Picture yourself standing on a hill, looking over a terraced olive grove that stretches as far as the eye can see. Now imagine that you have to harvest all those olives by hand. And you have to do it quickly, to maximize the quality of the oil you will be subsequently pressing from those olives. Yikes!
You can see why harvesting season was, and still is, a job for families, communities, and groups of harvesters- not for a solo farmer. Participants would converge at the groves and spend long days gathering the olives and celebrating what was hopefully a bountiful harvest.
Rakes used to be the pinnacle of harvesting technology, and they were used to agitate the branches so the olives would fall into collection nets below. The fruit would then be carted off to the mill for crushing and extraction.
This labour of love is still performed every year, but the technology has vastly improved to allow for minimal time between harvesting and crushing, which leads to higher quality oils. In groves that can accommodate harvesting vehicles, trucks are often employed that have shaker arms that grip the trunk of the tree and vibrate it so the olives fall into the nets below.
Timing is Everything
Olives grown in the northern hemisphere are harvested from October to December, and those grown in the southern hemisphere are usually harvested between April and June. During those months producers must decide when they want to harvest their crops. This decision can be influenced in part by what sort of flavour profile they are seeking for the fruit, as early-season olives tend to have more bitterness or pungency due to a greater concentration of biophenols at that stage of growth. If the olives are left on the tree a while longer, their flavour tends to mellow out as they ripen, and the olives will often display milder, more fruity notes instead.
To the Mill
Those freshly-picked olives must get to the mill as quickly as possible to ensure they don’t start to spoil or play host to any flies or other pests. Minimizing the time in between harvesting and crushing means a better chemistry profile and the superior taste that puts extra virgin olive oil above the rest.
Our next blog will conclude the Olive to Oil series with olive crushing and oil extraction. Stay tuned!