CJ looked nervous. “What do you mean? We have to harvest.”
“It’s taking him longer than expected in another olive grove. He says he’ll come here tomorrow, but he won’t commit to a time.”
“That’s not good. If he doesn’t come here first, he’ll get stuck in another grove again,” CJ said. “He’ll never make it here.”
Every year at harvest time, Andrew-of-the-Olives becomes a very popular man. With his Mighty Tree Shaker, he can harvest an olive tree in something like 30 seconds. He’s based in the Hawke’s Bay and he has the only tree shakers on the North Island.
Last year we tried desperately to get him to our grove at the last minute to harvest the Barnea trees we hadn’t yet harvested with friends and neighbors. But alas, Jack Frost showed up before Andrew. We lost fruit from nearly 300 trees. It was horrible.
Above all we want quality fruit. That means a quick harvest in the small window after the olives are ripe enough to provide the flavor we’re seeking, but before the Martinborough frosts come.
“Give me the phone,” CJ said. “I’ll get Andrew here first thing tomorrow morning.”
“Leave it to me.”
What I heard next was pure genius. There was CJ, asking Andrew-of-the-Olives what he wanted for breakfast. “Bacon and eggs? Roasted tomatoes? How about a fritatta with fresh silverbeet from the garden? Maybe you want avocado on your toast? Breakfast is at 8am. Great. See you then.”
CJ hung up and smiled. “He’ll be here.”
Andrew-of-the-Olives is a sturdy, smallish man who is something like a cross between a lumberjack and an elf. He has an opinion on absolutely everything, and he enjoys a humorous banter full of sweeping pronouncements and playful put-downs. He’s a good guy.
That next morning, eager for breakfast, Andrew showed up a half an hour early. He reprimanded us for putting milk in the scrambled eggs and wailed in horror when CJ’s Aunt Charlie, who is here for her regular visit from the States, suggested using butter instead of olive oil in the frying pan.
At one point Andrew actually took the spatula out of Aunt Charlie’s hand and started flipping the bacon himself because, as he said, “It’s time.” Yet he does all of this with an impish smile and somehow, if you take him with a grain of salt, he has a certain arrogant charm.
What mattered most was that we fed him incredibly well and by 9am he was down in the grove, cocooned in his climate-controlled cab and driving the Mighty Tree Shaker. Our plan for that day was to harvest our Barnea and our Manzanillo, about two-thirds of the grove.
CJ and I watched as Andrew drove up to one of our tall Barnea trees. Suddenly a mechanical net unfolded in a sweeping arc around the base of the tree – like an inverted green umbrella. Then giant prongs came forward, gripped the trunk, and shook the entire tree wildly. Olives fell like rain.
The fruit rolled down to the center of the round net and into a holding area below. Then the prongs let go, the net folded itself up neatly, and Andrew-of-the-Olives drove to the next tree in the row.
After a couple of trees, Andrew unloaded the olives into the enormous bin he’d brought with him, which was sitting on the back of the ute we’d borrowed from our neighbor John. The bin holds about 500kg of fruit (1,100 pounds). Although CJ and I had never filled up a bin that size, this year we were hopeful. It wasn’t long before we realized something was terribly, terribly wrong.
Andrew stepped out of his cab, walked over to CJ and me, and yelled, “These trees are chocka!” I’ve been in New Zealand long enough to know Andrew meant the trees were full, packed, overflowing. (I’m practically bilingual.) Then he gestured over to the giant bin and said, “That bugger will be filled to the top before I even finish this first row. You need more bins!”
“More bins?” CJ said, shocked.
“How many?” I asked.
Andrew-of-the-Olives looked up at the trees and did some mysterious calculation that only highly evolved olive brains can do. “At least two bins. Maybe more. And we need them before I finish this row. In about 30 minutes.” Then he stood back smiled in his good natured but devilish way, as though he found our entire predicament rather amusing.
CJ and I knew that Andrew had at least two other groves to harvest after ours that day. He couldn’t wait around doing nothing while we got bins. We needed bins now.
The olive bin scramble
I immediately got on my mobile phone. The Featherson press didn’t have any bins at such short notice. Next I called the Masterton press. We were in luck. They had two bins, but how were we going to pick them up? The giant bins wouldn’t fit in our tiny Nissan Pulsar. (Truth be told, the car is more likely to fit inside the bins.) John’s ute had to stay in the grove holding the only bin we had, since that bin was already too full of olives to move without a fork lift.
“Call Steve,” CJ said. “He’s got the day off, and he has their ute.”
Steve is a city friend who recently picked up and moved with his partner to the Wairarapa. When I called and explained our dilemma, Steve didn’t even flinch. He agreed to drop everything and drive to Masterton with his ute to pick up the bins. I couldn’t thank him enough.
But as I hung up, I knew we weren’t out of the woods yet. It would be at least an hour and a half before Steve would be able to show up in our grove with the delivery. Soon the bin on the back of John’s ute was going to be full, and Andrew-of-the-Olives would have to be on his way.
That’s when I called our friends Leelee and the Wolf at Martinborough Art Department. Leelee generously agreed to let us borrow their stacks of small olive crates, and I drove over in the Nissan right away to pick them up. When I got back down to our olive grove, our one giant bin was dangerously full. We had to be quick.
CJ, Aunt Charlie, John and I started transferring olives directly out of that bin and into the small crates, so that there was more room in the bin for Andrew-of-the-Olives to empty his Mighty Tree Shaker. We filled and hauled and moved as quickly as possible. Crate after crate after crate of olives went flying by. But we could barely keep up. The Mighty Tree Shaker was on the move, and the olives kept coming.
Before I knew it, all of Leelee’s small crates were full. I looked over at the bin. To my horror, it was nearly overflowing. It was too late. We’d failed. We were going to lose Andrew-of-the-Olives to another grove.
Just then, I heard something. It was only a low rumbling, but it grew. It was coming closer. It was the sound of a ute! It was Steve! He showed up at that moment like a knight in shining armor, but instead of galloping into the grove on noble white horse, he pulled up in a big, black Toyota Hilux. I could almost hear the trumpets sounding. On the back of that ute were two of the most gorgeous looking gigantic olive bins I have ever seen in my entire life.
We immediately set to work. It wasn’t long, however, before we realized that our troubles were far from over. The olives were still coming fast and furious. Before we knew it, the Mighty Tree Shaker had actually filled both of the new bins. And we still had more trees to go!
Then, as if out of thin air, Andrew-of-the-Olives magically produced two more giant more bins. Just like that. In a pinch he can perform miracles. By the end of the day we had filled five giant bins to the very top with olives, plus a bit of overflow into some of Leelee’s small crates.
Steve drove his ute back to Masterton with one giant bin on the bed and two more on a trailer that we’d borrowed from Leelee and the Wolf. CJ followed Steve with two giant bins on the back of John’s ute. I brought up the rear in the Nissan with Aunt Charlie and our ridiculously expensive stainless steel olive oil containers. It was a convoy of olives, and it was amazing. In five years of living in Martinborough, we have never harvested that much fruit, ever.
But it wasn’t over. The next day we had our friends and neighbors over to harvest our Frantoio and Leccino, and we filled another giant bin. The harvest was done. We sat 23 people down at a long and sprawling table under our angled wooden ceiling, and we had a harvest meal – lasagna stuffed with ricotta and the last of the eggplant from our glass house, hot garlic bread, fresh green salad with our Tuscan style extra virgin olive oil, and for dessert French vanilla ice cream drizzled with Olivo’s lemon infused olive oil and a twist of rock salt, which is a surprise and a delight.
Then I announced our yield. Over both days we had harvested a total of 2.9 metric tons of olives (6,393 pounds) and ended up with 327 liters (86 gallons) of olive oil. It was a bumper crop.
I will say only this. If you have never heard the sound of 23 people cheering an olive harvest yield, then you should. It is a beautiful, beautiful noise.
Have you ever been part of a harvest?