Some of our experiences here in Italy just cannot be written about. Others, like the impact of seeing a particular painting for the first time, the joy of spending a day cooking with a local chef, the taste of a great meal or an unforgettable bottle of wine, lend themselves to recreation through words and pictures.
But others are so elemental that have to be lived to fully understand and appreciate them. Picking olives with the Palermis is one of those experiences.
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We have been friends with the Palermi family for as long as have been coming to Cannara. Their son Marco, after living with us in Washington one summer many years ago to study English, spends his days taking care of la Fattoria del Gelso and its guests. His parents, Lodovico and Anna, are part of every trip we make to the villa, and from the moment we first met them there was an instant connection, despite the great chasm that language presented. But over the years we persevered and little by little learned the other’s language well enough at least to spend hours over a meal, visiting the area’s historic sites or tasting wine together, all without the need for someone to translate for us.
Several years ago during a visit to Umbria during autumn harvest time, Lodovico and Anna invited us and our guests up to his oliveto, or olive grove, that grows in the shadows of the walls of Assisi on the slopes of Mount Subassio. It is a special refuge for the Palermi family and that first day we realized how fortunate we were that they had shared that place with us.
The oliveto is a place of powerful tranquility, an oxymoron if there ever was one. But the peacefulness and naturalness of the place are palpable, despite the camper that houses a working kitchen and storage space. There is even electricity, running water and indoor plumbing on this isolated patch of ground on the side of the mountain.
But as the Lorax would probably say, it is the trees that give the oliveto its special feel. The mountainside is covered, as far as the eye can see, with olive trees. Thousands of them. Each one different, but uniform and harmonious in so many respects. Their pale green silver leaves gently flapping in the afternoon breeze, illuminated to glowing under the hazy warming sun in a pastel blue sky. From the human perspective at ground level, the world stretches no farther than a dozen or so trees from side to side. But standing on a slope, one can see up and down the mountain for quite a distance and the view is always the same, silver green leaves waving on light brown gnarly trunks, the sandy soil connecting each tree flecked with patches of grass and wild herbs.
There are no sounds other than the gentle rustle of the breeze and the laughter and conversation of the Palermi family around the outdoor table.
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Picking olives can be seen in one of two lights. As an activity important in itself. Or as an excuse to sit together around the table and eat and enjoy one another’s company. For us it is both.
On days like yesterday when we come to pick olives with Lodovico and his family, there is always a meal involved. Yesterday was no exception. When we arrived in the early afternoon, somewhat embarrassingly late for my tastes as it seemed at that hour we were simply dropping in for a meal, the family had already started its afternoon break from working the trees. In tow were Anna and Lodovico, Marco, his grandmothers aunts and uncles. A few minutes after our arrival Marco’s wife and son arrived, followed by his sister and boyfriend. Introductions of the Americans to this multigenerational Italian group took much time, but as is always the case with the family, the welcome was genuine and the connections instant.
For the next half hour the women finished preparing the meal, assisted as needed by the men at the outdoor barbeque in which fresh sausages and goose were being grilled. A few moments later we were all seated at the endless picnic table that is under the trailer’s hand built canopy to give it shade and keep it dry during the infrequent rain showers. The vast table was jammed with members of the family and their new American friends who quickly learned to communicate with one another through words, smiles and gestures. Communication effective enough to keep the flow of meats and cheeses, pastas and sausage and goose circulating around the table, stopping here and there to be partially offloaded onto a plastic plate and consumed. Or rather to be savored. For any food, but particularly food this good and this thoughtfully prepared, is not simply food, not simply nutrition when it is enjoyed around this table in this special place. It is a memory. A feeling that cannot be adequately described in words, but which you can conjure up from your soul when you want and need comfort. It is and becomes a part of you.
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It is after a meal like the one prepared by Lodovico and his family, after all the wine and all the homemade liqueurs that one can truly appreciate the labor of olive picking. After the lunch, which did not so much finish as it did finally run out of steam and focus, we begin to wander out to the fields. There a few of our companions have begun to pick and over the next few minutes, without anyone announcing that the picking had begun, the trees were surrounded and covered with volunteers.
After some basic instruction was provided, our group went to work, essentially raking the tiny, hard olives from the trees with plastic rakes that look like they might have been made by Playschool as children’s playthings. But these rakes are the ideal tool for picking the olives without damaging the branches and leaves and within a half hour the nets that have been placed on the ground around the base of the tree are filled with olives. The nets are then rolled up and the captured olives dumped into a large plastic bin, destined for the local frantoio or olive mill.
Over the next hour or so we climb ladders, reach up from the ground and stand on branches, combing olives from the trees while a gentle conversation takes place among the Americans and Italians who, somehow, have found a way to communicate with one another. The work is not too taxing physically and there is a certain satisfaction that comes with seeing a tree, so full of black and green fruits at the start, yield its bounty and become bare, yet still retaining its tranquil beauty.
As we finish combing our third tree after lunch, the sun low in the sky and the light fading, a sense of wellbeing, of rightness, of contentment rolls over each of us. It is a feeling that comes with spending a day with family, doing the family’s work together unfiltered, uninterrupted and unrushed. It is a feeling that cannot truly be written about, but which must be experienced to be truly understood.
Bill and Suzy