On Olives…

I have to admit, going olive-harvesting in my best red chinos was not quite the date I had in mind this weekend. Highly entertaining and not a day to forget, but neither did I see it coming.

Whether Ali’s father’s suggestion that I tag along for the day and help out was made in jest or not is beyond me, but then, I’ve never been particularly good at saying no to anything. And that’s how I found myself  armed with two right-hand gloves and a campo hat, scrabbling about in the soil for olive windfall. It’s got to be both the strangest and the most enjoyable morning out here so far.

Like a lot of Olvereñans – it might not be too bold to say most – Ali’s family has their own campo, or plot, where they earn a modest income from their olives. Just like the interior of a Spanish house, Spaniards take great pride in their campo too, and Ali was very apologetic about the state of the place when we rolled up in the car. Of course, compared to the cave-house of mine that’s now sporting its very own jasmine jungle, it might have been a manicured lawn.

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I digress. We kitted up, Ali and her mother sporting rodillas, leather knee-guards which look for all the world like hockey pads, and set off across the grove to the spot where her father and his friend Chico were already hard at work, the one shaking the branches of an olive tree with a motorized contraption of some description whilst the other beat the hardiest olives out of the tree with a heavy stick, or palo. With the tarpaulin stretched out for several metres in all four directions, it was clear they’d not been idle in the first two hours of the working day: the lower end of the tarp was already a sea of shining black, laced with the green leaves and branches that had been dislodged in the vigor of the machine. There was only one palo to hand so they set me to work removing the unwanted debris from the harvest, as the gritty stuff – the hand picking of the olives that fell before the harvest began – is apparently women’s work. The use of machines and the bashing of the trees is a man’s job. How very Spanish.

And how very Benjamín to be relegated to said women’s work later, anyway.

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I didn’t particularly mind. It meant I was doing something a lot more useful, even if I did need my technique corrected every few minutes. Here’s a few staples:

1. Always pick facing uphill, from the bottom up. This is better for your back.

2. Use both hands. This increases speed and efficiency.

3. Keep the bucket in front of you. That way, you don’t have to turn whilst picking.

4. Be selective, but don’t be too selective. Dried out olives don’t yield good oil, but they don’t have to be shiny and new either.

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Ali’s father went off for a beer with Chico leaving me and the women to keep working. Over a few hours my Spanish got more comfortable – there’s always a reload period – and I found myself discussing the positives and negatives of staying bruto (rustic) in the face of Castilian, which would be both easier and more globally understandable. Personally, I can’t help myself: I for one consider the gaditano slur to be one of the sexiest accents in the world, cutting just ahead of Parisian French and Donegal Irish. How much I understand depends largely on the person; I understand most of what Ali and her friends say to me, but much of what Ali’s father said got lost in the ether. I know that at some point he thought me Ali’s boyfriend and joshed me about the appealing sight of his daughter fishing for olives on her hands and knees up in front (specifically, “tío, when I was your age, I certainly had a good look”), but any other teasing/scolding/words of wisdom were lost on me.

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I got another chance for a long conversation with Ali when we had a tree to ourselves, there to practice a different aceitunero technique: ordeñar, or stripping the branches by hand, in much the same way you milk a cow (hence, ordeñar). Nine years is a long time apart and I’ve still plenty of stories to share, but most of them sadly do not fall under the remit of Intermediate Level Spanish, so I fear she had to put up with a lot of jumbled sentences before I was understood. I really must study grammar this Christmas. The conditional has been plaguing me more than I thought it might.

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The temperature plummeted just before lunch and rain threatened, so we raced back to the house with our harvest and took lunch there: tortilla, bread and… olives. Each kilo sells to the local cooperativa for several centimos, which surprised me, but goes some way to explaining why, for all the millions of olive trees and hundreds of olives on each one, Andalucía is still a very poverty-stricken corner of Europe. To be an aceitunero is not a job in itself, certainly. It’s something extra the locals do come harvest time to earn a little more.

Well, I’m no aceitunero. I know a great deal more than I did before, but it’s a different world. It’s very much the earthy heart and soul of the very Andalucía I cherish, and I wonder just how much of an interloper I must be, taking part in such an intrinsically Andalusian rite. There are guiris who’ll pay for the experience: voluntourism. I got it for free, on account of my game-for-anything personality and affection for the campesino‘s daughter. I wonder what that meant on a deeper level…


It’s because of the olives that we can’t see each other again for several weeks. Such are the travails of a ‘pobrecito‘ and his campo. I suppose that gives me time to think, and to write. But it’s always worth the wait, even if it’s only for Olvera herself. Next time I’ll give myself a day to tackle the vulture mountain of Zaframagón. Or that abandoned convent I discovered once upon a time. Andalucía is something special, from the olives to the people who farm them. I hope it never leaves my heart. BB x

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