Autumn's Warm Breath
Harvesting olives in Portugal
Summer receded on slow feet, and now the mornings, which start cold and dark, give way to autumn’s warm breath — the last heat of the year before the winter rains close in. In these warming mornings, we go down the hill to the olive groves, where for four hours our hands go up and down the branches, prying the purple and green fruits from the branches. When we have between 600-800 kilos of picked, cleaned fruit, it will be driven to the lagar where it will be pressed into olive oil. Eight hundred kilos of olives will yield enough fragrant, green olive oil to last for two years or more. The oil produced by these trees makes what one buys in the store seem criminal. I have only once before had olive oil such as this, and that was a $60 bottle of specialty Italian olive oil a friend in New Mexico treated herself to once every few years, reserving it for only the most special occasions. It is rich, a little cloudy, and greener than any oil I have ever found in any market or grocery store.
We are not the only quinta busy with the harvest. Up and down the lanes, in every grove, the green nets are spread under trees — ladders and buckets, pruning saws and sheers, and groups of harvesters create in the usually quiet groves a sense of festivity. Orders are shouted back and forth in various dialects of Portuguese, along with local gossip. Everywhere people climb up the ladders, into the tangled mess with small hand rakes, shucking the olives to the nets below. It is hard work, and for those accustomed to it, one as natural as breathing — once the majority of the olives on your trees have gone black and purple, it is time for two weeks in the groves, two weeks of the picking, cleaning, pruning and bagging. The last great chore of the year, that is unless you still have firewood to chop and stack. It is easy to find the rhythm of the harvest, to sink into singing or conversation or silence, to settle into a group activity that will leave you tired and deeply satisfied. “Five buckets today!" we brag on a good day, holding up our sticky, purple hands as delighted as children coming in from playing in the mud.
After the first week of harvesting we had four hundred kilos of the oily jewels, which then had to be run through the Agricol — a large, rumbling contraption that drops the fruit through a vibrating screen, allegedly separating branches and leaves from olives. The first day or two our Agricol was not so sure of itself, and so we were bent over the great, shallow bucket that catches the “separated” olives, prying them from stems, pulling out leaves, and testing the limits of our backs. After two days of negotiating with the Agricol, we had sixteen clear plastic bags, each weighing between twenty-five and thirty kilos tied off, ready for the upcoming trip to the lagar.
Next Tuesday, the same day I will turn forty, we will load up our many, many hours of labor and drive the short distance into the village, delivering our bounty to Edmundo, who within five hours will have two years worth of oil ready for us. Until then, we continue each morning, rising before the sun to tend the horses and goats and dogs before having our coffee and trundling down the hill to scrabble among the satiny trees. As the harvest approaches its dénouement, there is a certain longing for the work to continue — for the rhythm of pruning and prying to continue — for the singing in the trees to go on and on. All seasons, though, have their time, giving way to what follows in its natural order, and as this season ends for us with such a milestone birthday, I can only look forward to what comes after — to the next season in its turn, and all that will come with it.