Olive Picking in Andalusia

Since we’re in the middle of the olive picking season, I’d like to share a chapter depicting our experiences of picking olives from my book The Crinkle Crankle Wall: Our First Year in Andalusia. mybook.to/crinklecranklewall

Chapter 16 Hit it Harder

The first autumn in our house we were too busy fighting floods, checking weather forecasts, and motivating the builders to put on the new roof to even notice when the olive harvest had started. Our olive trees had been abandoned for the previous two years, and, because of that, the amount of fruit on them was minimal. The hurricane that swept across Andalusia the first November when we lived in the house did not help with the yield either. It stripped our trees of the few olives that we had. As a result, we didn’t bother to even discuss picking olives that year. We resigned ourselves to watching handfuls of them get old and fall to the ground on their own.

It was then to our surprise when our neighbour José suggested that he and his son Pepe show us how to pick them. It was already late February, and they must have been almost done with their trees. But the nature of an Andalusian farmer is not to waste anything. José must have hated looking at our abandoned trees with their wrinkly dry olives hanging on by a thread.  

The two men appeared one day armed with the olive tree shaker, giant black nets, and plenty of sacks to put the olives in. Following José and Pepe, we inspected all our trees. Of the thirty trees on our property, only five had produced a meagre harvest that José felt worth collecting. We helped lay the black nets under the first tree. Pepe then turned on the shaker, grabbed a thick branch of the tree with the extended arm of the shaker, and shook the living daylights out of the olive tree while we were showered with falling olives. When he finished, we rolled up the net’s ends and transferred about ten kilograms’ worth of olives into a sack. I thought back to the dozens of sacks that I saw at the back of José’s 4 x 4 and guessed that he might have an optimistic nature. The way we were going, we would be lucky to fill the one sack that Robert was holding now in his hand like a treasure.

The four of us moved from tree to tree, and half an hour later, we finished our sad harvest with just three sacks of olives. While we felt deflated, José kept up his optimistic mood and entertained us with stories of the snows on the Sierra Nevada mountains that we all stared at in the distance. Even though our harvest was miserable, a week later, Pepe showed up at our gate and handed us six litres of olive oil — one five-litre bottle and one one-litre. I didn’t think much of it until the next day at lunch, Robert decided that he would have olive oil on his bread instead of butter. He was sitting with our builder, Dani, and wanting to impress him with his agricultural prowess, he must have told him that he picked his olives and now can enjoy his own olive oil.

Dani must have challenged his ego because my butter-loving husband decided to abandon all that is English and ask for olive oil. I brought the one-litre bottle from the storage room, handed it to him, and left the patio; as soon as I was out of sight, I heard Robert and Dani squeaking like teenage girls in a makeup shop.

Apparently, according to my husband’s ‘unbiased opinion,’ it was the most delicious olive oil he had ever tasted. I chose not to mention the fact that he had never before deliberately put oil on a plate and dipped bread in it with the intention of eating it. He sat there smacking his lips and pouring more oil on his plate, while Dani, not wanting to appear diffident, copied his manner. The two of them kept dipping the bread in the olive oil and tasting it as if it was some kind of olive oil eating competition. These two ‘connoisseurs’ in their construction clothes and with sledgehammers and concrete buckets scattered around the lunch table seemed oddly misplaced.  

In the excitement of the moment, Robert announced that he could eat this olive oil and bread for the rest of his life and not need anything else. I looked sceptical and made a note to remind him of this commitment the next time he tried to convince me that a Flintstone-sized beef steak from the butcher’s is good for one’s health. Our olive oil turned out to be delicious despite our ignorance and neglect. Because of this positive experience, we vowed to look after our trees, and that spring we pruned them and gave them nutrition and even watered them — we still had some water on the property at that time. The following year, we were ready for our own first harvest. And so, let me fast-forward for a second to tell you how not to pick olives.   

At the start of the next olive picking season in late November 2015, we inspected the trees and noticed that our care and attention had not gone to waste. After the spring and a summer of tender care, we now had at least twenty trees to harvest. At first, we decided to buy the motorised tree shaker, similar to the one that Pepe had used on our trees the year before. However, once we found out the price of a new machine, we decided to pick our olives using the traditional method, which involves hitting the branches with a long stick and collecting the fruit from the nets laid under the trees.

Full of ambition and feeling a bit smug that we would follow in the footsteps of the Andalusian farmers, we went to the local ferretería or a hardware shop. Because of the extensive renovations that had now lasted for over a year, we were welcome customers in the shop. The owner, Carlos, and his wife, Mercedes, seemed honestly bemused when they heard of our intention of picking the olives with a traditional stick. But being good shopkeepers, they dutifully provided us with two giant nets and one very long stick.

In the past, olive farmers used simple wooden sticks. Since then, the olive-picking stick technology has advanced; the modern olive-picking enthusiast can choose from a vast array of sticks made from various modern materials. We selected a very technologically up-to-date stick made of lightweight fibreglass, packed our nets into the car, and went back home. The next morning, we ate a hearty breakfast, since we’d need all the energy to get us through the hard, physical labour that we were about to launch into, and set out as soon as the temperature outside was warm enough to work.

I thought that we might start arguing as soon as we began to lay out the nets, which turned out to be far too big for our needs, but that did not happen. It must have been the years of camping and setting up tents on various campsites that had taught us not to make any comments or give any instructions while working with a giant piece of fabric, such as a tent cover or a tarpaulin. The olive-picking nets seemed to require similar restraint, and we proceeded to lay them in respectful silence and without bickering. Then Robert picked up the long stick and started to strike the branches. I expected a torrent of olives to fall down, but not a single piece of fruit was persuaded to fall from the tree. The farmers that we have seen working on the hills made it look effortless — they would gently strike a branch, and each tap would be followed by an avalanche of olives. This was not happening now. The olives seemed super-glued to the branches, and no matter how much strength and energy Robert exerted, they did not want to let go.  

Annoyed, he started to fight the tree as if it was some medieval demon. He hit the branches in all directions, a kind of madness in his eyes. It was clearly not how I had seen farmers do it, so I started to correct his method.

‘Don’t hit the big branch; hit the small branches. Shake it a bit. Don’t hit it so hard. Hit it harder. Hit it softer but more frequently. Don’t hit it so fast.’

‘Shut up.’ I heard in response. ‘You try it.’ I was handed the stick.   

Despite my best efforts, no olives fell down. The process was now getting very frustrating. With the giant nets set up and the fancy stick in hand, we were starting to look like fools. While fighting with the tree, I constantly looked over our shoulders, checking the road and hoping that none of our neighbours was driving past. Should they see this pathetic display, I knew they were sure to drive up and intervene. Our pride could not take that. We did the best we could in this situation and started to argue with each other.

After a few sharp but hurtful comments, a quick period of separation was in order. I went back to the house to sulk and contemplate all the previous situations in which Robert acted like a fool, while he, in my absence, decided to make a martyr of himself and continued ‘olive picking’ alone. A couple of hours later, we reunited for lunch, and we both chose not to talk about the olives. In the afternoon, Robert did not go out again to pick the olives, which made me believe that he had done all the trees in my absence.

Since I did not want to discuss the touchy subject, it was only the next day that I found out that he only did two trees.

‘All by myself,’ he emphasized several times and with accusation in his tone. ‘I always have to do everything around this house by myself.’

Not wanting to listen to this tale of martyrdom for the next decade, I decided to bite my tongue and offer assistance. We laid the net under another tree and started the ‘picking’ once more. I was surprised that Robert did not object to my taking the olive-picking stick and strike the branches in the technique, that I was convinced, would yield better results than the day before. It didn’t, but being a good husband, Robert chose not to point that out. As I was desperately trying to persuade the tree to let go of the fruit, he seemed to have developed a brand-new technique unknown to any Andalusian farmer and having its roots in Swedish blueberry picking.

More than a decade before, when we lived in Sweden, out of boredom that will befall anyone on a cold, wet summer day in Sweden, we decided that we fancied picking some blueberries and making jam. The idea gave us an excuse to drive to a hardware shop and buy a lot of jars for our preserves, some pectin, and two blueberry pickers. The tool used to pick the berries is of a somewhat genius design. It combines a rake and a sack in one. As you comb the berry bushes with the rake, the fruit falls directly into a small sack at the back of the tool.

Since finding blueberries in a Swedish pine forest is the easiest thing in the world, we spent a happy week making jam for the winter and pretending that there were no shops where one could purchase a rarity such as blueberry jam. But it was our own production, and we did enjoy eating jam for months to come. We also chose to suppress the knowledge that making your own jam is not a particularly cheap exercise if you consider the cost of buying the picking tools, jars, pectin, sugar, and time needed to clean forest berries.

With our past blueberry-picking experience in mind, I could see that Robert had adopted the same technique for picking olives. Instead of shaking the tree, he used his fingers as a rake and combed each branch from the base down while the fruit fell onto the net laid at the bottom. I hated to admit it, but his method was yielding more crop than the stick, so I abandoned the wretched stick and started to comb the fruit of the branches. The method itself was very soothing and had a therapeutic quality to it; standing in the middle of an olive tree and gently combing each branch may one day be proven to cure anxiety and stress.

While the process was much more relaxing than the relentless hitting with a stick, it was slow and tedious and not very thorough. It took us almost an hour to do one tree, and we still had about seventeen to do. At this pace, it would take us two more days to finish harvesting our small plot.

It was around noon when our neighbour Mercedes saw our labour and decided to join in. She didn’t seem one bit dismayed by the slow process and followed suit in hand-picking the fruit. She told us this used to be her job when she was a child. When picking olives with her parents and her baby brother, known to us as Old Gabi, her task was to pick every last piece of fruit from the tree and collect whatever fell on the ground next to the tree where the nets failed to cover the ground completely. Our mad method must have transported her to her childhood because while we suggested moving to the next tree, she was adamant that we must not move until every single piece of fruit was plucked from the branches and picked up from the ground.

The idea that one must not waste anything — even when the time and effort needed to do so is more valuable than the thing itself — is deeply ingrained in the Andalusian farmer and speaks to the hard past that generations who live here have experienced. I can easily imagine winters past when, after a particularly dry spring and summer, all they would have to eat was a handful of almonds or acorns. Out of respect for this cautious and anti-consumerist attitude to life, we humoured Mercedes and picked every last piece of fruit from the tree and from the ground.

Despite being only one hundred and fifty centimetres in height and having the build of a ten-year-old boy, Mercedes can be surprisingly strong-willed. She inspected our previous work and was not one bit satisfied with our poor attention to detail. She was especially critical of how we had left the odd fruit on the branches and on the ground. Like a little female Napoleon, she commanded that we go back and do it right this time. So, without a word of complaint, we did.

Andalusian farmers have a natural propensity to gather and inspect each other’s work. On seeing us working with Mercedes, her brother Gabi came around to see what we were up to. While Mercedes’s nature is to always jump in and help, her younger brother likes to advise from afar. He picked up the olive stick that we now abandoned and leaned on it. With the usual andaluz whine in this voice, he had a lot to say about how hard it is to pick olives and how he and his parents and his sister, Mercedes, used to work all day when he was a child. All that talk about work did not seem to whet his appetite for any. He chose to supervise rather than lead by example.

While we bent down like little children picking up fruit from the ground, he went on with the lecture on the art of using a stick to shake the fruit of the tree. The talk was far too nuanced for us to understand or take note, but we nodded our heads and agreed with everything he was saying.

While three people gathered in a field are a sure sign that something interesting is going on, four is simply an invitation for others to join. And so, while Robert, Mercedes, and I were busy searching for every last bit of a fruit that might have gone astray and Gabi giving us a history lecture, we were joined by Pepe and José who were working on their olives on the hill opposite. While Mercedes and her bother Gabi are retired and only come to the campo on the weekends, their cousin, José, is a full-time farmer.  

José, not able to comprehend what we were all doing, scratched his head and smiled jovially while Pepe, who is always more down-to-earth and matter-of-fact, asked us directly why we didn’t ask him to lend us his shaker. It must have been the price of the machine that put us off asking anyone to lend us one. We thought it unfair to take advantage of such an expensive investment. But Pepe and José were unwavering; they felt it ridiculous that we were trying to collect all the olives using a stick — we didn’t dare mention our handpicking method. We finished for the day, and the next morning Robert went up to José’s to borrow their shaker.

As it was our third day of picking the olives, we were growing very skilled at setting the nets. We set up the machine the way Pepe had taught Robert the year before, and we started to work. Once the shaker’s long arm grabbed hold of a branch, Robert shook the living daylights out of the poor tree. A torrent of olives fell on our shoulders and heads, and we rejoiced. That was the way to pick olives; it was quick and almost effortless (at least for the person who was watching the other operate the machine) and much more thorough than stick and hands.

After the previous two days of struggling to whack a single olive off a branch, we were in awe each time a shower of olives fell down onto the nets that were placed beneath the trees. With the shaker in hand, we finished our harvest in a few hours and were done by lunchtime. Before lunch, Robert took the shaker and several sacks of olives to José’s house; they, in turn, took our olives to their mill in Brácana.

A week later, Robert went to the mill to collect our olive oil; that year, we collected more than twenty-five litres of delicious extra virgin olive oil that we enjoyed until the next season. In our third year of olive picking, in 2016, we were smarter and waited for my family to come and visit us for Christmas before we suggested picking olives as a new Christmas tradition.

The Crinkle Crankle Wall: Our First Year in Andalusia by Sabina Ostrowska is available in all Amazon stores as e-book and paperback:

Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B08FP8Q65R

Amazon Spain: https://www.amazon.es/dp/B08FP8Q65R

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08FP8Q65R

Amazon universal link: mybook.to/crinklecranklewall

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2 thoughts on “Olive Picking in Andalusia

  1. Emma QUINLAN says:

    Brings back memories of when we were having work done in our house and ended up with a row of ‘supervisors’ sitting on the wall outside!
    Your oil is lovely xx


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