I knew by the ring of the church bells it was time for lunch, but I was in no rush to climb down from the olive tree. The view from up there - rolling green hills splashed with red-gold autumn vineyards and the distant hilltop town of Montepulciano against the warm blue sky - was divine. I'd been picking olives in this grove since early morning. The traditional Italian harvest method, called brucatura, pulling one olive at a time off the full branches, had brought me to a state of euphoria. I'd started in the chilly early morning, my back aching from yesterday's labor in places I never knew existed, but now was warmed up, so the pain had subsided and I didn't even pay attention to the scratches on my arms or the buzz in my hands. Back home in Los Angeles, it takes hours of excruciating yoga poses to get this deep-calm-in-the-moment feeling. But here in southern Tuscany it came to me through old-fashioned farm work - by volunteering to pitch in with the olive harvest, or, as the Italians say, la raccolta.
The raccolta yields one of Tuscany's most treasured products: olive oil. Extra-virgin Tuscan olive oil is valued by chefs worldwide for its purity and intense, fresh, grassy flavor. In the restaurants and kitchens I visited and throughout Italy, it was used liberally, as the base for sauces, soups, and stews, to add flavor to vegetable and bean dishes, and showcased on its own in antipasto courses where it was drizzled in fine streams over crusty bread and pooled in shallow dishes for dipping asparagus or mozzarella slices.
The raccolta begins the first week of November, which was when I arrived to volunteer at Reniella, in the village of Montefollonico, nestled in Tuscany's Chiana Valley. Reniella is an organic agriturismo - a working farm with guest accommodations, vineyards, fruit trees, a vegetable garden, a flock of sheep, a couple of pigs, chickens, and olive trees. With such a workload, the British transplants who own the farm, Elfride ("Elf") and her husband, Bob Vaughan, welcome travelers to help out year-round, but are especially grateful to have extra hands to pitch in with the raccolta, which can run into January.
Volunteers are offered two choices: Full board and a spare room in the Vaughans' house for free, or they can rent the adjacent two-bedroom agriturismo for a break in price, depending on how much work they're up for. Since I was traveling solo, I went for the free option.
Living and working with the Vaughan family, which includes their 7-year-old son, Owain, a precocious Harry Potter look-alike, gave me the chance to get an expat's experience of Tuscan country life. The Vaughans took on the challenge of Reniella five years ago without any previous farming experience. What they did have was loads of energy, a passion to learn, and, most important, a shared sense of humor about the whole venture. "That first year," Bob told me, laughing, "I butchered a pig with a knife in one hand and a manual in the other."
The older farmers in Montefollonico were impressed by the Vaughans' determination, and began stopping by to offer help and advice. With their assistance and Bob and Elf's hard work, Reniella got up and running.
In the damp chilly mornings, after Bob had driven Owain to the school-bus stop on the back of his motorcycle, we'd head out to the grove, set up nets under the trees, and start picking while balanced on ladders.
I learned to recognize the typical Tuscan varieties of olives: those little hard-to-pull-off green moraioli, the easier corregioli, the large, shiny black leccini, and the small green-black olivastre.
"Careful not to get whacked in the eye by an olive branch," Elf had warned me, but during my first enthusiastic hour of picking, the inevitable happened. Elf snapped into maternal mode, putting salve in my lower eyelid and apologizing as if it was her fault. "It's my initiation rite," I joked, blinking the medication into place and putting on my Jackie O. sunglasses to avoid another incident.
A whack in the eye seemed a small price to pay to become part of a 2,000-year-old tradition. Olive cultivation began here during Etruscan times and took hold when the ruling Medicis offered farmers free land if they planted grapes and olives. Over the centuries, workers have kept their commitment to quality production, persevering through all kinds of hardships, including winter freezes, the most recent of which, in 1985, wiped out two-thirds of the region's trees.
At Reniella, time-honored raccolta traditions are followed. Just before they ripen, the olives are picked by hand, rather than by rake or machine, and brought to the mill as soon as possible to be put through the cold-press process. The Vaughans also adhere to an age-old practice known as the mezzadria, trading olive oil to locals and visiting volunteers who help with the harvest. (I was given a bottle to take home and impress my friends back in California at my Thanksgiving table.) The rest they sell to restaurants in the area and guests of their agriturismo. And naturally, just like natives, they keep a good supply to use in their own kitchen throughout the year.
Though I tried to blend in during my week's stay, my raccolta awe set me apart from the Vaughans and the locals. To everyone else, doing these patient, labor-intensive tasks was second nature.
The bleary-eyed, overworked laborers at the family-run frantoio where we took the olives to be pressed laughed at me as I snapped pictures of them running our olives through the old stone mills to make a paste that filled the room with a rich musty smell. Expats who owned farms nearby, and had hired locals to do their farm work, rolled their eyes when I met them in town and enthusiastically told them I was here to volunteer for the raccolta. Older harvesters, like Rizzi, the Vaughans' 75-year-old neighbor, showed me his scratched, arthritic hands, lamenting (while laughing) about "la bestemmia, la bestemmia" - the curse of this work he'd been doing ever since he could stand up.
I thought of Rizzi in the mornings when I'd wake with an aching back and sore hands, yet still eager to get out to the grove to pick. I'd dress quickly, looking forward to the moment when we'd click into a rhythm, climbing up and down ladders, our conversations running from books to movies to life stories, with the rustle of the olive branches, birdsongs, the distant muffled sounds of pheasant hunters, and the voices of harvesting neighbors filling the background.
A celebration of the raccolta took place every day at lunch. Though it was glorious to be in the trees when the sun was shining, ultimately the sight of Elf setting up a picnic brought me down to join her and Bob in the shade. We piled our plates with pecorino cheese, thick crusty bread, tomatoes, slices of salami, peppers, and fennel, and Bob poured us tumblers of full-bodied Reniella wine.
And finally, we'd pass around olio nuovo - cloudy green-gold oil that came from olives that had been in our hands just days before. As I tasted it, I got more than its peppery, fresh grassy flavor. I got the feeling that comes along with being part of the raccolta - peace from doing work that feeds body and soul.
Agriturismo Reniella (email@example.com; +39-0577-660449) welcomes volunteers year-round to stay in the Vaughans' home free, but you can also rent their neighboring two-bedroom apartment (€480 - €660 per week, depending on how much you help with the raccolta).
Makes 6 light first-course servings or 12 hors d'oeuvre servings.
4 medium tomatoes (1.5 pounds), peeled, seeded, and
very coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon kosher salt
12 slices crusty Italian bread, about 3 inches in diameter
1 garlic clove, split
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons sherry vinegar or balsamic vinegar
15 basil, Italian parsley, or mint leaves, coarsely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
Toss the tomatoes with the salt and drain for 30 minutes in a colander set over a bowl.
Toast the bread slices on both sides - use the broiler so they don't get stuck in the toaster - and rub the top of each slice with the garlic clove. Brush the top of each slice with the olive oil.
Gently press down on the drained tomatoes to extract more juices, transfer them to a bowl, and toss with the vinegar and chopped herbs. Season to taste with pepper.
Spoon the tomato mixture in small mounds on top of the toasts. Serve 2 bruschettas as a first course or 1 as an hors d'oeuvre or as part of an antipasto platter.
Photos by iStockPhoto