Although there are countless varieties of olive tree grown throughout Tuscany and Italy, the olives themselves are either green or black (the black ones start out green and change colour as they ripen) and are all relatively small and hard.

The trees themselves are evergreen and can live for hundreds of years, growing fantastically twisted and gnarled over the years. They should be pruned every year, fertilised every five years or so and are particularly vulnerable to frost - a great number of trees were lost in the very cold winter of 1985.


As nearly all picking is still done by hand, it is important that the trees do not get too tall; traditionally the most desirable shape of tree was a 'goblet' form with no limbs growing inwards, although modern practice favours a much lower form, with no main trunk and an almost bush-like appearance to the tree.

The traditional olive grove ranges up and down a terraced hillside, often on seemingly unworkably steep slopes, and an 'average' farm would have well over a hundred trees, never planted too close together and usually with all sorts of different varieties within the same grove.
There is only one harvest (the raccolta) per year, and the means of doing this have remained more or less unchanged over the centuries.


Come November and an aerial shot of a Tuscan hillside would reveal a bizarre patchwork of multicoloured shapes - these are the nets that carpet every inch of the olive grove and it is onto these that the olives are dragged, beaten, teased and tossed.

Practice varies. The more organised folk will have laid out their nets well in advance so that not one falling olive is lost. They are often supported by a bizarre scaffolding of bamboo cane to stop the olives rolling off where they shouldn't.

The less organised or less-well-off in terms of netting will lay out their nets around one or two trees, strip them, sack up the olives and move on.


True purists maintain that each olive has to be hand-stripped from the trees - it is a very tactile and sensual pleasure dragging your hand down a stem and feeling a dozen or so olives come free. For about half a day it is.

Then you get scratched, bitten, bored and end up with hands the texture of the rough hessian sacks that you're tipping the olives into.

So, less puritanical folks get hold of a long bamboo cane, stand beneath the tree and spend day upon day beating the young branches so that the olives rain down onto the nets below. Not the most precise of arts, which is why the nets should be spread far and wide as the olives will fly off all over the place.


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OLIVES AND OLIVE OIL IN TUSCANY AND ITALY - HOW OLIVES ARE PICKED AND OIL IS MADE