God’s Own Olives

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, farming the traditional way. A more gentle approach to food production.

A net splayed out to catch the fruits of an olive tree on a WWOOFing farm in central Italy | Photo: Christian Cummins

As an increasingly disaffected city office worker, I had come to the farm near Mondaino with the vague instinctive notion of a need to get “closer to the soil.” But as it had turned out was I balancing perilously high above the ground, deep in the innards of a scratchy olive tree in the autumn browned-hills where the region of Emilia-Romagna melts into Le Marche in central Italy.

With my foot wedged firmly in a fork of the gnarled old tree, and my hand resting one of its more solid looking branches, I was reaching precariously up into the leaves with a rake. There was a cluster of olives on a thinner branch, very blue looking in the dappled sunshine, almost like grapes.

I reached for the branch with the teeth of the rake and stroked them downwards, ripping through the sharp leaves. There were satisfying plopping sounds as several olives rained down into the net we had cast below. The purple fruits rolled down the steeply sloped ground like marbles before being caught in valley at the bottom of the net that we had created by staking the edges with sharpened sticks.

This was my second day as a WWOOFing volunteer. The rather canine acronym stands for “World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms,” a concept that first evolved in the UK in the 1970’s but has seen a real boom in popularity in recent years. As a wwoofer you toil unpaid in the fields for a number of hours a day and in return you get food and board at the farmhouse. Apart from the journey down, all I paid was a €25 membership fee to WWOOF Italia, which covered insurance and a list of hundreds of possible placements.

With 6,000 hosts now dotted across 88 countries from New Zealand to Venezuela, you can see wwoofing prosaically as a very affordable way to see more of the world — like a rural and far more active form of couch surfing. I met a pair of American wwoofers, freshly graduated students from California, working on a neighbouring farm who had arrived in Mondaino after a stretch of vegetable farming in Spain, and then gathered grapes in France and the Piedmont in northern Italy. Next they were headed to the wild Abruzzo to tend goats and would from there go on to Sicily for the orange harvest. It sounded like the agricultural version of the Grand Tour. If that itinerary sounds too tame for your tastes, my olive picking mentor Basil had wwoofed himself to Alaska where he had worked in the cold of the mountains with a blind goat herd who could sense the terrain with his powers of hearing.

But for those of us in need of something greater to believe in than mere economic travel, WWOOF also offers a glimpse of an alternative way of living – a more sustainable lifestyle that works with, and not against, nature.  The wwoofers come from all over the world to learn at first-hand about organic growing.  Working, cooking, eating and drinking side-by-side with their hosts, it’s a multi-lingual experiment in communal living and cultural exchange.

My hosts were a couple of artists from England called Phelan and Suzie, Basil’s parents, who had bought the land 23 years before with the intention of living off it sustainably.  Phelan had the twinkling eyes of an incorrigible romantic and looked always on the brink of instigating a revolution for the sheer mischievous fun of it.

A man who used to drive around in a van with a methane gas tank on the roof and doves of peace painted on the side, he had embraced WWOOF as soon as he had heard of it – describing it (over several glasses of delicious home-made red wine) as “a sort of anarchy.” After encountering initial skepticism, he had seen his ideas of eschewing pesticides and insecticides spread among his fellow farmers in the Mondaino area. He hoped the world-wide network of wwoofers would help disseminate organic ideals much further, like birds carrying seeds on their winter migrations.

“Do you think in 10 years time wwoofing will be a really big movement?” he asked, pouring me another glass from the five-litre flask.

Well, what could possibly spread ideas more effectively than charm? The temporary home you share as a wwoofer can often be of an authentic beauty that no plush hotel could match. The terracotta-roofed farmhouse in Mondaino was painted a pastel-shade of ochre that turned salmon pink in the bright sun. It was fronted by a handsome veranda fashioned by some felled tree trunks entangled in yellowed vines. Inside, a cosy kitchen (also yellow) was heated by a wooden stove. Beside an open fire, with a chimney the shape of a witch’s hat, a large greyhound lay folded yoga-like into a worn yellow armchair, limbs spilling over the edges.

Once, at lunch, a hen came through the front door and strutted nonchalantly around the room, casually ignored by the dog. Evidently bored by the lack of grubs and attention, she stalked out again. It’s true that on winter nights authentic farmhouses can be cold and drafty as well as picturesque, but in this moment, it was surely paradise.

Meanwhile, up my tree, I had a grandstand view of the beauty of the Italian countryside. Through the curtain of leaves, I looked back over the other blue-green trees in the grove, over the house, over the fruit-laden branches of a persimmon tree, over the yellow-parallel lines of the recently harvested vines, over the exploding colors of a copse of woods – foraged by truffle hunters – to the hills beyond. These hills were ridged waves of green and brown that stretched as far as the high mountains of the Apennines. Creamy tan hill-towns were surfing the crests and in the distance you could just glimpse the spires of the Renaissance masterpiece Urbino.  On the next crest was the village of Mondaino, its rounded bell-tower very red in the sun.

But this is no quiet idyll. The hens and guinea-fowl of Italy are as vocally expansive as its people, and the ducks exploded in a cackling laughter when I dropped my olive-combing rake. There were shots from the local hunters that roam the woods. Half the countryside, meanwhile, was out bringing in the olive harvest and sometimes stanzas of Italian songs would drift across from neighboring groves.

An unforgettable experience, surely, but pleasures earned in sweat. The actual picking of olives is romantic and picturesque work, but I was left gasping for breath after lugging the filled crates back up the vertiginous slopes of the grove. In one grove the ground had been kept clean by digging pigs, who had to be tempted into the sties with acorns before we could start picking. But the second grove, too big to be fenced off for pigs, had been infested with canes and undergrowth. Before laying the nets, we had to clear the roots, brambles and shoots out of the overgrown grove with a sickle. Although it was November, I was soon so hot I had to work in a T-shirt.

But this was partly why I was here. There is an atavistic satisfaction about earning your keep with manual labor, particularly if you are usually desk-bound. This is the way our forefathers and mothers lived and worked, the strains and pleasures they knew each year when a long summer exploded into the generosity of the season’s end and all hands and hearts joined in the work of the harvest. We labored until the song of a blackbird announced the onset of evening, and then walked home through the woods in the dusk with aching muscles, ravenous hunger and a scythe slung over our shoulders. It was a feeling of utter completeness.

An appetite is a useful thing to have when you are in Italy, of course. As well as by my interest in ecology, I had been first been drawn to wwoofing by the chance of deepening my relationship with food. In the farmhouse in Emilia-Romagna our meals at night were often made entirely from produce grown or reared on the small-holding – from the rich green salads (who knew you could eat thistles?) to the seasoning herbs, to the mushrooms found in the forest to the meat itself (vegetarians should choose their hosts carefully) .

On this evening, even the bread was home-baked by a fellow wwoofer in a charcoal oven by the open log fire. In the morning we spread it with pomegranate jam that we had made after squeezing the over-ripe fruit on the veranda until our hands were stained blood red. On a day when an eastern wind brought in rain from the nearby Adriatic, I spent a morning in a shed helping make next year’s wine.

But it is the tasting of organically-produced food rather than ideological argumentation that is likely to convince you of the benefits of gentle, non-industrial farming methods. The greens from Suzie’s gardens, the mixture of spinach and dandelion leaves, were melt-in-the mouth delicious. Small cuts of meat from the free-roaming chickens gave and incredible depth of flavor.

And it was the same with last year’s olive oil that we drizzled copiously over the Victoria’s bread. Much of what you buy in the supermarket has been made from olives harvested by metal machines that grab the tree and shake the olives down like a terrier shakes the neck of a rabbit. By hand picking, you reduce the amount of bruising and ensure maximum flavor – as well as showing a bit more respect to the land that feeds us.

After two weeks on the farm, on a day when overnight snow had blanketed the high Apennines, we took this year’s olives to the press. We hauled our crates into a Land Rover and drive over winding roads a few kilometers to a village within sight of the cloud-banked Adriatic coastline. During the harvesting season the pressing room is running 24 hours a day and cap-wearing farmers (one looked like an unshaven Bill Murray) were loitering among stacks of crates by the weighing machine.

Several machines were chuntering away, each attended by worker in overalls. One was stripping any leaves and twigs away, while another, with a pair of huge granite wheels at least 5 feet in diameter and stained an ecclesiastical purple by the olive skins, was grinding in hypnotic circles over a porridge-bed of olives. The whole room looked like the fantasy of a cartoon mad professor.

Finally there was a centrifuge to separate the oil from the water, and from that machine a steady stream of fresh oil was pouring into a shiny metal vat that we had brought with us. The oil was incredibly green and clear and smelled redolent of the crop fields of the disappeared summer. If you dipped your finger into the stream and tasted it straight out of the press, it left a prickly peppery sensation in your throat.

It was nearly 3 a.m. when we collected the last drop of oil. By that time I was tired as a dog, but Phelan – a veteran of a score of harvests – was still skipping around in child-like enthusiasm as the fruit of our labors emerged.

The next day I set off back to Vienna with a bottle of the fresh oil in my bag, knowing I had had experienced much more than a “cheap holiday,” since I had been picked up on the coast by a clapped out yellow Fiat Cinquecento a fortnight before. The truth be known, I had been mostly a pretty useless and clumsy agricultural helper, losing a sickle in the undergrowth, bending a pitchfork and treading on bunches of olives and ruining them. I had to be shown everything and couldn’t even light the open fire on my own.

But, just as it easy to believe you know a lot when you live in the cosmopolitan city with Auntie Google constantly on beck and call, it is refreshing to realize, in fact, how little you know. My hosts were unfailing patient and instructive. Their hospitality had a humbling effect, just like the grandiose countryside of Italy. You no longer want to be clever and be admired; you just wanted to be a small part of this wonderful place.

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