Picking Olives near Aci Castello

By Karen La Rosa - -

I awoke and donned the same clothes I wore yesterday. Wet sneakers, because it had rained and the calf deep clover was dripping as we trudged through; muddy and lifeless jeans. Yesterday we wrapped our calves with plastic bags; today we had chartreuse rubber boots.

The air is redolent of olives – it really smells like olives! The sun was warm at my back today. Still a little humid, and with olive branches catching every strand of my hair as I picked from the inside, I looked a mess. It didn’t matter.

We worked all day. Paolo and Turi and me. Dario, 28, does not want to do this anymore. Ilya, (the dog, the big dog) has free reign of the “estate.” Gli ucelli sono diversi nel mattino che nel pomeriggio”. The birds are different in the morning from those in the afternoon. I slip in and out of Italian! We talk. It is a constant avventura. The olives are green and purplish black. Many have already fallen to the ground. We are a little late in picking. It all depends on the rain and the sun. Every year is different. The small olives yield proportionately more olive oil than the larger ones – they are larger because of the rain and the particular tree – each tree is different-. There are a few types of trees – the ones that have leaves shorter and less pointy – sono le olive Nocellara dell’Etna (they are the Nocellara olives of Mount Etna). The others sono le Moresche.

We have red plastic baskets, boxes, cassette – the kind in which you would have something delivered, like milk. After we collect all the olives on the lower branches (rami), we take the step-ladder – not a ladder from Home Depot but one that has been crafted mano (by hand) – vecchio (old) and made of splintering wood that looks like the perspective line in a drawing – an upside down v. I climbed. I am lightest and I leaned it against random branches. I crane my neck and pick the olives at the top and pass them down, carefully cupping the hands so we don’t drop any of God’s gift. La cassetta fills. It depends. Some trees are laden – dripping with fruit – others no. Soon though, the bin is full. The call comes – “vuoi un caffe?” A break and it’s only 10:00.

We pick more and more – they with cigarettes dangling from their mouths, chatting in Sicilian and Italian, I can’t keep track of the back and forth, and then Paolo leaves “to go for the bread”, which means lunch. Yesterday we had pacchino tomatoes with olive oil, bread, almonds from Avola and a little pepato cheese.

I get this whole tree to myself and it is pieno, pieno (full) of olives. The race is on. We have an appointment to bring the harvest, so far, by 3:00 pm.

Lunch is a heap of pasta and wine, of course. Then, back to the trees. We work up until the minute we have to leave. Then we load the little car with 9 of the bins – and the trunk doesn’t quite close, so I pray. The roads are as curvaceous as Mae West but more narrow and we mingle among darting cars and bikes. We drive to Acireale. C’e un posto – there is a place on a small street where they take all the olives and press them into oil, the Oleificio.

First we dump them all into a big bin and they get weighed- 215 kilo. Then they get tossed into a machine and they get washed. The leaves and debris get separated from the rest but we are proud that ours are very clean. Clean olives means better tasting oil. Senza la plastica (without the plastic cases) they weigh 183 kilo. Then they go into another area of the machine and they get crushed. The must or paste gets separated from the oil. The oil goes into a hose and the must gets taken away. It is compressed into pellets that are later sold for burning in stoves, environmentally. Many people arrive with car loads and truck loads and wait.

When it is our turn, with the huge plastic jug in place, the spigot is turned on and out pours our gold. God’s gold. The air is so perfumed. The droplets here and there are rubbed into skin and hair – the ultimate moisturizer. One jug is completely filled and there is even more; 30 kilos of precious oil. It is a moment so utterly satisfying. And this is just the first load. We leave.

We drive – not to the supermarket but to the fish market, at the shore somewhere, and we buy fish for tomorrow, chatting with the fishmonger. It’s not cheap, even here – un pesce grande e uno piccolo plus some cozze (one big fish and a little one, plus some mussels) it all costs 40 Euros.?When we arrive home, the gamberoni che abbiamocomprato oggi – the prawns that we bought this afternoon are placed into a bowl with garlic e limone and we make cruda, seviche. On the stove, in a pan, he sauté the garlic in oil, then the mussels. One by one they open and then we eat them, with our fingers; shrimp and mussels. Simple. Nothing else, tranne il pane– except the bread and plenty of wine to wash it down. The vintage picture of our Lord looks down on us in this mess of a country kitchen – terracotta tiles with a drainage hole so they can be hosed down and lots of odd things – two old strollers, some electrical bits and pieces, chalk, shoes, folded-up deck chairs, extension cords and many kinds of Sicilian honey, oil and the wonderful persimmons he picked yesterday….

È andato a letto e io ascolto la musica e scrivo. He has gone to bed and I listen to music and write. Domani he brings his daughter here – un giorno molto diverso (a different day). Neither the telephone nor the computer works and I wonder who is missing me, who needs me. Last night I couldn’t sleep. But the longer you are here, the less you care.
This article has been published in Times of Sicily

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