The first of the city friends arrived on Friday night, driving over the Rimutaka Hill Road after work in the dark, ready to settle in for a three-day weekend full of food, friends, olives, and a lot of hard work. There were big hello hugs all around and bags deposited in guest rooms.
We used to operate as B&B, and the extra bedrooms still come in handy at harvest time as well as throughout the year, when visiting friends and family often occupy the rooms.
As everyone arrived that night, they were talking about the horrible weather that had been forecast for the weekend.
Threatening cold and rain
CJ and I had been nervous about the weather all week. The last thing we wanted was to have our friends out harvesting our olives in nasty, wet weather. After all, we hoped that when the weekend was over we’d still be able to count these people as friends.
It’s also bad to have wet olives go to the press, since they soak up the rainwater and become heavier. Olive presses charge by the kilo, and you end up paying a lot of money to press out a lot of water.
There was less of a chance of rain on Saturday than there was on Sunday, so we decided to start working early on Saturday and hopefully finish everything that day. Our plan was to harvest just the Frantoio and Leccino — about 150 trees.
All week long we’d been borrowing things. From our neighbor John we borrowed a pick-up truck, or ‘ute’ as it’s called here. Our little city-boy Nissan Pulsar would never make it down into the muddy paddocks and back, and there was no room in the tiny hatchback for all the olives we were going to harvest.
Helen the Olive Angel, who owns the top-notch commercial grove ‘Olivo‘ nearby and who has taught me more about olives than anyone, had kindly let us borrow her two Italian mechanical rakes. They are expensive, fragile things, impossible to find replacement parts for in New Zealand, and while I was grateful I was also filled with a heavy sense of responsibility.
Helen hadn’t harvested yet, and if we broke those rakes it could easily threaten her business.
Each of those mechanical rakes has two rake heads on the end of a long pole, and the rake heads sort of clap together, shaking the olives off the branches. They’re run off of a very heavy air compressor. They make harvesting go much faster than just raking the olives off the tree with small hand rakes, which is what we normally do.
In addition to Helen’s mechanical rakes, CJ and I had borrowed her nets, crates, and a few extra hand rakes.
With all this borrowed equipment, it felt like the entire neighborhood was behind us.
The morning crew
Saturday morning I woke early and peeked out the front windows. Our house looks down over the olive grove from a distance, and the olive trees were shrouded in mist. Thankfully there was no rain, yet.
We were down in the grove by 8am, starting the harvest with the Frantoio. The morning crew was an international team of friends – two Kiwis, one Aussie, one Argentinian, and CJ and me as the two Americans. Later that day we were expecting another Kiwi and a Brit.
When I think about it — even now, after it’s over — it still amazes me that these people showed up to help us. I’m incredibly grateful. Without them our olives would still be on the trees.
We worked hard all morning. The mist swept and swerved on the hills beyond the bottom paddock
How to harvest olives
Two years before I’d helped Helen with her harvest. Her team was short one person and I volunteered. She offered to pay me, but I said, “No. This is my education.” That day I learned all about those mechanical rakes, and I learned how to harvest. There are many ways, of course, but this is the way I know.
You get two people on the mechanical rakes, and two people on nets. You lay the nets out under the trees and the rakers go at it, shaking and raking the olives down onto the nets. Then the rakers move to the next tree, which already has nets under it.
Meanwhile, the netters lift the edges of the nets under the first tree to gather the olives and unload them into crates. Then they spread the empty nets out under the next tree in the row, in a leap frog fashion, always one step ahead of the rakers.
It’s exhausting. If you’re on rakes, you’re holding a long, heavy, shaking stick up in the air for hours. If you’re on nets, you’re continually scrambling to stay ahead of the rakers. No mater what you’re doing, you’re always having to stay mindful of not stepping on any olives.
Taking a break
We stopped for morning tea at 10:30. Morning and afternoon tea are a significant part of New Zealand culture – a part I especially like. We took thermoses full of hot coffee and tea into the olive grove, and we ate the delicious homemade muesli bars one of the city friends had brought.
Then we got back to work. More raking, more netting. I kept a careful eye on the two mechanical rakes. Everyone was taking good care of them.
It was only then, after morning tea, that I realized there was something wrong with some of the fruit that had been coming in among the morning crates.
Some of the Frantoio were not green, as they should be. They were an odd color brown.
Our enemy Jack Frost
The weather this year turned cold and rainy sooner than usual. In the two weeks before our harvest, we’d had incredible amounts of rain, low temperatures, and a couple frosty mornings. The Frantoio ripen late, and there had been a frost at a point when the fruit was vulnerable.
Standing there beside the crates in the grove, I immediately pulled out my mobile phone and consulted two other Martinborough growers. I’m still learning. I’ve never had to deal with frost-damaged fruit before. I described the situation. Yes, it was frost damage. Yes, we had to get rid of that fruit.
The Wairarapa has been noted for its excellent oil, and that doesn’t come from pressing bad fruit. Mike Wilkinson of Ruakokoputuna Olives, not far from us, has said, ‘You can grow olives in warmer places but the oil hasn’t got the intensity of flavour like we have here in Wairarapa.’ This is due to the combination of cool nights and hot days. At the beginning and end of the growing season, however, those cool nights can mean frosts, and frost-damaged fruit can ruin the taste of your oil.
I was determined that none of our damaged fruit would make it to the press.
The sorting starts
One of the city friends started sorting through the crates of Frantoio to pull out the frost-damaged fruit. There wasn’t actually a lot, so you had to look for it. We dumped the bad fruit onto the ground.
While the sorting continued, I took a position in front of the rakers to check each tree before it was harvested. I gave the nod to harvest or not. Usually only a small part of a tree was affected by frost, or it was just the odd olive here and there, which I’d pull off by hand and discard before the rakers got there.
By the time we stopped for lunch at 1:00, we’d only finished about 35 trees.
As we sat down at the big wooden dining table back at the house to eat – stuffed peppers, salami, ham, cheeses, dips, and several kinds of bread – everyone looked tired.
The afternoon zooms by
The afternoon was the hardest. The weather was cold and our energy was waning. Fortunately, when we moved on to the Leccino, there was no frost damage like there had been on the Frantoio. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
There were still crates of Frantoio from the early morning that needed to be sorted for quality. It was a long, tedious job. Thankfully, with the afternoon arrival of our friends Biscuit and Anne, we still had the same number of people on rakes and nets.
Time passed quickly, and before we knew it we were losing the light. It also began to rain, but only in light and periodic sprinkles. We still had one long row of trees to do. All the city friends were keen to keep going and everyone kicked into overdrive, skipping the trees without much fruit, concentrating on the heavily fruiting ones.
As the last of the light slipped out of the olive grove and off to its place behind the hills, we loaded the final crate of olives onto the back of John’s ute, along with the compressor and mechanical rakes.
We never would have finished on Saturday if it hadn’t been for the blessing of Helen’s magical rakes. And they were still working perfectly, not broken at all.
Work in the garage
CJ drove the ute out of the grove and up to our driveway. It was about 7:30pm by then. We had to have the fruit to the olive press by 8:30pm at the latest.
We unloaded the crates in the garage, pulled up old chairs, and used the next hour to get out all the frost-damaged fruit that we could. I’d been told that having ‘a little’ frost-damaged fruit would not compromise the quality of the oil. But how much was ‘just a little?’
In the end we ran out of time, and we took the olives to the press as they were, a few crates still unsorted. Would it ruin the taste of our oil? I had no idea.
We got to the press at 8:15. It’s just one street off the town square, and it’s called ‘Pressing Engagements.’ From the back of John’s ute we unloaded our 30 crates of olives and the oil containers I’d cleaned the weekend before.
What Diane said
Diane, who owns the press, was so busy that she told us we wouldn’t be able to pick up our oil until Monday. She was working thirteen hour days and was pressing as fast as she could. I showed her our crates of unsorted fruit.
“Do you think the taste will be okay if we press this?” I asked.
She stuck her hands into the crate and picked up a handful of olives. She is a tiny woman. She looked tired. “Well, you harvested it. It should be fine.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
She looked again. “Should be.”
I decided to have it pressed, hoping all along that I wasn’t making a mistake. Was I being greedy, just to have more oil? Was I risking the taste of the entire batch?
The end of the day
When we got home from the olive press, I reached into the fridge and took out the three lasagne trays I’d prepared the day before – one beef, one veggie, one gluten free, all of them heaped with ricotta, mozzarella and fresh basil. I had made these without any help from anyone. For me – someone who three years before barely knew how make microwave popcorn – this was a kind of quiet miracle. I quickly popped the lasagne into the oven, and dinner was on its way.
By the time we sat down, the table was nearly overflowing with food. Everybody had made or brought something special. Kumara cooked in garam masala. Fresh crusty breads. Potato, green bean and pesto salad. And for dessert I had made the famous carrot cake.
That evening, after we’d feasted and toasted to the harvest and talked and laughed about the day, we all finally turned in. I closed up the house for the night, happy to have our city friends down the hall. I locked the front door, turned down the damper on the woodburner, and shut off the lights.
Finally I fell into bed beside CJ with the kind of pleasant collapse that comes only after a long day of arduous, satisfying work. Before I drifted off into sleep, I lay there for a moment thinking about our oil. How would it taste? Would it be okay?
It killed me that I was going to have to wait to find out.
For the conclusion, check out the book. This post, in a slightly edited form, has become Chapter 41 in my upcoming book ‘Moon over Martinborough: How an American city boy became a Kiwi farmer’. The book will be released by Random House New Zealand in June 2013.
- Check out Olivo’s website.
- You can find ‘Pressing Engagements’ olive press at 40 Naples Street in Martinborough. Phone: 06 306 6346.