December 1993, Cinzia’s father, Vincenzo was on his last days of a long battle with malignant brain cancer. It was a cold gray time in Ruvo, the small village in Puglia where Cinzia’s entire family was born. The days were spent at the small town hospital where Vincenzo was resting, waiting. He would fade in and out of consciousness while Cinzia and her mom, Mimma would sit at his bedside and knit the black shawl that Cinzia would wear at her father’s funeral.. Gray, humid days. The chill almost impossible to escape from. It was also the period of the year in Ruvo when the olive harvest is in full operation. Cinzia and her mamma spoke of Uncle Gino needing to go to the terreno, a small parcel of land, to gather the olives. It was becoming late in the season and it could not be held off any longer. Gino knew that the local cooperative was registering an oil content of around 21%, so it was the right time.
That afternoon, Vincenzo’s older brother came to visit the small room in the hospital and mentioned that he would be harvesting the next morning. Jokingly, Uncle Gino remarked if I wanted to tag along with his sons Antonio and Gaetano.
He grinned at me fully expecting me to decline the offer as he knew it meant getting out of bed at 4 AM and getting into the ulivetto, olive orchard, by 5 at the latest. The cold humid weather was not an appealing thought. But, I accepted the offer, to everyone’s surprise. This American engineer of “stature” and “social position” would stoop to laboring in the ulivetti…this was something new!
4 AM came too early. I rolled out of bed, my feet hitting the ice cold stone floor, with a shudder, I pulled on my sneakers, a pair of jeans and an ill fitting knit sweater that I think was worn by Cinzia’s grandfather many years earlier by the smell of the mothball. Still groggy, I headed down stairs to the cold street.
From around the corner I saw Gino in his banged up old Renault 5, Antonio in the passenger seat and Gaetano in the back. They were wearing what would be as I would recall as the Pugliese Olive Harvesters Uniform…baggy pants, knit sweater, cappellino…you know, the round little hat “Italians” wear” and a knit scarf around their neck. I jumped into the back of the Renault and we sputtered off, onto the stramurale, outer wall road, passing by the train station, the cooperative cantina, up a small hill and into the olive groves. After a few minutes, we arrived to the terreno that Cinzia’s family had owned for generations. It was not too big, covered in about 60 trees all of the coratina varietal.
I squeezed out of the back of the tiny car looked up and saw 3 shadowy figures warming themselves by a fire. Zio (Uncle) told me he had brought on 3 “contadini” or workers to help out for the day. They were short, with rugged and wrinkled faces dressed in the official uniform of the day. Gino opened the back of the Renault. From it, he pulled a damiggiana (jug) of wine and a bottle of olive oil and a loaf of crusty Ruvese bread…all of his own production, I presumed. We walked over to the men by the fire. One pulled out a cast iron skillet and placed it directly over the glowing embers. Gino poured what seemed like a half gallon of oil into the pan, another through a handful or two of reddish brown olives into the oil. The potion sizzled popped and bubbled over the fire. While the men exchanged some discussion over who was paying the most for olives this year, or jokes about the farmer’s mule. Minutes passed, the pan was lifted from the fire and bread was broken. Each of us dipped the bread in the pan and soaked up the heady combination of warm fresh novello (new) oil with fried olives…buttery and rich, bitter and peppery on the back of the throat…accompanied by a strong cough. The polyphenols of the coratina olives at work. No worries, the jug of wine was passed around to wash down this amazing colazione del contadino (farmworker breakfast). I could have lingered over this for another hour or at least until the wine was gone and there was still plenty of the young red wine…but it was time to work.
We started at the back end of the terreno. A large tarp was placed under each tree. We climbed with ladders into the body of the Coratina which does not grow too large and is best hand harvested. With the help a small rake or “pettina” we pulled the olives away from the silver green leaved branches into small baskets. The olives that fell to the ground were immediately retrieved from the tarps. As we would fill the small baskets, we would bring them to one of the workers who loaded them into a larger burlap bag or sacco. The sacco would hold about 200 lbs of olives. We continued this process without stopping until just before noon. We had finished the last trees and the final olives were dumped. We had gathered 2 full bags, or about 400 lbs of olive.
The contadini lugged the olives over to Gino’s “really” tiny Renault and loaded them into the back. The car’s rear end creaked and moaned under the extra weight. I wondered how it would bring Gino, Antonio, Gaetano and myself back to Ruvo.
Gino pulled out 3 red bills each of 20,000 Lire and handed one to each of the contadini…$15 for a day’s work, not bad. All three then jumped into the forrest green Piaggio 3 wheel scooter/truck two up front and one on the flatbed in back and it buzzed and sputtered down the rocky roadway back to their homes and family, for a nice hot pranzo (lunch) and a nap.
Now it was our turn, the Renault creaked forward on the country road, rocks and potholes notwithstanding, we headed back to Ruvo. It was important that we get the olives to the Frantioio (olive oil mill) as soon as possible. The sooner that olives are transformed to oil the better the quality. Olives will immediately start to ripen and become rancid soon after being picked which introduces unwanted flavors to the oil.
Finally the little car that could, made it to the cooperative. You could hear the hum of the granite wheels turning and crushing olives it would be working non stop for the entire month. The smell of fresh olives permeated the air. Like a combination of fresh cut grass with pear and apple slice aromas.
At the entrance to the frantoio, a young man in oil covered overalls shook Gino’s hand. The workers pulled out the two big bags of olives and emptied them into a hopper over a scale. I could see a small chalkboard with hand written numbers that indicated the current oil concentration in the olives…11/12 19.7%, 12/12 20.2%, 13/12 21.1%, 14/12 21.4%. Today’s “ritiro” or collection will be based on the olives having an oil content of 21.4%, or for every 100 pounds of olives, 21.4 pounds of extra virgin olive oil will be alotted to the member of the cooperative for this day. After doing a little math in my head, Uncle Gino’s terreno would net him the equivalent of about 85 pounds of oil, or about 12 gallons, just enought for his family for the year. Gino handed the worker a small gray book. He scribbled some numbers on it, stamped it and gave it back to him. Our work was done.
From the frantoio, we headed back over to the hospital to meet with Cinzia, her mamma and check on Vincenzo. We entered corridor and met up with Vincenzo’s uncle Zio Rocchino, a small burly man with a generous smile and sparkling eyes. He looked at me with a grin and said incredulously “you actually went into the fields today?” Uncle Rocky had spent most of his life toiling in the ulivetti and had never met a foreigner who willingly went into the fields. He proceeded to tell everyone in the hospital of my, in my mind, underwhelming “great deed”. At first, I was shocked, but as the day progressed, I must admit that I felt an incredible feeling of love from this family. It was as if I had honored them for some undeserving act. This feeling of gratitude had given me a well to draw from even in the darkest moments of my life…