Five Nights in Sicily

Patrice Newell Olives in Sicily
Malo, Naso. Mid north coast Sicily. Olives are commonly packed into hessian coffee sacks for transport to the processor. Photo: Gino Russo.
Olive harvest in Sicily. Photo: Aurora Adams

On November 4, 2005, my 13 year old daughter Aurora and I met up with Gino Russo in Catania, a provincial capital on the east coast of Sicily that spreads out below Mt Etna (3,350m), Europe’s most active volcano.

Olive harvest was well underway across Sicily.

In Tuscany, from where I flew in, it had only just begun. On every road going in every direction we passed cars, trucks, and tractors with carioles loaded with crates or bags of olives on their way to the numerous processing plants.

Olive trees are everywhere in Sicily: in gardens, as street plantings, on empty blocks, in young groves, in old groves, on flat land and on steep hills. Rows surround citrus groves and some are even planted with oranges, one row each. Surprisingly I didn’t see fungal diseases, despite the close plantings.

When you see so many olives, you except to see people, but the clusters of pickers seemed insignificant with so many trees to be picked. Abundant rain in September and October had encouraged growth of the clover understorey. Mixed with nettles and herbs, it was up to our knees.

Some people cut it for ease of harvesting with a whippersnipper, others with a scythe, but most didn’t seem to notice it and laid their nets on top, the weight of the olives holding them in place.

At all the processing plants, there was a relaxed informality I’ve not encountered in Australia.

La Madre Terra

holy olive oil
Priests bring plastic containers to the processing plant to be filled with olive oil. Their containers are distinguished by holy pictures on the sides. Photo: Gino Russo

At Sciacca, on the south-west coast, the co-operative La Madre Terra
has three Pieralisi presses to process the olives from the 200,000 trees scattered over 2000 hectares in what is called the ‘Val di Mazara’ region. There are about 1,000 members of the co-operative.

During our visit, the Chairman arrives on his motorbike, munching a panino. He’s a lawyer—this is his ‘other ’ job. Numerous people are hanging around, waiting with their plastic containers to collect their oil for home, priests come and go, their containers distinguished with holy pictures stuck on the side. Old men guard vats while the sorting is underway.

La Madre Terra is a company owned by farmers (part of their product is exported) with a mission statement to be ‘independent’. In Sicily, the concept of independence is more complex than it is in Australia. The manager points to a photo of a man on the wall. ‘This man helped set up the company, he was killed by the Mafia.’ Under the photo are the words ‘Better one day on your feet than a hundred days on your knees’.

We view their new bottling and labelling machine and another man arrives with fresh bread, anchovies and some oil straight from the press. The oil sampled in a tasting cup is very pungent: poured on bread with anchovies it tastes like heaven. We stand around eating and wash it down with red wine.

We drive to the north coast of the island through the middle, past the remains of ancient Greek temples, spectacular mountains, and newlycreated national parks, and on to Rocca di Caprileone where many of Gino’s relatives live.

The Epitome of Mediterranean

Because of Sicily’s strategic geographic position, it has been occupied, populated and ruled by a succession of peoples coming from the north, south, east and west. By 1100, it was one of the world’s few truly multicultural societies, at once European, African and Asian, the epitome of ‘Mediterranean.’ My introduction to Sicily began at primary school, and developed after reading The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.

I learnt about Garibaldi’s success in uniting Sicilians to lead the attack on Naples, a strategy that eventually lead to the unification of Italy. The story most of us are familiar with is the Allied troops landing in Sicily in 94 . From here, they fought the Germans, pushing them north for the length of Italy. One night Gino’s 8 year old uncle told stories of how, as a young boy, he was alone on the farm and had to hide when the Germans arrived.

The land is dramatic and exciting and there’s a sense of economic activity despite the statistics claiming it’s one of the poorest regions in Europe. Five million Sicilians live on the island but five million live outside Italy too and 8 million Sicilians now call the United States home.

There don’t appear to be any planning regulations, as processing plants are positioned anywhere. You can see them on top of hills, next to historical sites, in the centre of dense housing estates, and under huge power lines. No one seems to mind. Many buildings erected illegally during the 60s and 70s are ugly and thousands have been left unfinished.

During our first day in Sicily— whether at the hotel, a road stop, a petrol station, a bar, or a home—every meal, every loaf of bread, piece of fruit (the mandarins had just ripened), sip of olive oil, wine (especially Nero d’Avola) and bite of cheese was perfect.

Sicilian cuisine is famous and now I know why. Most people keep a private vegetable garden, and when I asked where most of the people worked in the towns, the answer was on the farms. Prime coastal farming land has yet to be priced out, as it has been along Australia’s eastern seaboard. Here, farms and housing co-exist with chaotic harmony.

A different pace

white olives on branch
White olives at the farm of Gino’s uncle, Nino Russo. Photo: Gino Russo

Everyone in Sicily is aware that olive harvest is underway, and some will pick olives for two whole days and take home litres of oil. They can buy it for 6– 0 Euros a litre in the local supermarket, to have the pleasure of consuming oil produced, in part, by their own hands. How many Australians would pick olives from dawn till dusk for an equivalent of $50 a day? Clearly Sicilians appreciate more than the price of oil; they also know value.

In the groves, picking is relaxed, happy and slow, unlike at home where I’m always anxious we won’t get enough picked and I fret over the quality of fruit diminishing in the crates. Most olives don’t make it to the press until two or three days after harvest. It’s the same in Tuscany, even in groves that have their own press.

Every processor had loads of fruit stacked up outside in the low sun waiting to be pressed. Most noticeable were the hessian coffee sacks from Guatemala used for delivering the olives to the processor. Even when large crates were used for delivery there’d be a few hessian bags thrown onto the pile for good luck.

Managers agreed it wasn’t good, but everyone accepted it. The growers stand around chatting to the operators, and everywhere adequate staff tended the delivery, weighing, paperwork, machinery, waste and storage. Most desirable were the number of qualified mechanics and technicians on hand who knew the machinery and understood how best to extract oil.

Out the back of the buildings the piles of leaves were regularly collected by the truckload and fed to animals, and the pomace waste trucked out to be processed into hideous product ‘other’ olive oil products. We’d pass the trucks on the autostrada dripping muck along the way.

Olive varieties included Leccino, (often used for table olives), Belice, Biancolilla, Cerasuola, Santagatese (one processor claimed to get 32% oil from it ), and the popular Minuta Nasitana.

The most interesting olive trees I saw were on Gino’s uncle’s mixed farm. The trees were tall and wide, but the large fruit were white, with only 5% of them turning a pale pink/purple colour similar to Bouquettier when fully ripe. They had no official name.

Storms blew across the Mediterranean but people weren’t worried about the rain. While it interrupted picking and meant adjustments to the processing, most people believed rain water in the fruit was no bad thing, and perhaps was even beneficial.

Most of the processors bought machinery from all the big companies. A malaxer from one, a separator from another and so on. You’d see all the big names lined up together. Company loyalty didn’t seem to play a part in their business plans and nearly all had competent engineers who were making special parts to adapt to the older equipment.

…things go better with coke!

Old Italian Olive farmer
Nino Russo at his farm near Rocca di Caprileone. Photo: Gino Russo

Gino’s relatives were all good cooks but their olives were especially tasty.

His Aunty Grazia would put freshly picked olives—either green or black, but not together—into old plastic coke bottles and store them in the cellar.

No water, no salt, nothing—just keep the lid tight. She emptied one batch out that had been there since last year, washed them, chopped up garlic, parsley, fennel and grated carrot, tossed it all in olive oil and lemon and voila!

Delicious—and even more delicious after three days. Now that is what I call easy processing.

Harvesting and processing may be old fashioned in Sicily but the culture of olives and olive oil is so entrenched it secures the future of the industry, unlike in Australia with our high production costs, negligible cultural connection and dependency on export.