If you drive through rural Portugal in November you are likely to hear the thudding and bashing of branches as olives are battered from their trees, shaved off in some cases and carried off in huge nets and sifted by hand through large manmade sieves to take off the unwanted sticks and leaves. It’s an aggressive system but it’s a labour of love for the families in their rural communities as their strength and skill is passed down through generations. You will see olive trees lining the groves the length and breadth of the country and the people take pride in this beautiful product, the elixir that is olive oil to sip, drizzle or lightly fry.
Portugal ranks as the world’s 8th largest producer of olive oil at around 50,000 tons.
It was early November when I got the call from a friend who I knew from Dubai and who too had found Portugal to be the setting for her (and her husband’s) next chapter. ‘We are harvesting the olives on Wednesday’ so I said I would be there on Tuesday. And so it was that Shakespeare and I set off for what would be a five hour drive (should have been four) to the north, near Toma and half way between Lisbon and Porto. My friends are great lovers of food having both worked in the food business for many years. It was their dream to build a sustainable eco friendly house and farm and here they are at the beginning of building their dream. With help from the knowing locals their trees were harvested for the first time in many years as the land and property had been left uncared for before their recent ownership.
I saw the process and hard work unfold over three days. The nets are placed under the trees and the branches sawn or shaken or sheared to release the olives. Then the olives are sorted removing the twigs. They are gathered and pushed through mesh to clear the woody debris a bit more and then in buckets put through the machine to clean them more. Then they are bagged up to go to the olive press.