It’s been a good year for olives and we decided to harvest ours. We don’t have an olive grove with trees neatly and evenly spaced over flat land. Instead we have a few fruitful trees on sloping ground in among bushes, so harvesting was never going to be easy. We borrowed equipment from our neighbours – sacks, long-handled secateurs for pruning while harvesting, netting to catch runaways, a second olive comb (we already have one of our own) – and we started out in good heart. However, we couldn’t agree on the best approach. We argued a little. I’d already begun pruning and olive-laden branches lay on the ground. Resolution wasn’t immediate, but then Husband picked up an olive branch and held it out to me.
Peace fell on our work, which became more and more enjoyable as we became absorbed in it. The olives were mostly black, silky with oil and had a fresh, grassy scent. Running our fingers through the lanceolate leaves until the olives came off into our palms proved the most satisfying means of extraction. Over the course of many hours spread over three days, we managed to part-fill two sacks, and weighed them at roughly 15 kilos apiece. A single sack of 15 kilos would be enough to gain entrance at the press.
Pickup trucks piled high with crates full of green and black olives have been rolling up to the press in Santa Catarina one after the other for the past couple of weeks. Sometimes the queue stretched beyond the village. The simple, white-walled exterior of the building suggests small-scale production, so it’s a surprise to get inside and find you can’t hear a thing above the clanking of metal belts moving olives away to no doubt high-tech pressing machinery out of sight. We arrived in the Renault 4, took a ticket for our place in the queue and, on the advice of one of the managers, went to have lunch to sit out the wait. When we got back we found we’d missed our slot. They waved us in anyway, guessing we were novices and correctly assuming we didn’t have much to offload. Husband reversed the Renault 4 towards a large grid, where a strong man in huge boots had unloaded and upended our sacks into the weighing space below before we’d even got the handbrake pulled up. Our paperwork confirmed that we had delivered 30 kilos, and marked the olives as having been well presented. This amount of olives entitled us to 3.3 litres of oil, and the cashier suggested we pay a few euros to make it up to 5 litres. ‘The oil is very, very good right now,’ she said.
We then queued at the entrance to a high room lined with 15,000-litre stainless-steel tanks. Our contribution of olives would amount to maybe a millimetre layer in one of those. An ex-water bottle was filled from a pump as though we were at a petrol station and we left, gleefully, with our share of the olive harvest of our community. It is the best, freshest olive oil I’ve ever tasted.
I’m newly returned from two intense weeks spent on the border of the Algarve and Alentejo completing a Permaculture Design Course (PDC), for which I now have a certificate. (Always nice to have a certificate.) The course gave me a good framework in which to slot some of the ideas I’ve picked up in the past few years as I’ve become increasingly thoughtful about the land we live on, both personally, in our little space here, and globally, as the human race. The course also gave me a fascinating insight into people. It attracted ‘searchers’ – of whom, I suppose, in a way, I’m one. The other participants were young; I was the odd one out. Two unconnected, extracurricular conversations have stuck in my mind. The conversations were about community, not in the sense in which I used the word above – our local, olive-sharing community – but in the sense of a group of people who get together specifically to live communally, respecting the Earth and one another, sharing everything and abiding by an agreed set of social rules. In their different ways, each conversation boiled down to the same idea: that the concept of privacy was a defining factor in the setting up of these communities. Specifically, that privacy was the refuge of the ego, that it represented something you wanted to hide, and that it was inimical to the functioning of a group. Each of these conversations was with an earnest, passionately engaged person. And each one chilled me right down to the bone. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I believe, passionately, that they are wrong. Privacy is precious. Maybe it’s the most precious thing the human spirit has.
PS Although I post intermittently these days, I still like to stick to my Wednesday-morning habit. However, a thunderstorm and heavy rain – hurrah! – has taken out our internet connection and I’ve had to come to the local café to get online again, missing my usual slot. As it’s the first heavy rain in six months, we are more than happy.