I was visiting with a group of friends recently, when someone tossed out a question for fun. “What’s the most memorable meal you’ve ever had?” Without hesitation my mind — and taste buds — traveled back to the first dinner at Poggio al Gello. The meal happened during autumn at an olive farm in west-central Italy, where I, and four former strangers quite literally partook in the fruits of our labor.
Just like the stereotype American woman, I found myself in Italy for love … but this was different! Chasing down a rediscovered love for Italian, I had conjured up the idea to spend a few months in Italy to overcome my fear of fumbling in the melodious language. Also, perhaps because it was fall, the idea wormed into my head that it would be interesting to learn about the olive oil process. But on a freelancer’s budget months of hotels or even inexpensive pensiones wasn’t possible. Then that week at a friend’s birthday party, I sat down across from a young woman who was mid-story regaling about her recent trip to an organic olive farm in Italy. She traveled there through an organization called WWOOF.
“Wait, What?!” I said.
She replied, “World Wide Opportunities in Organic Farming. You work in exchange for room and board.”
Needless to say I signed up the next day.
WWOOF is a non-profit organization that links volunteers with organic farmers to promote cultural and educational experiences for all ages. Its mission is to build a sustainable, global community through trust-based, (non-monetary) exchanges. With destinations worldwide, their listings describe what type of work to expect, lodging offered, minimum and maximum stay length and languages spoken at each location.
After exchanging a few emails I was heading to Grosseto, Italy to harvest olives and improve my Italian with the proprietors at Poggio al Gello farm. But I have to admit, on the train speeding northwest from Rome to the tiny village, I wondered ‘What the hell am I thinking — hard labor on a farm? Picking olives and living with a bunch of strangers?’ But as I watched the hills of Tuscany float by and the soundtrack of boisterous Italian travelers played in my ears, the butterflies in my stomach flew right out the window.
Proprietors Alda Chiarini and her husband, Giorgio, both former educators, came to farming as a second career. They made us feel at home right away. By us, I mean two other WWOOFers, Claire and Sebastian, a riot of a couple from New Zealand. I learned quickly that even under the Tuscan sun, when standing long hours harvesting olive trees (of which there were 1,300) good conversation is crucial. Claire and Seb were hilarious and with marvelous Kiwi accents to boot.
We stayed in the restored stone farmhouse, another project of Alda and Giorgio’s, and shared meals together. Dinner conversation lasted for hours. I translated for the Kiwis since Giorgio spoke only a bit of English and Alda’s consisted mostly of four-letter words. I remember one difficult exchange, though, when they asked details about the Clinton and Lewinsky scandal (idioms don’t translate well). Poggio al Gello also produces wine, which was another reason for marathon dinners. Giorgio would hoist up a small carrier filled with six bottles from the cellar located just below the dining room. Yet still we woke early, to the aroma of espresso of course.
Each morning we’d commence in our labor of love, dozens of times over: Wrap an enormous net skirt at the base of the trunk. Run hands downward through the branches, tickling the olives from their stems like combing through long hair. This action lands the olives onto the net, hopefully. When the tree is cleared (there is always one more straggler) pick up one end of the net and shimmy the olives into a pile to carefully disgorge them into plastic crates, collected later by anything with a motor and storage space. The work itself is pleasant though long, and the ‘tired’ sneaks up on you after standing for about seven hours each day. Then, as dusk falls, carefully drive the convoy of overloaded vehicles to the local press.
During October, November and into December each year, highways in the olive regions of Tuscany, Puglia, Liguria and parts of Lazio are hectic with pickup trucks, tractors, even tiny Fiats — filled to the brim with olives, buzzing to the local press like bees to the hive. Timing is crucial because processing more than 48 hours after harvest the oil decreases in quality.
Entering the press with our first load of 700 kilo felt like surrendering into the eye of an ancient storm. The place pulsated with activity as dozens of harvesters delivered mountains of olives then front loaders dumped each bounty into massive containers for precise weight measurement. Finally, each load was christened with the correct paperwork. The procedure seems simple, but multiply it by Italian, and I say that lovingly. Even though the process has been replicated for decades, loud chaos erupted from the simplest of misfires. I was drawn into the energy of the giant vortex, yet incredulous at the same time.
For pressing, the entire olive — pit and all — is crushed on a conveyor into a coarse mash. Water is added (cold is preferred, hot water affects the chemical make up and changes the taste) then it’s ground into a finer mash. The mash is strained, and the remaining oil and water is centrifuged, the water drained away. At last, tall steel jugs capture the thick stream of fluorescent green oil, surprisingly opaque. The piquant smell of freshly pressed olives permeates the huge space and intoxicates the senses. And the taste …
The next evening at dinner, Giorgio toasted bread for bruschetta in the huge fireplace next to the table. Our plates were set with a garlic clove, a fresh tomato half and a dish of the year’s first olive oil, pressed that morning. Like baby birds learning to eat, we mimicked Alda and rubbed the garlic clove then the tomato onto the bruschetta, leaving a rich film of flavor. The stage was set for the finale, dousing the bruschetta with oil. Crunching into it, the co-mingled tastes burst open, and it was (is) the best olive oil I’ve ever tasted — hints of green, earthy, buttery and spicy. The early harvest produces the spicy zest, which the Tuscans prefer. Steamed carrots, potatoes and onions all fresh from the garden were passed around for dipping. Within moments, olive oil dripped down our chins as our taste buds soared. And yes, my Italian improved one delicious drop at a time.
To learn more about WWOOF exchanges visit wwoof.net, and don’t be swayed by all the young people in the photos. All ages can participate.
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