Sunday, November 22, 2009

Olive them. Every last one.

For the second half of my Italian farm experience I gave up goats for olives ; I recently helped harvest thousands of olives that clung to the trees of a small agritourism high in the hills near Florence. It was so high, in fact, that my ears popped constantly while on the bus-ride there and at times I'd look around and realize I was standing in a cloud. The ear-popping and indecisive weather at that elevation were worth it for the view, which we stood and admired each morning before breakfast.

I was one of five wwoofers there to harvest; the others (Heather, Cody, Josee, and Nick) were all American, had wicked senses of humour, and affectionately embraced my frequent use of 'eh.' We were also fortunate to land the poshest wwoofing living quarters of all time – the inn's three bedroom guest-house!

Each morning we ate a continental breakfast before donning our gumboots, marching off to the grove, and beginning our harvest routine. This involved pinning together huge nets which caught the olives as they were hand-raked or mechanically raked off the trees. Once a row was finished, we unpinned the nets, heaved the olives into a big pile, and emptied them into crates. We repeated this process until, five hours later, I was so hungry I considered emptying the raw bitter olives into my mouth rather than the boxes.

At 1:00 pm we'd stumble up the hill to have a lunch made for us by our host's sisters, two sweet old ladies who we loved so much we considered communally adopting them as our Nonnas. The afternoon and evening meals usually consisted of two to three courses, starting with either soup or pasta and followed by some combination of meat, cheese, and vegetables. My favourite dishes were farfalle with zucchini and peas; pasta, chickpea, and sage stew; cream of carrot soup with big toasted bread croutons; pecorino cheese with onion jam, and Tuscan apple cake. It took us several days to reign in the desire to eat our body-weight in carbs at every meal, and I soon had to abandon my jeans for leggings with a stretchy waistband. My preferred theory is that they shrunk.

Once the first seventy crates of olives were picked they were taken to the frantoio (press) by our host and Nick, his absolute favourite wwoofer. He made no attempt to hide this favouritism, which was apparent very early on and for reasons which are still unclear (Nick speaks absolutely no Italian and is the same size and strength as Cody). It took a total of three days for him to be dubbed 'Iron Arm,' and conversations at the dinner table went something like this:

“Nick! More eat Nick! Without you we get nothing done Nick! The rest are university types, we need you Nick! He stronger than the other four! What? You are not married Nick? But who cook for you in America? You cook for yourself? No! This is iiiimpossible! You marry Lindsay! She experience in cooking, and you experience in eating! It is nechesity that you marry a woman who cook for you! Now eat Nick, EAT!"

We decided that during our short time at the farm it would be best not to introduce our host to the ideas of feminism, homosexuality, veganism, and stay-at-home dads.

We finished the olive trees three days ahead of schedule and spent another day up-rooting and re-planting saffron bulbs on the far corner of the property. This was tedious work and enlightened us further as to the cost of saffron; each bulb produces one purple flower, which in turn yields several precious red stamin that are picked by hand and dried slowly over a fire. At the farm they sell it in small packets and in products such as saffron jam (killer!) and saffron grappa (equally killer but for different reasons). We also tried their farro (barley) and enjoyed the new oil pressed from the olives we harvested. It was vibrant green and very spicy in comparison to the mellow, year-old oil; in Autumn there are signs in every store, including gas stations, advertising 'Olio Nouvo' for sale, and Italians declare with a hint of awe in their voices that “tonight we will be eating newwww oiiiiil.”

Another end-of-harvest task, assigned to the boys, was building a fence around the saffron plants to keep out the cabriole, a deer-like animal which we could never properly translate to English and therefore became a sort of a mythical beast for us. Although we jokingly doubted the existence of the animals, the fence was all too real and caused our male wwoofers a great deal of grief. Despite the fact that both are incredibly intelligent and capable, Nick and Cody were forced to follow our host's instructions down to the wire, literally, resulting in a fence which couldn't keep out a coffee mug let alone an animal which can supposedly jump eight feet high (and also has a unicorn-like horn, we're sure of it). Many hours were spent stringing up uncooperative wire which rendered the electric fence useless and provoked an unending stream of curses.

Despite the odd nature of our host (and frequent time trips back to before women could vote), the harvesting experience was entirely worth it. I now know the tremendous amount of work that goes into making olive oil and will never again take it for granted. Our work setting was beyond beautiful, especially when the sun lit up the autumn-coloured hills surrounding us. But most importantly, I laughed so hard and so often with my fellow wwoofers that there is a chance my stomach will retract enough to get my jeans back on.

And I'm now engaged to a guy named Iron Arm.

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