On Cloud Nine – Picking olives

As Tuscany slid rapidly from a ‘Yellow’ low risk Covid 19 region to ‘Orange’ and then ‘Red high risk’ within in a week I was lucky to be able to still pick olives. It’s time for the new Olive Oil – strictly Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Sieve valley under cloud

Sieve valley under cloud

In fact am on Cloud Nine‘ as you can see in the photo. The Sieve valley area completely encased in cloud while we were lucky happily above it all and ready to start by 9.30am. If the property was down in the valley pickers would be unable to start till very late morning as the olives are still damp from the fog and low clouds.The riding school next door amongst the clouds

This year I was picking in an area above Rufina  about 35kms East  from Florence.

Being now in a Red region lockdown travel is only allowed outside of our Council area for work, health or necessity reasons and with a permit. Fortunately Tuscany decreed that only families (not friends) could continue to pick olives on private farms. So it was just as well I could still be included as family even as an ‘ex-wife‘ and continue the tradition of picking which I love so much. Olive pickers in action

In two days of picking, 4 hand pickers and one with a machine we managed to pick  27 crates.  Each crate holds around 24kgs of Olives and on average you need 5-6kg of olives for a litre of extra virgin olive oil. Some trees can produce up to 2 crates, sometimes more, depending on the season and the variety of olives. This year the trees are beautifully healthy, no nasty bugs like last year and laden with wholesome olives. A delight to feel between the fingers.

Temperatures have dropped to cold mornings, around 3-4°C but we have been lucky to have sunshine, and dragging out olive nets, shifting ladders and picking, warms you up pretty quickly. By lunchtime we were soaking up a warm 14-15°C as we ate sausages, oops they ate sausages from the BBQ and I feasted on my veggie pie and of course Fettunta toasted bread with the new oil drizzled on.

At the end of the day we tally up the crates and congratulate ourselves on a good day’s Tow days picking 27 olive crateswork.

On the rainy days we don’t pick so the picking has spread over 3 weeks. We have been to the mill three times already and the last time was last Sunday.

Covid 19 has put pressure on the normal mill activities as many panicked thinking lockdown may limit the possibility of picking so started earlier than usual. And many inundated the mill with more olives than what they had booked in so the mills were often running behind schedule. Our last picking in fact had to be slowed down to accommodate a late booking at the mill, unable to accommodate us earlier. Still it was worth it as the local mill – La Corte uses upmarket equipment in slicer/crushers, temperature control  thus producing a healthier extra virgin olive oil which tastes fantastic….especially if you have picked and crushed immediately after two or three days of picking.

The old wheel grinders of the past are still used in some Mills but the contamination between each producers olives is a high risk as the paste spreads out onto mats to be pressed. You can see that process here.

The information printed on my tin of oil describes its fabulous Nutritional characteristics, and together with its gorgeous green colour and just a touch spicy in flavour when its freshly pressed is why Extra Virgin Olive Oil remains such a part of our daily diet. And love it!

My gloves


My new gloves show the signs of the picking and now it’s back into Covid 19 lockdown….who knows for how long? With a possibility of relaxing restrictions 4 December to allow Christmas shopping!Sunset at the end of a day's work



Getting the Good Oil

It’s one of my favourite times of year – picking olives and more importantly savouring the new extra virgin olive oil. A time to catch up with old friends and share our aches and pains as the days pass and the garage fills with crates of olives.

Besides I am lucky enough to be picking olives in Pienza in Val d’Orcia which in any season boasts fabulous views, rolling hills and cypress lanes, and towers guarding valleys filled with fluffy clouds and evocative morning mist.

Picking olives - Aleardo Paolucci designStaying with my artist friend – Enrico Paolucci, is always a pleasure and despite his father’s passing in 2013, Aleardo’s presence is still strong. From the muraled garage wall denoting country life, and the house filled with Aleardo’s works of art, to Isabella’s fond memories recounted as we pick olives together.Aleardo Paolucci - painting

We have been lucky with the weather, unlike some areas in Italy still battling flood levels and muddy landslides. A few brief showers gave us reprieve over lunchtime and the light breeze dried the trees and olives quickly so we could continue the picking.Picking with battery operated rake

An ingenious local, Giuliano, developed a home made version of ‘leaf and olive separator’ (seen in action here), in recycled material, even including the fan. A true Maker! Since we are not all hand picking, the battery powered raking system pulls more leaves and twigs with olives still attached and the less leaves in the pressing the better. The Olive mill also has their own similar separator system but in the meantime we are doing our best to send them to the mill in the best condition possible.
Separator - leaves from olivesOlives ready for the mill





Blessed with some sunshine, and spreading even larger olive nets under the trees meant we were soon down to T shirts only…..and my beloved overalls! The garage quickly filled with crates of Olives ready for the Mill – Frantoio Simonelli Santi in the nearby town of San Quirico d’Orcia. 

Surprisingly the mill is in the historic centre of the town using the traditional method of pressing – stone grinders pressing olives, pips and all, automated machines spreading the olive paste on mats, mats stacked into the presser which is raised, pressing out the liquid – oil and water and finally the centrifuge to separate the water from liquid gold extra virgin olive oil. Strictly cold press and bio!


Extra virgin oilive oilThe air is filled with a buzz of the various rake and shake systems as batteries power along until sunset, and our backs say they need a rest. Gloves are worn thin between the thumb and forefinger as we strip the branches of their produce.

In a week we picked 761 kilos of olives and came home from the Olive Mill with 125 litres of fabulous liquid gold. What could be more satisfying!


Who is sleeping in those hammocks?

Hiking the trail down to Vernazza I heard “What are those things?  They must be hammocks!” Olive netsOlive nets





A curious response I thought and there would be a lot of people sleeping under olive trees….if they were! But for those who have never been involved in olive picking it could be difficult to guess what the netting was for. Besides not every region leaves the olive nets tied under the trees. It is rare in Tuscany and only in places where it is difficult to reach the trees. These photos are from the Cinque Terre where accessibility is always problematic, terraced land far from road access make it a necessity to leave the nets tied up all year.Cinque Terre olive netsCinque Terre olive nets





Unleashed, and spread out between the trees the area looks like a fairyland so no surprise if a leprechaun or two appeared! In reality though, the nets are spread to catch the olives as they fall snatched by strong winds or drop as they mature. Not a practice that is used in Tuscany as Tuscans prefer to pick their olives slightly before maturation thus producing a superb extra virgin olive oil with an almost spicy tang to it. Being a vegetarian this is perfect to give that slight boost to dishes without overwhelming the flavour.

Liguria and the Cinque Terre of which is part, have their own variety of olive – Taggiasca which has a more delicate flavour and goes perfectly with the seafood dishes and other local specialities. And then every region in Italy is very protective of their olives, each boasting the best!

We have been so lucky this year, as it has been a good season, and the dreadful bug of last year died in the heat of the Summer. So I was happily back picking in Pienza on the Paolucci’s property, even in a T-shirt the weather was so mild!Picking olivesOlive picking






Olive Rake machine



While I love to hand pick, we were helped by the battery operated rake machine. 10 Quintali (1000kg) in five days was pretty good for 5 pickers, starting after the fog lifted and finishing around 5pm as the sun set. This year with the addition of a good old trusty Ape truck to help  us.

OlivesApe truck








Unfortunately we were also a little on the run, hiding under the trees, as helicopters circled in the mornings and late afternoon to catch pickers who were not officially registered workers with the risk of imposing heavy fines (€ 3,000) both on the picker and the employer! We were just a group of old friends picking, like so many others, being paid in olive oil, as the tradition has been for centuries. Sunset on Pienza

Pienza Cathedral

Pienza Cathedral

Paolucci olive picking

Aleardo Paolucci – ‘Olive Picking’

Everyone was grumbling about it and pointing the finger at the large companies attempting to get a stranglehold on the olive oil industry. Not that many of us locals were likely to buy the extra virgin olive oil offered on the supermarket shelves as we had picked our own!Not unexpected either was the news that some of those major companies are now under investigation for labelling their product as extra virgin olive oil, when it was merely olive oil – meaning of lesser quality, higher acidity level and probably not from the first press. Not a surprise as for the quantity they sell it would be impossible to produce extra virgin olive oil exclusively from Tuscan or even Italian olives. So I can only suggest you find a good local producer at a farmer’s market and definitely avoid brand names like – Bertoli, Carapelli and Coricelli!

So savour the new oil, lash out and splash it about and believe me…you never get fat on extra virgin olive oil!



Mourning the Good Oil

Olive Grindstone

Giacomo Budini Gattai at the medieval grindstone that would have been pulled by bullocks

It’s time for the new extra virgin olive oil…..but there is none, or hardly any this year. It has been such a weird year weather wise, a mild Winter, cool and wet SumGrindstonemer.

The  general dampness in the air has tragically affected the olives so they have produced very few and many have been infected by the dreaded bug. I went back last week to Villa I Bonsi to buy my yearly quota and walked into an eerie silence in the mill. Looks of despair amongst the staff  and Bernadette could only say “siamo in lutto!” (we are in mourning). Normally the olive mill would be working 24 hours a day until the end of November and sometimes even into December crushing their olives as well as those from the surrounding farm properties. It was dead quiet and spick and span now. They had harvested very early and selected out what olives could be saved from their 200+ hectares of olive groves. Naturally this has put the price up, but I was not going to quibble over that as their extra virgin olive oil is exquisite.

So beware of any new oil this year, and only buy from trusted sources as there is sure to be a lot of poor quality oil for sale from imported olives. And while I went to the Paolucci’s in Pienza there was no picking to be done this year.

For info I reposted my blog from last year. 12/11/2013

Yes it’s that time of year again when Tuscany begins to create “Liquid Gold” olio extra vergine di olive and we love the first tasting of the oil drizzled onto lightly toasted unsalted bread, the fettunta, or bruschetta when rubbed with garlic.  It’s the only time of year we munch into it as such, as I see many disappointed tourists looking to do the same on simple bread in restaurants during the year and they can’t find any butter plate or even oil!?

Villa i Bonsi

Toast for Fettunta

Villa I Bonsi

Villa I Bonsi







Just as the days start to get colder and shorter and the mornings crisp and fresh, perhaps even too fresh, pickers go out to the olive groves, spread their circular cloths around the trunks to catch the olives as they fall.

Olives are resilient trees, their beautiful twisted and craggy trunks have seen history pass before them, think of the stories they could tell! And making olive oil has been a process largely unchanged for centuries. Some modernization has introduced new machinery to grind and press which has increased the purity and quality of the oil, so now those old grindstones are more likely to be seen as decorative pieces in the garden than in the Frantoio – Olive mill.

Olive Oil press

Old press

Olive oil grindstones

Old grindstones


What you may not know is that the olives are small, (not big juicy eating olives) pressed; pip and all…picked just before they are fully mature…ground at a controlled speed to not heat the paste and spoil the flavour and more importantly that… extra virgin olive oil will keep you healthy. The best extra virgin oil is Tuscan…followed by Umbrian, although I must admit after my time in the Cinque Terre that Ligurian oil is best with their local sea food dishes as it is lighter in flavour.

We know it’s good for the heart, the arteries, is a powerful anti ageing agent for our bodies and even linked to the prevention of cancer!  Whatever it is we love it, live on it and slurp it over everything.

There are at least 4 varieties of olives typical to Tuscany –

  • Moraiolo the most representative, still green in colour at harvest time, creates an oil with an intense, slightly bitter taste and a pungent after taste,
  • Frantoia produce a mix of green and black olives and  has an intense fruity fragrance followed by a deep peppery sensation, while
  • Leccino is black when mature and has a vivid fruity flavour with just a hint of bitterness and
  • Pendolino has the smell of almonds and is a mix of green and black at harvest time.

The tradition has been to mix the varieties together although some new growers are now producing mono varietal oils. I’m a traditionalist when it comes to my oil.

Most of the picking is done by hand, some use a wide toothed comb (even battery operated) so the more people the merrier…as they say. Where new groves have been planted they may use the tree shaker, although a wise old farmer was critical of the method as “that shakes the soul out of the tree” and not surprisingly since it needs to Olive Pickers

shake hard as the olives are not completely ripe.

During the picking there’s time to chatter and catch up on the local news or relate old stories as we clamber from tree to tree dragging the nets behind us.

Inside Villa with Tommy Budini Gattai

Inside Villa with Tommy Budini Gattai

Even my local postman takes time off work to go and pick. And why? Because the tradition has been to pay locals in oil not cash, which is like gold here – each getting a percentage of what they pick and hoping to pick enough to supply their family with oil for the year.

So next time you slurp some extra virgin olive oil, relish it even more now you know all the love and hard work that has gone into making it. Tenuta I Bonsi oil

Photos are from the Frantoio at Villa i Bonsi, owned by the family Budini Gattai, which many of my tour clients will recognise. It is 29kms outside of Florence in Reggello, a very pretty and less touristy area, offering apartments for rent or the Grand rooms for wedding receptions and conferences. www.agriturismoibonsi.it

I’m off to pick at Paolucci’s in Pienza, he’s running late with the picking so we’ll be working hard!