To set the scene Harry and Tina were casually bumbling through Eastern Europe whilst I was casually bumbling around Herefordshire, trying to make it through the day without curling up into a ball and sobbing all day long. I had managed to fill over a month with lots of fun activities, catching up with friends, a weeks salmon fishing in Scotland with my father, a trip to Amsterdam to cheer him on in the marathon, a perfect month at home perhaps. Without a job to go to I was at home most days and a lady of leisure, the dream, but with an upturned house because of building works and a huge mother shaped hole in my life, sitting around at home began to be a nightmare. My attention span was that of a teaspoon so reading, listening to music, exercise, whatever it was, was so uninteresting. My mind needed to be occupied by some sort of familiarity and considering I had spent the last four months traveling in Tina with Harry, that was the thing that seemed most familiar.
To set the next scene, my aunt has a house in Italy that she spends half the year at. Said house was built by her and is filled with lots of familiarities and happy memories, most from the olive harvest we help to collect in the autumn. My parents go most years and take friends of theirs to help out my aunt and uncle too, so my sister and I downed tools and joined in the plans they had made. My father and his mate Oliver were driving out on their motorbikes and my sister and I, Oliver’s wife Chrissie and another family friend Jacqui followed a few days later. Harry also set his compass for Italy and we all convened in Marsciano in the rolling hills of Umbria to begin the harvest. With a week of good company, good food and wine, fresh air, and olives up to our armpits I was feeling a lot better by the end of it. Being reunited with Tina was actually a lot more poignant than I thought it would be, Harry drove over in her to the airport to pick us all up. As I sat in the passenger seat again, the one I was sitting in when my sister called me to tell me about my mama, I actually felt some sort of peace and order again. I am not saying Ford Transit vans can heal a broken heart but she definitely made me feel safe and cheery again. Despite our love hate relationship I had missed her and it was nice to show Jacqui, Chrissie and Oliver around her. When we talk about what a magnificent beast she is, tell the tales from our trip and show people around the van I remember what an amazing little home we have made and adventure we have done so far.
As for an olive harvest, what is that?! Before I ever took part in one I believed that Italians, Greeks, and Spaniards really did dance and leap around olive groves like in the Bertolli advert, shaking trees to collect the wee things to be pressed and sold on our local supermarket shelves. To some sadness this is not true but instead one lays a net around a knobbly perhaps century old tree and collects the olives by hand or by a tool much like a knit comb. One engages in chit-chat with the next door picker or simply floats away to another planet whilst the your hands methodically sweep through the branches, stripping them of the black gold. Once the tree or row is finished the nets are funneled together and the olives tipped into crates ready to be taken to the Frantoio (the olive press) when the harvest is all collected. The noise of other local groups of pickers wafts over the valley and families all reunite for the weekend to help with la raccolta delle olive, and as the fresh, green oil comes out of the press all are rewarded with a generous drizzle over some bruschetta later that day. All your hard work stretching and craning, clambering up trees and ladders, and spiky tipped olive leaves poking you in the eye to get that one last olive winking at you from the top of the tree, are paid off when you taste the peppery and creamy fruits of your labour. Supermarket olive oil will never make the cut again, especially when you see the dry residue from the press being sold to well-known home brands to be mixed with chemicals and reconstituted to become oil. Call me a snob but Filippo Berrio Extra Virgin doesn’t have a patch on my aunt and uncles home-grown and hand-picked olive oil.
Modernity has crept in slowly with machines doing the picking or mechanical knit combs whizzing the olives off their branches and the presses have become mechanised, but the process is largely unchanged in some areas of the Mediterranean. The mechanical knit combs are slightly offensive due to the noise of the power source, a car battery, running tractor engine or compressor, but perhaps we are being nostalgic. However, if my aunt and uncle had ten times the amount of trees like some of their neighbours do then maybe we would see the machines as friends and not foes. My aunt explained that it is always the last harvest of the year in Italy, the last big push before winter takes over. Some locals only have a few trees, just enough to supply them with oil for the year, others have vast farms so they can sell the oil on to the press for some income. Some turn up with crates and crates piled on the back of their tractor, others arrive in their three-wheeler known as an ‘Ape’ (which means bee) with their olives piled in hessian sacks. Some decant the fresh oil into stainless steel fifty litre drums, others into reused water and wine bottles. Whatever way you do it doesn’t seem to matter, anything goes, its delicious either way.
Harry and I are still here in Umbria staying with my aunt and uncle, not doing a whole lot. The house is in such a lovely spot so it is nice just to be here and help out with odd jobs around the house. As I was making tea the other morning to take back to bed I picked up a book that was lying around called Umbria – The Heart of Italy by Patricia Clough. In the opening pages was a lovely comment:
‘Umbrians have a curious and sometimes endearing relationship with modernity. The fading black-and-white photos in some restaurants or photo shops of old peasant Umbria with unpaved roads, donkey carts and muscular white oxen ploughing the land show how much has changed in the space of a few decades. And yet much still remains.’
The local town is simple and the weekly Monday market is sensible, it has everything you need. The landscape is a mixture of medieval hilltop villages and valley floor factories, the locals a mixture of Italian nonnas in their house coats and carpet slippers and glamorous ladies stomping around in their Italian leather boots and fur coats. With Perugia, Todi, and Assisi nearby there is tourism but the smaller industrial farming towns such as Marsciano are nearly void of tourists. Most tourists seem to head further north and west into Tuscany leaving Umbria to bumble along at its own pace with whatever degree of modernity it chooses to embrace. As I said, anything goes. The chapter above goes on to say ‘One often feels that life here proceeds at roughly the same pace as an Ape’ which is fairly slow. The last month or so has been a whirlwind of activities and emotions so to now be watching the world go by from a hilltop in Umbria it is no wonder we are still parked up here.