The month of March in Andalucia means more than just reflecting on the winter that wasn’t or which recipes are back in play now that spring vegetables bring new options. A recently sunny day brought me to an olive grove in Huescar to discover the importance of pruning olive trees.
Today’s lesson in pruning comes courtesy of Julian Hernandez Garcia, a Huescar native whose olive grove has been passed down for three generations.
The trees themselves are over a hundred years old, and some of the only remaining Cornicabra this far south of Toledo, he tells me. My pulse quickens the moment I see the gas powered chainsaws leaving the trunk of his car, and stops dead as he hands me a set of pruning shears.
I am instructed by Julian to follow him from one tree to the next, clipping any branches large enough to be used for firewood.
The grove is small at 53 trees, but it is a labor of love done not for profit, but for pleasure. It’s something you could almost forget about until the time has come for the olives to be harvested and brought to the co-op just down the road.
I take a break from the pruning to help Julian’s brother-in-law, Raphael, toss the smaller branches on top of what has become an alarmingly large fire of olive branches. Raphael interrupts me mid-photo attempt to tell me that the burning of the olive branches is illegal; I understand his southern Spanish accent, but not his tone. As a precaution, I stop taking photos.
Breathing in the fumes of burning olive branches is reminiscent of inhaling cigarette smoke, only less rewarding. The smoke stings my unprotected eyes and leaves my brows and lids feeling a bit crispy.
While refueling the chainsaw, Julian goes into more detail. As a rule, less is more, especially in smaller groves such as this one. The key to consistent and productive yields is the result of pruning only the trees which need it to promote beneficial growth. Focusing on the healthy branches allows the nutrients to go where they will be most cost-effective and produce the best fruit.
Julian prefers to prune softly every year while neighboring grove owners will alternate every other year for pruning. Personal preference appears to trump all in these parts. However, in larger groves, the amount of money available to pay workers to prune the trees helps to dictate the frequency and severity of the trees pruned.
For my mild assistance, I am rewarded with a bottle of the extra virgin olive oil that is pressed from the collection of groves here in Huescar (including Julian’s).
Driving home, I note how the smoke from the burning olive branches has thoroughly permeated my clothing. I look over at the bottle of local olive oil and realize the smoke from those burning branches holds a delicious reward.