It took seven of us four or five hours to pick them all; and it’s labour-intensive work. Two on ladders plucking the sun-warmed fruits one by one, putting them into a cloth bag hung on a branch, then handing them down to be poured into one of the wicker baskets. The rest picking from lower branches or spreading old tablecloths and dust sheets around the trees to catch the steady shower of olives which fell and had to be retrieved from the ground.
It fell to my nine-year-old daughter to do most of the picking up from the ground, everybody calling her to come and clear the olives so that they could move the cloths or move the ladders. Just as well that she’s so good natured!
There is an immense satisfaction in harvesting what you have grown, although the olive trees need little attention during the year. We do not spray any insecticides in our garden and yet, most of the fruit is perfect. All that olive trees demand is regularly watering in the hottest months and an annual pruning after the harvest to get rid of dead wood. It is also advisable to prune branches which grow too densely and to limit the height of the tree by lopping the highest branches. Otherwise you will be frustrated by seeing the lovely ripe olives at the top, knowing that you have no way of reaching them without a five-metre ladder.
Then to sort out the crop: the largest indigo and green-purple ones for bottling in brine; the rest to load into the car and take to be pressed. I deliver the olives in the morning and spend the day eagerly anticipating the oil collection at the end. The shiny steel machines, crates of olives on the weighing scales and the shelves full of empty bottles waiting to be filled. The amount of oil depends on the weight of olives; in our case some 30kg! I feel as proud as the mother of a fat healthy baby at a clinic weigh-in. The yield of virgin oil is about 10-15%, so my olives will give me about three litres of fragrant green oil.
My eyes glisten greedily as the thick, viscous green oil pours lazily into the sterlised glass bottles. Another crop over and a year’s supply of olives and oil to enjoy. The oil I use only for salads and for hobz biz-zejt. It is too precious to cook with. I want to relish the delicious taste at my leisure and know that, truly, it is the fruit of my own labour.
Want to see and taste Malta’s olives? Annabel had her olives pressed by Sam Cremona who runs an olive farm at Wardija. He offers agri-tourism visits by appointment: tel: +356 79582294.