the modern method, the olives are gently cut with blades in a tubular chamber that keeps the mash from exposure to air, leaving it greener and brighter. The paste is massaged by the knives, beginning the process of separation of the oil molecules from the fruit.
In the continuous cycle the olives are not exposed to air at all until the transformation from fruit to oil when the oil begins to flow out the spout at the end of the cycle into a tub and is then individually crated up into 50-liter stainless-steel tanks. The tanks are weighed, and we compare the weight of the oil to the weight of the olives to get our resa or yield. A high resa is not necessarily the sign of a superior oil, but it remains a competitive number among the olive-growing community.
We stick our fingers under the spout as the first oil trickles out, excited for that peppery vegetal taste the oil has when it’s new and crazy with polyphenols, at their brightest and most dominant. When just pressed, the oil can be almost fluorescent green, making its flavor sharp and something so fleeting the mill usually has a little charcoal fire going to grill bread over and pour the newly pressed oil to savor that taste that already in a few hours will start to dissipate and mellow. You want to rush right home and pour it over sweet, long-cooked cannellini beans to emphasize the contrast.
We check the color, looking for a bright grassy green over the more mellow gold color it has been in recent years when the heat ripened the olives too quickly. Each year we glean a little more knowledge. My brother is the one who pushed for a later harvest, believing in the old Tuscan ways when the mills traditionally opened later than anyone would think of pressing today, and now I am pushing the needle back for an earlier harvest, wanting more bight and peppery sharpness.
As I write this, this year is shaping up to be wet and cold and so probably when I get there in mid-October the olives will be too green—but then that will mean it’s a good year for white truffles, so maybe while I wait for the olives to ripen I can console myself with bowls of handmade tagliatelle made from the neighbors orange-yolked free-range chicken eggs and lashings of shaved white truffle. It might be the perfect time to open that fine Tuscan wine I pushed into the cantina 10 years ago—and finish off the last of the olive oil from last year.
It’s truly amazing to me that as total strangers who stumbled into this village so many years ago we have found a way to be a part of it, continuing the agricultural heritage of the land and finally celebrating our own harvest and being part of the chain stretching back 3,000 years to when the Etruscans first cultivated the land.
Sara Jenkins is co-author of Olives and Oranges: Recipes and Flavor Secrets from Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Beyond (Houghton Mifflin) and chef-owner of Porchetta and Porsena, both in the East Village. Mario Batali called her “one of the few chefs in America who understands Italy and how Italians eat.”