November is here, and in Italy this can only mean one thing: olive harvesting season.
Every Italian family who lives in the countryside owns at least 10 olive trees, and when the time is right, which is usually at the beginning of November, everybody is eager to start the ritual all over again.
A circle of olive oil over food is probably the most reassuring gesture Italians have, almost like a magic trick, a few drops of this green elixir and food becomes immediately more flavourful and appetising. My favourite part of olive harvesting is of course the so called: “olio nuovo”, literally the new olive oil. Its color: deep green, looks incredibly beautiful. It’s just a matter of a few months before it changes its color again, turning into a dark shade of yellow, tasting also more subtle and delicate.
Italians are well known for their addiction to olive oil, we just can’t live without it; I can see real terror in my mother’s eyes when she suddenly realises we finished the whole bottle of olive oil, and buying it from a reseller is almost as shocking as a not al dente pasta. In the whole region, and I would say almost everywhere in Italy, we celebrate the season of olio nuovo in many ways…food festivals and local restaurants would have special menus with olio nuovo and every time I would visit friends of mine, they would slice me some bread and proudly pour a few drops of their new oil, asking me what I thought about it. I would see tension in their eyes if I didn’t immediately say how much I liked their oil. It doesn’t really matter how strong, delicate, acidic or sweet it is, olive oil always tastes incredible to me.
Harvesting olives is a serious task and the most important thing to do, before starting the whole procedure, is to find the right time to do it, because olives need to be mature enough to be picked. My mum is usually the one who detects the perfect time to start.
Everyday, from the beginning of the second half of October, she would usually take time to stop for a few seconds in front of the olive trees right at the entrance of our house and casually look out of the corner of her eye at the olives and their leaves. Most of the time she would say: “non ancora” which means, “they’re not ready yet”…and she would repeat that, almost everyday, like a small ritual until the right time came. I usually got so used to her slowly shaking her head at the sign of saying no, that it almost struck me when she finally said: “sono pronte”, they are ready. When the time was right to collect the olives, we would call our dear gardener: Nello, who’s more a character from an old Italian movie rather than a real gardener… he drives one of the cutest cars you can possibly imagine… a cream-colored vintage Honda, which I adore. Every time I saw him driving it I’d tell him that one day I’d steal it from him and he would always answer the same way: “you are crazy to like this car, it’s so old! And it goes very slowly…nobody would want to have it!” Except me, I guess. I just love it even more.
After my mum gave her final word about the best time, then it was just a matter of minutes before I made a few calls and we arranged everything for the olive harvest day.We decided that Sunday was going to be the perfect time…
I gathered as many friends as possible – telling them about all the great food I was planning to prepare and the freezing cold beers I would bring to reward their efforts, I guess I knew their soft spots really well. A few days later, there we were: family and friends, all kinds of age gaps, from my Grandfather Luciano with his dogs, to my little niece Mia who can still barely stand properly. She’d just pick and eat anything she could find around her (ants included I think…).
The weather turned out to be amazing, Not so sunny, but mild and calm; the scene looked so familiar to me: lots of nets and ladders everywhere, people busy, focused on their tasks, laughter and jokes in the background. I was suddenly taken back in time and saw myself as my little sister Athina, playing with her cousins and friends, like I used to when I was younger, helping my grandparents in their old countryside house; I remember that time being better than Christmas, everybody was there, having fun, eating amazing fresh food and listening to the farmers’ tales, surrounded by trees and animals.
I’m stil today, very fond of those days, and forever grateful that I could experience them.
On that Sunday, Nello made sure that each one of us had a specific task; Barbara was busy getting pears to accompany the cheese. We would start collecting the olives, one tree at a time… nets nicely placed on the ground. The little girls took care of the smallest/lowest branches, while the rest of the team would aim a bit higher up and slowly shake and loosen as many olives as possible. My uncle Valentino, who’s also a professional climber, would make his way up to the top of the tree easily and would take care of the highest branches. The rest of us, not professional climbers, would just use a ladder to reach the furthest sides.
Not even one olive was forgotten…
After we managed to gather all the olives together, we carefully moved the net around, pushing all the olives to a specific point of the net and grouping them right in the middle.
After that, another very important part would come: the olives/leaves separation process, quite a relaxing job for the lazier ones, that by coincidence, somehow turned out to be me and my friends’ favourite task.
All around us, amazing scenery: a hill with almost two hectares of ancient olive and fruit trees. On one side the Adriatic sea’s blue vastness, on the other, at sunset, the sky becomes slightly pink with a hint of orange, like a painter, tracing the mountain’s profile.
One of my favourite corners in the whole world, my happy place; I love to go there and walk around, everything is so quiet, nobody’s around and all you can hear are birds chirping and leaves swaying in the wind. Everything looks exactly how it was a hundred years ago, and it’s even more beautiful to see it filled up with my favourite people.
Most of my friends where there, Enrico came later to join us and was mainly entertaining rather than helpful; he threw down some interesting gauntlets to my other friend Michael, who’s extremely competitive nature meant that he faced all of them, including the one consisting of biting a raw olive, which of course ended up pretty badly with my two friends spitting all of it out. The bitter taste wasn’t enough to make them stop.
Artù also came with us. He played with my Grandfather’s dogs and realised he had a crush on one of them, who didn’t really seem to return his interest… so he just ended up playing with us and the olives.
Virginia helped me to prepare the table, putting out all the dishes I had prepared, like some fresh herbs and wild greens salad, an amazing radicchio and gorgonzola savoury tart, some focaccia with tomatoes, onions and rosemary, plus all the local cheese and salami.
As a dessert we had a wonderful ricotta and visciole (wild cherry jam) cake made by my friend Emanuele and my sister’s favourite crostata with raspberry jam.
Laura, my other dear friend, was one of the most active in picking olives. We could see she had skills after a few olive harvests with her boyfriend Lorenzo in Ofena, where they have lots and lots of olive trees. Her daughter Alessandra helped my mother to entertain all the small kids and my father ate nonstop, debating the ingredients and the taste. The food on the table was finished really quickly and the savoury tart seemed to be a real hit; the creamy sweet gorgonzola, combined with the bitter radicchio is delightful. Having a sweet tooth, I particularly enjoyed the crostata, which I’m definitely going to make again, it tasted fantastic.
The dough is exactly how I like it… a bit crunchy and buttery, great for cookies as well! Together with the homemade jam… so simple yet delicious.
The whole day went by so fast, and we would have kept going until night, but suddenly, the rain came to stop us and we started running everywhere, trying to get back to the cars.
We decided and somehow managed to catch a hot chocolate or a coffee in a café just around the corner. It wasn’t the ending we imagined; pouring rain outside, my car filled with tables, picnic baskets, dishes and a giant ladder balancing on the top; and us, with our hands and clothes covered in oil and olive skins everywhere, looking like hipster farmers, but definitely happy and satisfied about the day, that I’m sure we’ll replicate again next year…
Radicchio Gorgonzola savoury tart
- 3 spoons of soft gorgonzola
- few cubes of hard gorgonzola
- 1 radicchio
- one pack of puff pastry
- 4 spoons of robiola, or any other delicate fresh cheese
- 1 egg
- olive oil
Roll the puff pastry until it becomes about 2 mm thick and prick it all over with a fork. In a bowl whisk together the egg, fresh robiola, gorgonzola, salt, pepper, nutmeg and gently pour the mixture on top of the puff pastry, spreading it well with the back of a spoon.
Prepare the radicchio by slicing it in half and removing the outer leaves, use the smallest, most tender ones and trim off the hard stems; leave just about 2 cm and cut it with a knife just to make sure it cooks properly. Place the radicchio leaves on top of the cream layer and drop evenly the cubes of gorgonzola around.
Season again with some pepper and salt (especially the radicchio) and extra vergin olive oil.
Cook a prehated oven for about 10/15 minutes at 220 °C.
- 200 gr extra fine sugar
- 500 gr flour
- 300 gr cold butter
- 5 egg yolks
- lemon zest
- 1 jar of thick raspberry jam
- extra lemon zest for the filling
In a large bowl mix all the dry ingredients, create a hole in the middle, add the yolks and whisk with the fork. Add the cold butter in cubes and quickly combine everything until the dough comes together into a ball. Shape into a disk, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least 20 minutes or until firm. Whisk the raspberry jam with the lemon zest.
Once your dough has rested, butter a flat-bottomed round pan and preheat your oven to 180 °C. Quickly roll the dough out to about 1/2 cm thick on a lightly floured surface. Set the dough over your pan and gently press it with your fingers; cut the extra pieces around the edge off and spread the jam on the dough. With the extra pieces of dough, reroll and cut them into strips laying them over the jam in a cross-hatch pattern.
Bake the crostata for about 30-40 minutes or until golden.
Cherry tomatoes Focaccia:
- 500 gr strong white flour
- 350 ml cold water
- 35 ml olive oil
- 3 teaspoons of salt (depending on your taste)
- 1 teaspoon of honey
- 2 gr dried yeast
- a handful of cherry tomatoes
- few springs of thyme
For the salamoia mixture, combine together:
- 100 ml water
- 100 ml olive oil
- 3 teaspoons of salt
In the bowl of a mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine all the dry ingredients except salt. Start mixing on low speed. Gradually add the oil, honey and the water increasing the speed to medium. Add the salt and work the dough for about 20 minutes or until it comes together, wrapping itself around the hook and slapping the sides of the bowl. Cover with kitchen towel and let it rise for about 2 hours at room temperature. Once the dough is doubled in size, remove it from the bowl and gently dump it into the pan punching it down to deflate it. Use your finger tips to push and press the dough evenly over the bottom of the baking sheet pan. Cover again and let rise over night in the oven (8/9 hours max). The following day, use your fingertips to make holes on the focaccia and brush it evenly with the salamoia. Add the halved tomatoes, a bit of extra salt, pepper and thyme.
Cook in the preheated oven for about 10 min at 220 °C, then brush the surface again and cook for other 15 min or until golden.