It’s olive harvesting season.
Including the bucketful I’ve just collected from our single olive tree, which Sue is currently preparing for its journey through soaking and pickling in brine, we’ve picked perhaps three quarters of our modest annual harvest; the fifteen or so kilos will be plenty for our own consumption and for small gifts for friends and family. We’re lucky to be enjoying some sunny winter days, so her work is being carried out on the terrace, in sunglasses and shirtsleeves, while I inspect the myriad of tiny scrapes and scratches my hands and arms have collected while working in the tree. No major damage. Nothing that one or two of Sue’s beers won’t fix, anyway. Come sundown the temperature will drop like a stone and we’ll be scurrying indoors to install ourselves around the wood stove and sample a couple of bottles.
After one more picking session the olives will be all collected and I’ll be able to ‘clean’ the tree, as they say here, thinning the branches with hatchet and saw to leave only a selection of the lower-hanging limbs. I make a mental note to seek out the necessary tools, sharpen axes and buy chainsaw oil. Nothing cut from the tree will be wasted; anything stout enough to one day be firewood will be set aside to dry out, while neighbours’ goats will make short work of the foliage. Not today though. Poquito a poco (little by little), as they also say here, applying that philosophy to pretty much everything.
Olives are a mainstay of extremeñan agriculture, there being seemingly few places you can stand in the campo around these parts without being in sight of at least one olive grove, or olivar. The long dry periods that are typical of the region make it difficult to grow most crops. Olive trees, although they yield more and better fruit when suitably irrigated, can survive just fine if left to their own devices, and still offer up a half-decent crop as year-end approaches.
While it’s only a hobby to us, growing olives is big business, with over a quarter of a million hectares in Extremadura producing, as well as olives for the table, upwards of 30 million litres of olive oil every year. But it’s struggling, as are most country industries in these hard times.
For many extremeñan families olive farming has been a way of life for generations. The fruit not only provided food, oil and a little income, but the annual harvest, la cosecha, was a big social event. It was also something of an ancestor to internet matchmaking; while for most of the year the men would tend the fields while the women kept up with the domestic labours, the all-hands-on-deck spirit of the annual cosecha would mix all and sundry during long days in the field. There are many refranes and flamenco coplas linking the olive harvest with courtship and marriage.
“La aceituna en el olivo,
si no la coges se pasa,
lo mismo te pasa a ti
si tu madre no te casa.”
[Loosely translated: “The olive on the branch, if left unpicked, will wither away; as will you, if your mother doesn’t marry you off.” It sounds a bit more romantic in Spanish, I suppose. Or at least, it rhymes.]
The autumn and winter months turn our locality into an offbeat mix of agricultural museum and county show, as all manner of harvest-hauling gear – wheeled or hoofed – take to the roads. A car journey of any length is bound to include at least one adventure trying to overtake some ancient, arthritic tractor piloted erratically at fifteen kilometers per hour by some equally ancient and arthritic campesino. Cannonball Run meets Last of the Summer Wine.
Until quite recently, much of the hands-on picking was done by a nomadic population of gypsy labour, though the current harsh economic times have made it much more likely that unemployed family members will take up the slack. The saying “a la aceituna y al gitano no lo busques en verano” (don’t expect to find olives or gypsies in the summer) doesn’t really cut it these days.
Even pressing the family into service, it’s hard to make olive farming an economic reality on anything but the largest scale. Long, exhausting days in the olive groves spent spreading nets, beating trees and boxing olives earns, currently, perhaps 30 cents per kilo at the local co-operative. This figure varies with region and with type of olive, but it’s no way to get rich. Families with only a modest number of trees will often take their payment from the local co-operative in oil, rather than in cash, giving them their cooking supply for the coming year. A few of the keenest will bypass the co-operative altogether and press their own.
Many communities in other Mediterranean countries such as France, Italy and Greece, finding themselves at the sharp end of similar mathematics, have exploited the harvest as a tourism opportunity; they invite over-stressed urbanites from Northern Europe to part with their holiday euros for the opportunity to join the picking effort while spending a few days in an idyllic rustic hideaway. One that offers spa facilities and fine dining, naturally.
But that’s not happening in any meaningful way here, or at least not yet. In the European landscape, Extremadura is pre-Mayle Provence, pre-Newby Tuscany. Life hasn’t yet been confused with ‘lifestyle’. Old fashioned isn’t yet ‘quaint’. The movers and shakers from the modern world of tourism haven’t turned this way yet with promises of a rosy future based on ersatz adventures for the well-heeled but gullible.
But maybe, one day soon, it has to happen. Small-scale olive growing in Extremadura may be iconic, steeped in cultural history and rural tradition; but unless it too can be married off to the right partners, there’s a real chance that it, too, will wither away.