Start of the olive harvest

Just one thought at the start of the annual olive harvest: I love the little tug and the almost inaudible sound — phut! — when I pull the olives off the branch.

This year, I seem to have double the usual amount of olives. Hope the weather holds.

Here’s  an article I wrote about the harvest a few years ago, in Tablet Magazine:

Dec. 17, 2009

It’s surely just a coincidence that in Italy, where I have a home, the olive harvest generally takes place in the month or so before the most oil-centered of Jewish holidays.

For me, though, the olive harvest and subsequent production of oil provide a parallel seasonal ritual, in which bruschetta, or grilled bread drenched in dense new oil, provides the ceremonial flavor.

My family and I have property in an olive-producing area of Umbria, in central Italy, where the landscape is a hilly mix of forest and farmland, and many of the slopes are covered with groves of olive trees.

Umbria is home to several big olive oil concerns, with huge groves comprising thousands of trees. But many people, like me, have small private holdings that provide enough oil for their own needs, as well as a portion left over for sale.

On our land, we have several dozen olive trees. I keep most of them pruned, but otherwise, I admit, I’m a very poor farmer. I don’t plow or fertilize or do much else to care for them; I regard what they produce as something of a gift, and only about half of the trees, in fact, bear fruit.

Still, each November sees me out in the field, gathering olives and then having them taken to a local frantoio, or olive press, where they are turned into oil.

The picking process is hard, repetitive work, but it’s simple. I spread a net on the ground at the base of each tree and then strip the branches, using my fingers or an orange plastic hand-rake specially made for the job.

In Umbria we pick olives before there are overly ripe, so that you have to really pull them off. They are green and purple and brown as well as a mature black, and I love the little tug and the sound they make as they detach from their stems. The ripe black olives look luscious, but there is no temptation to sample them: raw olives are intensely bitter, inedible unless dried, salted, or processed in brine. […]

Read the full article





I’m on Italian TV (very, very briefly)

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

On Saturday, I attended a ceremony in the outrageously beautiful Umbrian hill town, Polino, where the local authorities named a newly built piazza in honor of Giovanni Palatucci, a World War II Italian fascist police official who is reputed to have saved thousands of Jews by giving them false documents.

Palatucci, who died in Dachau, is revered as a popular hero in Italy (he was also honored as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem and honored by the ADL, the Roman Catholic Church, the Italian Jewish community and others) — even though recent scholarship has cast serious doubts on the extent of his rescue efforts. He is known to have worked to save at least some Jews, but the generally quoted figure of 5,000 seems inflated….

Anyway, it was a lovely ceremony that mixed hagiography with true sincerety.

A representative of the Jewish community in Rome was invited — but declined because it took place on Shabbat.

I myself attended mainly because my friend, Mario Carletti, sculpted the memorial that marks the new piazza. It shows a bust of Palatucci, with barbed wire gates and the “arbeit macht frei” slogan.

Still, listening to the priest, the mayor, the police band, the prefect, I felt that there needed to be a Jewish voice — so I more or less invited myself to say a few words, stressing the need to honor those who did what the majority of people did not, and reminding of the teaching that whoever saves one life saves the world.

Local Italian TV ran a spot — it starts at minute 8:00, and I can be seen (in a white linen suit) walking in the procession at 8:52 . CLICK HERE FOR THE LINK