By Will Dunn
Olive Oil Times Contributor | Reporting from Barcelona
From Australia to Andalucia, it’s long been a habit of some olive lovers to pick a bag of wild fruit when the opportunity presents itself, and to prepare them at home. As the world’s most extensively cultivated fruit crop, the olive tree has spread back into the wild wherever groves are near – it’s even considered a weed in some places – and these feral fruit are anyone’s for the picking.
Preparing your own table olives is a simple, if laborious, process. Once the olives are picked – by hand, so as not to damage the tree – a slit must be made in each fruit, and the olives must then be sealed in a container filled with water, brine, or a vinegar solution that allows them to ferment. Curing or fermenting the fresh olives removes the bitter compounds that would otherwise make them inedible, and once cured they’re ready to be eaten or flavored with garlic, wine, herbs or spices. A bowl of wild, home-cured olives on the table makes for a great conversation starter.
But what about those who want to go one further, and turn the olives they’ve picked themselves into oil? Well, for one thing you need to pick a lot more olives – even the richest strains will require several hours’ picking to fill a bottle of extra-virgin. Then, you’ll need to find someone to press your bounty. Locating olive trees, finding out who owns them and negotiating with millers can be even harder work than picking, but there are ways around this. Several companies now offer the chance to pick olives while you’re on holiday, removing the guesswork and getting straight to the wholesome family fun. In return for an afternoon spent up a ladder getting twigs in your hair, there are quite a few places that will press your harvest and send you home with a bottle of pick-your-own oil.
Some combine apartment and villa rentals with the chance to join the harvest, such as the Saint Basil Olive Grove in Crete, and at some places, such as Vila La Rogaia in the rural Italian heartland of Umbria, you can even adopt your own tree – adding another level of bragging rights to that special bottle of oil. For the more adventurous, there are very cheap holidays to be had as a seasonal worker on organic farms. In return for joining the olive harvest for a week or so as a serious, hands-on worker, you’ll get free accommodation, food and wine, as well as the opportunity to help support small farms that produce top-quality oils. You can find out more about working as an organic fruit picker from World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.
For some, however, the olive picking experience is much more than just a holiday. Journalist and author Mort Rosenblum lives in Paris but spends a lot of time at a place in the south of France that he has named, appropriately, Wild Olives: ‘five acres of steeply terraced land down a teeth-loosening dirt road in the back folds of Provence’, where 200 olive trees are harvested by Rosenblum (with the help of numerous friends and invited guests) each December. A good harvest can bring in a few hundred kilos of olives, which are then taken to a nearby mill – there is a choice of several – to be pressed. ’I used to like the old style a la feuille pressing,’ says Rosenblum, ‘but I now go to a third-generation mill dating back centuries which uses low-temperature centrifugal machines for clean, clear oil.’
The price of all this involvement in his oil is a considerable amount of work – pruning, tilling around the bases of the trees, guarding against the dreaded olive fly – but the reward is his own personal oil, picked by the hands of his friends and grown on the trees that have stood on his hillside for more than three centuries.
For those of us who don’t have our own olive groves or even a spare week to go out picking, there’s still a chance to try a taste of the wild. Can Solivera, a small oil producer in Catalonia, produce a Wild Extra Virgin Olive Oil from trees that were allowed to grow wild for centuries. In the mountains above the Ebro valley in Catalonia, the climate is sufficiently high and dry that olive fly is not a worry, and the trees, which grow Empeltre and Arbequina olives, have never been anything but organic (available from La Tienda). It’s even milled using medieval techniques. To try oil from a wild olive strain, head to Tuscany for the unique Seggiano oil, made using olivastra seggianese olives. People have been cultivating new strains of olive trees for thousands of years but the seggianese variety, which only grows around the village of Seggiano, is all Mother Nature’s work. Try the oil, and I think you’ll agree: Mother Nature knows what she’s doing.
You can buy Mort Rosenblum’s book about travel, the olive oil trade and acquiring his own grove from Amazon.com: Olives: the Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit.