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I’m a pretty unoriginal traveler. I’ve been fortunate to travel through most of Europe and have a very long list of spots I’d love to go one day — China, South America and Portland, to name a few; but every opportunity I get, I just keep going back to Italy.
My love affair with this land of wine, pasta and olives began during a college study abroad program. From there I became a tour guide, showing guests around my home of NYC but also bringing groups of Americans who shared my thirst for Tuscany’s sour cherry sangiovese, Sicilian citrus and countryside-inspired olive oil adorned tables to Italy. It was an amazing experience, but to be honest after five years of regular visits — not to mention countless wine tours and cooking lessons — I soon realized I didn’t want to tour around the country anymore. I wanted to BE there, punto.
So, when the opportunity arose to help with the olive harvest on a good family friend’s farm in Rome’s countryside, Castelli Romani, I bought my plane ticket the next day.
Did I mention that I’m absolutely obsessed with olive oil?
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A Typical Day On An Olive Farm
7:30am: I’d be up and dressed, grabbing a quick breakfast of milk and cereal with tea and honey made from the farm’s apiary just in front of the house. After breakfast I’d head out the back door where two of the family dogs would greet me and escort me out to the olive fields, just behind the house. There, I’d meet with the other workers — the majority of which were older, Italian men — and help them spread out nets underneath the trees to catch the falling fruits.
8am: The actual picking of the olives was women’s work back in the day. My host explained that the field would be filled with women picking olives and singing songs, which he’d demonstrate.
I used a plastic rake to comb the branches like hair, letting the olives fall onto the ground, and was eventually upgraded to the machine — which, by the way, was very exciting — vibrating combs on a long pole that you could use to reach the taller branches.
After we’d gather up the nets and pour the fallen olives into baskets which would then dump into the a cart pulled by an old tractor.
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10:30am: We’d take seats on the upturned baskets underneath the trees and take a break for panini (thin cut prosciutto or mortadella on fresh bread) and “young” wine made in my host’s grotto, which he’d serve from a simple glass bottle.
Once sufficiently satiated (and just slightly buzzed) the picking continued until we filled the cart, then transporting it to the local mill. Here we’d dump the olives and get a processing time. That way we could come back when they were ready to process the olives to be able to watch — and monitor — each step.
12:30pm: Very unlike American factories, you could walk right up to the machinery. On one side of the mill they had a more modern set up with machines, while the other had the old school mill and press. My host chose the old school way; as in our olives were ground to a paste by a stone mill, pressed to let the juices out and then spun in a centrifuge to separate the oil from the water.
He insisted I stick my finger under the spout as the oil poured from the centrifuge into our caster containers. It was magical.
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1:30pm: After a huge lunch set up outside — everything harvested on the farm, from the meat to the vegetables to the oil — I’d spend the rest of the day hanging around and tagging along on errands with my host. With no phone, no internet and no work I was able to fully immerse myself in the experience of living like a local in Italy. We’d grab meat for dinner from the butcher, head into town to grab an espresso and walk around the piazza to catch up with his friends or visit his grotto to check on the wine.
My favorite stop was to a “hardware store” — actually a man’s garage. Here, after grabbing some tools, my host left a soda bottle sample of his young wine for the hardware man to analyze, which was his other business, to see if anything needed to be added while it matured.
10:30pm: After an early dinner (for Rome, anyway) I’d shower, practice some yoga, then hop into bed for a book where I’d read for at least an hour before turning the lights out. All things I never have time for at home.
After the week I was stronger (from the picking), healthier (from all the farm-fresh food), calmer, happier and more relaxed than I’d been in a long time.
For me, travel shows how other people live around the world, allowing me to choose what I think works best for me to have a happy, healthy, fun and balanced life. A week picking olives in Italy was all I needed to remind me how important leisure is.
Which reminds me, it’s time for my afternoon coffee break.
By Nikki Padilla