Do you want to know the mysteries behind the olive harvest in Italy? You are in the right place! Today, I will tell you about the time and methods of harvesting olive trees.
As you may have guessed from the title, I want to tell you about the majesty of a centuries-old practice: harvesting olive trees to produce olive oil.
Did you know that the olive harvest has ancient origins? Yes, the history of olive oil has its roots around 4000 B.C. in remote places in the East, including India.
All this until the 15th century, when Italy became the largest producer of olive oil in the world. Since then, the history of extra virgin olive oil has penetrated deeply into the hearts of all Italians.
But how is olive oil produced? It goes without saying, but the first step in making an excellent extra virgin oil is when the olives are picked! Want to know why?
If an olive is rotten or mouldy, the olive oil will not taste good. This is why it is necessary to know how and when to pick olives, in order to avoid the flavour of olive oil being altered.
It is wrong to think that pressing is more important than olive harvesting!
I am here for this very reason: when to harvest olives?
Many people know that the harvest time is autumn, but the month can change depending on many different factors, including climate, olive varieties and the type of olive oil you want to obtain – sweeter or more aromatic.
But I do not want to anticipate what I have written for you later…
I suggest you continue with the article because we are about to discover the olive harvest season, unveiling the mysteries of this age-old tradition in Italy!
Olive harvest in Italy, a magical moment!
You know when you build up great expectations for a film about to be released in the cinema? You can’t wait to see it, sitting in your armchair and holding your popcorn, counting every minute until the long-awaited date.
The olive harvest season is experienced in the same way by hundreds of families and farmers… This moment is full of expectations and emotional charge. It is the short period of time that repays all the efforts made during a whole year.
Needless to say, during these weeks, the farmers are physically and emotionally involved in all the work and processes used to produce the olive oil.
From every single olive, thanks to the farmers’ enthusiasm and deep passion, olive oil is obtained in an atmosphere full of joy and satisfaction… Don’t you think this is incredible?
It is impossible not to fall in love with the fascinating journey that starts with the olive. From the latter, the olive oil paste is first obtained. Only afterwards, once the water and other solid residues have been separated, will the extra virgin olive oil be obtained. This is the Italian excellence that makes us famous all over the world!
The story behind the olive harvest in Italy, like everything that lies behind this ancient practice, is worthy of being told and savoured to the full. You can experience it as a protagonist in the farms scattered throughout the different regions of Italy, admiring the centuries-old olive trees and having fun in the field.
Don’t hesitate to read… I want to retrace this ancient practice with you. Follow me on this magical journey!
When to pick olives?
This is where I want you to pay attention! Picking olives is a historic, incredible and unique process.
As I have already mentioned, the olive harvest time is autumn, from October to December. But it is also true that, in some cases, it can be as long as January…
I know, you are probably wondering: how is it that this practice takes place over such a long period of time? I’ll tell you: there are so many factors that influence the olive harvest.
Each olive oil mill has its own magic recipe. And this is why each olive reaching the different olive oil mills scattered throughout Italy has got a unique, special and entirely personal path.
But then, what is the right time to harvest olive trees? There are five main factors that define the olive harvest season… Let’s find out them together!
1) THE VARIETY OF OLIVE
Yes, this is perhaps the most important factor in defining harvest times.
Did you know that there are over 500 olive varieties in Italy? And do you know that this wide biodiversity represents about 40% of the existing olive varieties worldwide?
Well, now you can imagine that in order to harvest olives at the right time, we also need to know the variety we are considering.
In fact, each olive variety differs according to specific ripening times. We tend to talk about early, medium-late and late ripening cultivars.
To make you understand better, let me give you an example: the Leccino variety, which is widely used in central Italy, is early ripening while the Coratina is late… This means that the first olive variety will be harvested in the early autumn, due to its fast ripening, while the second one will be harvested in December or even January.
But this is all very superficial… I have already told you that there are other factors that influence the olive harvest season, let’s continue to unravel them together!
2) THE TYPE OF OLIVE OIL YOU WANT TO OBTAIN
If we are talking about olives for oil, it is necessary to specify that. Depending on when the olives are picked and the degree of maturity of the olive itself, we can obtain types of olive oil with different characteristics.
If the olives are harvested early, the olive oil will tend to have a bright green colour and more intense aromas, as well as a strong bitter taste due to the important presence of phenols.
On the other hand, if the olives are more mature at the time of harvest, the olive oil will have a yellowish colour and the aromas will be less pronounced. Interesting, don’t you think?
3) CLIMATE CONDITIONS
When to pick olives? Weather conditions also play an important role. Temperatures have a big influence… Know that the higher they are, the earlier the olives reach the right degree of ripeness.
This means that the same olive variety grown in Sicily and Lombardy has two different harvest times, although these should not vary too much.
4) THE SUN EXPOSURE OF THE OLIVE GROVE
This is also very important. An olive tree suffers a lot from cold temperatures and a correct exposure to the sun is necessary for an optimal olive harvest.
5) THE USE OF OLIVES
Exactly! Whether the objective is to obtain table olives or olives for olive oil, an appropriate and specific strategy is needed.
As you can well imagine, table olives are generally picked when they have reached full maturity, otherwise they would be extremely hard to eat.
As far as olives for olive oil are concerned, the same applies as above… Depending on when the olives are harvested, the olive oil will have different characteristics.
In Italy, the variety of olives on offer is incredible and this is wonderful… Just go to any supermarket delicatessen or market to verify this claim!
Olive Ripening Stages
Now you will certainly know that picking olives at the right time is essential, if you want to obtain high quality extra virgin olive oil. But what are the other reasons why this practice is considered essential?
First of all, we need to take a step back: the olive harvest must be carried out according to the degree of ripeness reached by the olives. For this reason, it is necessary for me to introduce a particular term: the “veraison”.
This is the fundamental moment when the fruit begins to ripen, changing its colour and modifying its characteristics, including its phenolic, lipid and anthocyanin content.
Farmers are well aware of this… Their choice of harvesting time will determine not only the quality of olive oil, but also the lipid yield of the olives and thus the economic gain.
Infrared, electrical conductivity, special instruments… There are many items on the market to determine the right degree of ripeness!
True farmers, however, being able to connect on a more intimate level with nature and the product, can decide the harvesting period on the basis of the colour variation of the skin and on the basis of the natural fall of the olives.
And since we are all incredibly fascinated by these skills, I want you to dive into this wonderful world with me!
Why not discover the different stages of olive ripening? You will be prepared for your next olive harvest experience around the Italian olive groves!
The farmer will be surprised by your knowledge… Here are the 5 stages of ripeness, so that you can fully understand the magic of this wonderful experience, the olive harvest!
1) UNRIPE OLIVES
I will point this out to you, however, it must be said that this stage is still too early.
There is little you can do with olives that still have to develop their characteristics and whose flesh is still too hard and difficult to use… Picking olives at this stage of ripeness is a disaster!
2) HERBACEOUS OLIVES
Now things are starting to change for the better. Do you want a fruity, intensely flavoured and pleasantly spicy olive oil? Well, this stage of ripeness is perfect for that.
Want to know why? From this point onwards, those directly responsible for these properties, namely chlorophyll and polyphenols, will tend to diminish. This can be seen by the progressive change in colour of the skin, from green to black.
Once this train has been missed, it is impossible to catch up… We will have to wait until next year!
3) OLIVES AT VERAISON
Imagine this scene… You are a farmer and you have an olive grove. You wake up one autumn morning and immediately decide to go and check the olives. That’s when you realise that the skins have started to turn purple here and there, although green is still the predominant colour.
The veraison has begun, in a few simple words.
Not only is this the perfect degree of ripeness for table olives, but it is also the ideal time to harvest because it produces balanced olive oils with an unmistakable flavour and aroma!
4) FULLY RIPENED OLIVES
We have now gone very far in terms of ripening, reaching the last stage for obtaining a still good olive oil.
However, you should be aware that harvesting olives at this time will result in a greater quantity of olive oil. But this will be at the expense of quality and cause the loss of the characteristic herbaceous aromas of unripe or ripening olives.
How can you be sure that the olives are finally fully ripe? Easy… The skin of the fruit is almost completely black!
5) OVER-RIPENED OLIVES
As mentioned earlier, this is too advanced a stage for harvesting olives. Let me explain the problem of over-ripe olives…
At this stage, the olives naturally start to fall from the trees. And this can be a problem because they risk being contaminated by mould or being a snack for some insects.
For this reason, picking olives that have reached this stage of ripeness is strongly discouraged. This is also due to the fact that low quality olive oil will be obtained from them, with a poorly recognisable flavour and high free acidity, a symptom of poor olive oil quality.
But now don’t worry, this very long list is over! You have finally understood the fascination of this world and realised how the slightest mistake with the timing or miscalculation can cause real disasters in the olive harvest.
And here’s where you’ll smile at what I’m about to tell you: the factors influencing the olive harvest period are not over yet! Yes… You will agree with me that this practice is really complicated.
In addition to everything I have told you, there is the cold weather. It can delay the ripening of the olives and be good news for the olive fruit fly, an insect hated by all the farmers in Italy because of the damage it causes.
To sum up: the olive harvest season is no longer a mystery… Now that we know everything about harvest timing, let me take you on this journey that has yet to give us incredible emotions. Follow me as you read!
How to harvest olives?
We have just talked about when to pick olives, but now I need your full attention because I am going to talk about the methods of harvesting olives.
The first thing to do is to remove the weeds on the ground. This is to make it as flat as possible and to facilitate the positioning of these large nets where the olives will lie.
When to do this? A week in advance is already a reasonable time. But how are the nets placed? Quite simply, they are tied olive tree by olive tree.
But let’s talk about the things that really matter: how are olives harvested?
Let me tell you straight away that there are manual and mechanical harvesting methods. The choice of one technique rather than another can be fundamental in obtaining an olive oil with great organoleptic characteristics and taste.
This is why I will divide this paragraph into two parts: the natural and very ancient methods of olive harvesting (the manual methods) and finally the newer and more revolutionary, but not always ideal (the mechanical methods).
Depending on the olive variety, the height of the olive tree and the type of soil, each farm decides which method is best suited to its needs… How to pick olives with these techniques? Don’t wait a second longer, discover the mystery of these fascinating methods!
a) Manual olive harvesting
As you can well imagine, manual harvesting was the only method used in past centuries.
Then, of course, new machinery was introduced that made this process much quicker. But unfortunately it erased the emotions and joy that only manual olive harvesting can give.
Of course, I don’t want to tell you that machinery is the devil, because many manual harvesting methods require the use of certain tools…
Enough chitchat, let’s see these techniques in detail!
Listen to this! The oldest method, through which the olives are picked directly from the tree, is also the slowest and most precise because the fruit is carefully selected.
Needless to say, the results of this olive harvesting method are exceptional and evoke a pure and sincere country atmosphere, with complete respect for nature.
When done in this way, the olive harvest has an incredible advantage that is reflected in the extra virgin oil produced, which is among the best ever!
I almost forgot to tell you… The advantage I’m talking about is precisely due to the fact that the olives are not damaged, since they are handled with care. And this avoids unpleasant unwanted fermentation.
2) “BACCHETTATURA” HARVESTING
The name already suggests the secret of this technique. It is a traditional method, with very ancient roots, based on the use of sticks to “beat” the branches of the olive tree and make the olives fall.
In a whirlwind of emotions evoking the peasant atmosphere par excellence, the falling olives accumulate in the nets placed on the ground.
You know what the big problem with this method is? Trying to dodge the olives on the nets, avoiding crushing them… A real tightrope walker’s job, not a farmer’s!
3) “RACCATTATURA” HARVESTING
Perhaps the simplest thing you can do without breaking a sweat… We are talking about a technique where nature itself decides the fate of the olive oil produced!
Among the different methods of harvesting olives, “raccattatura” cannot be overlooked. But let’s look at this together.
The olive trees are not touched and the olives are not picked directly from the branches… We simply wait for the olives to fall naturally from the branches. A phenomenon that occurs when the olives are fully ripe.
It saves time, it is true, but the real risk of this technique is that you get poorly aromatic olive oil with some defects due to mould that can attack the olives. And this is not a good thing, I can assure you….
Do you want to know how combing is done? It is a very simple technique! By using wooden rakes that “comb” the branches of the olive trees, the olives can be detached and fall onto the large nets we mentioned earlier, thus being easily harvested.
Always remember that all these olive harvesting practices are 100% natural and have been handed down from generation to generation.
It is no coincidence that, during such an activity, you feel as if you have been catapulted into the distant past. That is why I encourage you to have the best olive harvest experiences… Where else but around Italy?
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- Salento olive oil between history and modernity
- From the olive harvest to the Calabrian olive oil!
This profound intimacy with nature can be savoured in many Italian regions. Don’t imagine too much, I still have to tell you about the mechanical harvesting methods…
b) Mechanical olive harvesting
Harvesting olives through the use of machines makes everything faster and cheaper, but can damage the trees. And it is very unromantic, unlike manual techniques.
One of the main methods is shaking, through which the tree is shaken with special machines. This movement allows the olives to fall from the branches.
For really intensive plantations, with a lot of trees per hectare (even >1000 trees/ha), the digging machines are fundamental… These huge machines are able to favour simultaneously the techniques of shaking and combing of the olive trees, reducing the time of this long process to just a few hours.
It all sounds like a fairy tale, but as already mentioned, these invasive machines can have unpleasant effects on olives and plants. They inevitably lead to an olive oil with higher free acidity and worse characteristics, also linked to the damage of polyphenols and volatile compounds, which give the typical flavour.
Well, now I can confirm that you have become an expert on olive harvesting methods… We can continue then!
Olive quality and preservation
This topic is last but not least. Proper storage of olives is essential for anyone who wants to obtain high quality extra virgin olve oil and avoid damage to the olives.
Obviously, once harvested, the olives should be immediately taken to the olive oil mill. These olives must be transported in crates specially constructed to be easily stacked on top of each other.
Let me tell you why! In reality there is more than one reason… Not only does this make transport to the olive oil mill easier, but above all it improves aeration. And therefore it prevents any fermentation, which we absolutely do not want because it would damage the final product.
For the same reasons, the olives cannot stay for days on end. In fact, the ideal would be no more than 24 hours.
You have to work carefully but also quickly. This is the farmer’s craft, a true manual art that has its roots in antiquity, with techniques that have been refined over time.
A real journey through nature, traditions and history of the magical and wonderful world behind the olive harvest…
Let’s go harvesting olive trees in Italy!
Now you really know everything, all you have to do is apply this knowledge live! Join the olive harvest in Italy and fall in love with breathtaking natural scenarios.
Olive picking will no longer be a secret to you… It’s the right time to travel and savour Italy, a country that has so much to offer! 😍