It’s olive harvesting time up in the mountains of the Alpujarra. On the lower terraces the harvest begins in mid-December. Up,up, with the frost blowing off the high Sierra, the olives are not collected until mid-February. There is snow on the mountain tops and the almond trees have blossomed early this year with their pink origami petals. The orange and lemon trees are drooping with fruit. The big harvest happens in winter here. All across the valley can be heard the gentle thwonk of sticks bashing the trees to coax the olives onto the nets laid out below. It is a method that has never been altered. When the olives are ready they fall easily and are collected up into white sacks. I had sack envy when we first went to the olive mill: some farmers there had wonderful vintage ones with dusty olive stained scripts on the side. Others collect their olives directly into a trailer which they tow behind a fantastic array of bashed up vehicles.
For many, collecting olives now is ‘no valle la pena’ which literally translated means, ‘not worth the pain’. It is an intensely physical process and, unless you are a large producer with many acres of olives trees, can carry costs which are difficult to justify. We are making olive oil from our trees for the first time. We have a market in London to make it worth our while and had a stroke of logistical luck when a friend offered to take it back in a van but, it will not be profitable this time around. The yield will be higher next year since we harvested this year. Nature is peachy like that. If you make the effort and celebrate the bounty, she will reward you with a greater crop. So, many small producers opt to sell their olives directly to the mill. These crops are mixed up with all the other producers’ crops who have taken this option and milled together into Aceite Soave. Smooth oil. For cooking. Water is pumped into this oil so that it is not pure. For this, last time I checked, the small producers are paid 50 cents per kilo of olives. ‘No valle la pena’. They can either take the cash or be paid in bottles of Soave.
Our trusted men of the campo Horatio and Manolo spent two days collecting our olives and we hefted them into the back of our camper van and headed to the mill two villages away. There are mills closer but this is one of the few that will take small crops and allow you to supervise the process. Opposite our hacienda is the ghost of an olive oil collective. It is a huge factory now dusty with rust and hushed with desertion. The owner set up the collective and then did a runner with the proceeds and has never been seen again. Cowboy country. We made two trips. 1070 kilos of olives and their leaves. And then we waited. For hours. We arrived at 8.30 and were given a scrap of paper with the number 2 scrawled upon it. I had been before with a friend to help her with her harvest so this time we came prepared with spinach and goat’s cheese empanada and flasks of piping hot coffee. On the second trip we picked up a man to help as the first unloading very nearly killed us. Turns out carting bits of tree around is a heavy business.
There was clearly something afoot at the olive mill. The place was covered in large pools of sticky black slime. There appeared to be one lone man with a rigid smile and blue stained overalls in charge. He looked like a ghostbuster and he was not having a good day. Some sort of explosion had occurred and now there was a blockage. Olives are highly explosive things. Once they have been picked, they must not be left to sit around for more than two days or they start to combust. Extraordinary. One of the bi-products of olive pressing is this grain which is produced from the pips and can be used as fuel for a central heating system which many people have around here. They back their cars and trailers up to this mountain and shovel it into sacks which they pay for by weight. This pleases me greatly but I have seen this system at work and it is a proper, finickity business with a most peculiar smell.
A motley collection of people and vehicles and olive sacks was piling up. We started handing round the empanada and everyone got chatting. The low price of olives dominated the conversation. We met the olive mill dog, a beast the size of a Shetland pony with the face of a St. Bernard. A lady in a lorry sat with a syringe feeding a baby parrot. Things started to get surreal. And then, suddenly, we were off. The ghostbuster beckoned us over and we backed the camper van up to the grill in the ground. There we upended the sacks with a little help from our new friends. Once all the olives are in the grate, they are weighed and then carried on conveyer belts upwards to be cleaned of their leaves. This process was done by hand as late as last year but now shiny new machines do it for you. The olives are then blasted with water to clean them and finally they make their way down into the presses. And then the fun starts. There is a chair next to a big steel bowl with a nozzle. And out of that nozzle pours the liquid greeny gold oil. You sit with big 5 litre plastic bottles and funnel the oil in yourself. Whilst one of you is in charge of the nozzle, the other makes up the boxes, clicks the tops on and boxes them up. People come and go when it’s your turn and there is much muttering about colour, clarity and consistency. Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil. The First Pressing. That sounds good doesn’t it? And that’s exactly what it is.
Then the bottles are counted, and you haul the boxes into the car in a very damsel in distress way and a nice man helps and you pay the ghostbuster, say cheerio to your new friends and groan off in the camper van with your precious cargo.
Making olive oil is fun. Lots of fun. Akin to making bread. You get the same sense of intense satisfaction from an endeavour that plants your feet firmly in the soil and roots you to the very earth. A simple process invented by humans using nature’s best ingredients. Ours tastes peppery and undulates like taffeta. I would kill for a dress in that colour.
Olives are highly explosive things. Once they have been picked, they must not be left to sit around for more than two days or they start to combust.
Tinca Leahy manages a hotel near Granada and is also a renowned puppeteer and poet.