Posted by: Nazausgraben | December 5, 2009

AUSFLUG: PICKING OLIVES NEAR BRESCIA


Whilst one can spend an entire lifetime exploring Pinswang and its environs, living in the heart of Europe provides one with a splendid opportunity to also cross nearby national borders and experience the joys of true diversity; that is, the lifestyles, culture, food and drink, languages and customs of different folk in their own beautiful countries. This, in the end, is the true gift of living in a non-homogeneous Europe; to be able to maintain with great pride ones own national and cultural/religious identity, yet concurrently being able to enjoy the wealth of experiences offered by so many others living in other countries but a short distance away.

Thus, it is off to Italy. Departing Pinswang in our 20+ year old used-to-be-white Renault is always something of a daunting challenge, as one never knows if the time has come for this old trooper to give up the Ghost. We celebrate when, upon twisting the key,  its diesel starts to clatter like an old tractor.  This wonderful beast, employed during the past nine years to haul everything from recyclable garbage (to the village dump each week) to sacks of cement, bricks, stone and other assorted building materials used in the renovation of our house, to precious cargoes of people and artwork…still retains its four-wheeled dignity as it bravely crosses the Europa Bridge from Innsbruck into the Sued Tirol (South Tirol…that area ceded to the Italian government as part of the winner’s spoils following the First World War) and over the Brenner Pass headed south.

This area remains a point of some contention today; the legacy of political and legal activities since 1918 when the victors of the First World War carved into the body of Austria, artifically creating new borders and geographically dividing its peoples. Later, prior to the start of the Second World War, citizens of the Sued Tirol (in Italy, the Alte Adige) were required to decide whether or not they wished to remain in Italy or to move into German/Austrian lands. The families of a number of our neighbors living today in the Tirolean Ausserfern (including Pinswang) elected to make the move north; many suffered great hardship and deprivation as a result of their impossible decision to depart ancestral lands, homes and kin.

Driving further south, one notes the changes in the landscape and especially the architecture. The white facade Tirolean Baroque onion-domed Churches take on a darker stone appearance, and sport point-peaked Gothic steeples.  The lovely high-altitude solitude of Tirolean mountain farm houses eventually give way to ancient hillside Italian villas with their colorful groves of fruit and olive trees.

We reach our destination, the city of Brescia, a mere four hours drive from Pinswang. It is here that we truly relish the sights, sounds and smells; the thin side streets whose high-topped stone walls with metal gates hide villas with secluded courtyards, shuttered windows, sculptured gardens and absolutely nowhere to park. Tiny, almost obscured ancient chapels with lovingly carved sorrowful holy figures overlook all who pass.

It is noon. The shops are closed until 1400, and Brescians are on their way back home.  Business is left behind; the only thought is of the next few hours when the main meal of the day will be served. Families will gather, the pasta will be plentiful, and the conversation (especially regarding politics) will be at times passionate. Then, after savoring the final glass of red, the house…indeed…the entire city becomes remarkably still. The whirl of frenetic vehicular traffic ebbs to a faint trickle.

This is the time of siesta, when this tiny slice of the western world retreats to the comfort and solace of a darkened bed or a favorite plush chair. The children are admonished to be silent. The only sounds for the next couple of hours will be the fluttering of turned book or newspaper pages and the patting on wooden floors of slippered feet by those who do not or cannot partake in midday somnabulence.

The city also sleeps. Still, there are some out and about. Women looking very smart indeed in their haute couture and placid self-confidence, slowly stroll the avenues peering deeply into darkened shop showwindows..staring intently at their silent immobile physically contorted plastic counterparts sporting even higher haute coutur and, credit card vibrating madly in anticipation of use,  noting the address for a later return visit.

Some businessmen continue to work through this quiet time, or head to the local cafe for a quick meal. Others sit on benches, relaxing in the late October cool under the shade of tress or fore the rush of water from a 17th century stone fountain….just watching the world walk by.

Late afternoon. The already slowly sinking sun streams through the slits of  the wooden window shutters. Drifting slowly out of the deep warm heavy haze of pleasant sleep, I can hear that there is a phone call being completed. The faint voice of Antonello confirming a meeting with the as yet unknown speaker on the other end of the line.

I stumble, thoroughly disheveled and still relishing my half-dreaming state, out of bed and into the long high-ceiling hallway. The rest of the family are already busy.

Susi asks if, on the morrow,  I would like to accompany Antonello and some friends out to the countryside and do abit of pleasant work. The ever-polite guest, I quickly nod my head in the affirmative. I have no idea at all as to the nature of what I have just committed myself. I am startled completely awake by memories of spreading gatsch upon miniature tree tops perched precariously on the very steep side of a Tirolean mountain.

I peer around the half-opened door to the bathroom and ask Susi, “Er…uuhhh..for what have I just volunteered?”

“You and Antonello will be picking olives tomorrow! You need to wear some old working clothes.”

Ahhh…picking olives…no need for high-topped climbing shoes…no gatsch-stained clothes, hair, shoes…no risk of toppling to ones untimely death from grassy overhangs a few thousand feet above. Just picking olives from trees…lovely!

It is shortly after an early breakfast the following beautiful Mediterranean warm blue October morning. I am ready to pick olives. It does not matter that I have never before engaged in such an activity…indeed, I could never have previously imagined that I would ever be introduced to such an activity so far out of my everyday routine.  Still, I feel prepared.  Nothing special or elegant to wear…just the thick leather gloves purchased by Antonello the evening before.

It’s time. Antonello and I walk the stately marble stairs down to the street where we meet his friends Giuseppe (Bepe) and Flavio. Antonello and I squeeze into the Bepe’s tiny Fiat, and we are off…careening at surprisingly high speeds with confidence along the sidestreets (almost no wider than the Fiat) headed out of town.

The conversation in such cramped quarters is quick and relaxed. I realize that formal introductions are not even necessary; the camaraderie is such that despite Bepe, Flavio and I having never before met, I am treated with the type of casual aire as if we all have been the close friends for decades.

We speed out of Brescia. The congested landscape quickly transmogrifies into a mixture of almost forgotten pastured pasts and unsightly modern commerce. Along this highway, dark, seemingly long deserted yet ever-impressive villas sit incongruously between lines of car dealerships and even the occasional sterile strip mall. 

It is a clash of cultures; the cherished subdued old and the garish need to be new. Yet, as we venture further from the Brescian suburbs, the latter glass and steel flecks finally give way to open space, rolling vistas, hills topped with small towns and ruined castles.

After about 90-minutes, we depart the highway and the Fiat begins a slow, winding way up a thin rural road. We pass solitary stone and stucco homes tipped by characteristic red curved tiles. Where yards would normally surround the homes, there are instead rows of relatively short trees (about 7 to 9-feet high each)…hundreds, seemingly stretching to the horizon (or at least, to the next house). These are olive trees, and we are in the heart of this region’s olive growing territory.

The sea suddenly shows itself. I am wrong…it is not the sea…but the massive Lake Garda…the Lago di Garda. It is the largest lake in Italy, stretching from the Alps in the north (where Austrian and German tourists spend many a holiday), southward toward the regions of Verona and Brescia. The coastline curves sinuously and is lined by working villages, prosperous resorts, innumerable hotels and private stately villas. Several large green Islands surrounded by hundreds of small boats inhabit the lake.  All before me is serene, unmoving. It is picture postcard perfect.

A final twist in the road and we are at the first stop  in our day…a medieval town not far from and high above the lake Garda coast…Polpenazze del Garda….where we purchase freshly baked bread from the local baker and then a large hard salami hanging prominently from the ceiling of the neighborhood butcher’s shop. No big modern supermarkets with their massive congested parking lots are to be seen…just very narrow streets between the ancient mortar and stone walls of the houses, the crenellated walls of a castle and majestic views of the sanguine lake.

After a quick  espresso at the tiny bar/cafe at 10:00 am and a stop to buy the local paper in the corner Tabak, our quartet of olive pickers are off once again….the over-stuffed Fiat now ascending and descending with the swells of the hilly road…taking us to Bepes home and olive grove.

We arrive at a beautiful spot. Bepes villa sits upon a slightly rolling hillside. Lake Garda is about 3 miles away and below, and the view is spectacular indeed. My attention, however, is immediately drawn away from the coast and to the expansive grove of olive trees now before me. Bepe owns a sizeable plot of 200 trees. Their girth and height vary slightly, but they appear almost soldier standardized and uniform, in strict formation ready for inspection.

Bepe first introduces us to his very old but still noble single-cylinder red tractor, a working museum piece that sputters to life with the turn of a switch and some kind words from its owner. We hitch a small, two-wheeled flatbed trailer behind the tractor. Into it we dump a number of large green plastic crates (to hold the picked olives), work gloves, very large green nets, a small battery in a canvas sack and a long pole topped by a spider-like contraption sporting long bent metal prongs.

We hike the short distance into the grove, the tractor chattering away behind us and at a decidedly slower pace at that. We walk the thin trails between the lines of trees until Bepe calls for us to stop. Our first victim is at hand.

The tree is in full olive-bedecked bloom; thousands of tiny dark specks sprout from the multitudes of branches. The small fully grown olives look ready to eat…just pick one off and plop it into ones mouth. Had I done so, however, I would have immediately spit it out, as the taste would have been awful. Olives must sit in brine for a long period of time before the natural taste is replaced by that which we, the olive-loving consumer, are so attracted.

Now, knowing nothing more about olives to this point than pulling them from liquid-filled jars and tossing them atop a salad, I have little idea as to the fine art of picking olives. I also have no idea that the specimens that I am about to dislodge from this tree are, in the end, not to be eaten; rather, they are to be made into some of the most delicate tasty olive oil on Earth.

Following the lead of my olive-picking friends, we spread the large green nets under and about the tree. The edges extend well beyond the furthest reaches of the branches. Antonello demonstrates how to remove the olives.

It’s really quite simple. Grasp a single branch lightly at the root closest to the tree center, curve ones forefinger slightly beneath the branch and the thumb likewise above the branch. Then slide ones almost closed hand lightly but firmly along the branch in the direction toward the tip. The olives will be tugged off the branch and will fall onto the net. That’s it…the entire process. No need to pull, yank, wrench or brutally attack the tree…just some light tugging of the branches and the olives will seemingly do the rest.

Thus we are at it. Bepe, Antonello and I begin with the branches easily within reach. Flavio ascends a short wooden ladder propped on the side of the trunk; disappearing into the overhead growth to perform the same actions. There are 1000s of olives in this and every other tree in the grove, and they all are headed to the ground.

It rains olives everywhere. Flavio perched above us is very efficient at his task, and olives shower below and upon us at a remarkable rate. For one standinging in the midst of this storm, it feels like being pelted by dark green hail. Moving out of the way presents another problem, as one must constantly exercise extreme caution so as to not trod upon the deepening piles of the fallen, now occupying every crease and rill in the net under foot.

The storm passes…for the moment. With the lower branches denuded of their fruit, Flavio descends from the heavens. Antonello attaches some thin cables between the battery and the metal spider on a pole. With the click of an actuator, the metal tendrils spring to life, spinning, whirring and chattering…a dangerous device indeed. When Antonello holds the pole-mounted contraption into the branches, the tree seemingly springs to life…and it appears very angry indeed! The branches vibrate and flutter madly; it is as if the tree, suddenly recognizing that it has been violated and is now standing half-naked for all to see. It shakes and stirs with great frenetic indignance, and showers all of the remaining heretofore unseen olives to the ground.

Antonello circles the tree, slowly and intently, ensuring that not a branch is missed. After a short time, the movement stops and there is again an almost deafening silence. The tree, now completely devoid of its fruit, stands forlorn and tired…its year of work finished.

The nets are then carefully gathered, edges bent toward the center of the tree, so as to securely contain all of its precious contents. Olives that have flown to the ground outside the reach of the nets are scooped up and thrown in with their already imprisoned compatriots. All four of us manhandle these very heavy olive-laden nets over to the nearest large plastic crate and pour them in. The olives almost glisten in the late morning sunlight.

One tree finished…one crate filled…on to the next…and the next…and the next.

Midday. Bepe tells us to lay down our weapons and meet him at his ‘hut’. Most homes have outdoor huts where tools and other garden equipment are stored. Not so here, for Bepes hut is a large rectangular above-ground concrete bunker, built seemingly to withstand a multi-megaton nuclear attack.

Entering the structure, it immediately reeks of gemuetlichkeit. There is a large open fireplace alight in the corner and already warming away the creeping October chill. Off to the left is a sizeable kitchenette. In the center sits a long wooden table. Bepe tells us to make ourselves comfortable…and a marvelous feast ensues.

The reason for our shopping stop in Polpenazze earlier that morning becomes clear as the bunker quickly fills with the swirling aromas of fresh rich lasagna, piping hot bread, and thick slices of the aged salami. We weary olive pickers eat heartily indeed. It is all washed down with very tasty red wine and some sort of liquor from bottles without labels…very dangerous, but excellent!!

We are stuffed, content, lethargic after our work and this meal. For the next hour or so, we sit with our feet raised toward the warmth of the large corner open fireplace, the room made all the more steamy by the heated yet friendly discussions about politics that invariably follow.

I am delighted to note the extravagant body language that so defines such impassioned discourse. Unlike peoples to the north, who remain fairly stolid even during the most disagreeable debates, those in the south express themselves best by physical movements; it is as though words themselves are unable to fully represent, or better, elicit the emotional depth required when making a point or two. All one needs to see is the exaggerated shrug of the shoulders, the closed eyes and look of disdain, and one requires no words to see that a difference of opinion is in the air.

A passing cell of rain clouds perspires heavily upon us, releasing cooling mists amongst the trees and lush grasses outside our bunker. Flavio misses this all as he is out cold on the table bench, hat pulled over his face.

There is quiet for a while more. Then, the conversation begins anew. We speak of history, and soldiery. Flavio and Bepe had until recently served as Alpini…courageous mount fighters. Antonello tells us of his time in the infantry.  I share a few stories of my career in the Navy. We all nod our heads as in agreement with each others tales; there is an almost universal understanding shared uniquely by those who have served, regardless of where or when.

With the siesta finished, we resume work, picking, shaking and denuding until the sun can no longer provide us with the light and warmth we need for this task. In all, we fill about nine large plastic containers with green olives.

We deposit what would soon become treasured extra-virgin olive oil into a large barn, stow away our tools and head back to the bunker. After another round from the unmarked bottles, we squeeze again into Bepe’s tiny Fiat and motor our way back into the night toward Brescia.

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Responses

  1. Andy —

    There is a Discovery Channel show on Dirtiest Jobs that has an engaging fellow taking on a series of difficult, often-dirty manual jobs. If you haven’t seen it, perhaps Susi has! It seems she continues to encourage these opportunities for you. But, thankfully she does; as we get such a wonderful glimpse into the lives of those whom we may never meet in lands that still await us. Keep the “letters” coming; we, who live in a culture that is all too homogeneous (really), need to hear of lands where there are greater differences than “Coke” or “Pepsi.”
    ~Tom


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