Saturday, February 4, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Sicilian town unites for an ancient ritual: Making olive oil

In an age-old ritual, Italian towns can brim with country life when a good olive harvest arrives. Such was the picture this autumn in a Sicilian town where families spent their days together laying nets, climbing ladders and picking olives.

CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) — Dew, chilly breezes, morning mists, bouts of glowing sunshine, cloud-hooded mountains and the quiet sounds of olive pickers: These are the sensations at the end of a good – and long – olive harvest.

The harvest's been so fruitful this year black and green olives still dangle from many trees even though the season is usually over by this time in December.

The olive harvest is a crucial part of the backbone of Castelbuono, just as it is for much of the Mediterranean basin, the birthplace of olive oil.

And when a good season is at hand, people here in the Madonie Mountains of northern Sicily can seem to radiate with joy.

“When I close my eyes at night, all I can see are olives,” Rosario Cucco, a Castelbuono butcher, enthuses with child-like glee.

Many, if not most, families pick olives and take their hauls to mills where they wait contentedly for their golden-green olive oil to stream out from modern oil extraction machinery. During this time of year, conversations at stores and along streets often start and end with talk about olives: “Do you have any olives?” “Are you still picking olives?”

A variety of table olives are for sale at the town market in Castelbuono, Sicily, in November 2022. Olive harvests are a joyous time in Mediterranean towns like Castelbuono. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News)

At the height of the season – running from late October to mid-November – the countryside turns into a picture of community as families spend days together laying nets, climbing ladders, eating picnics and picking olives, often by hand just as has been done for generations.

It can be so peaceful among the olives trees as the trill of sounds drift in: A woman talks to a child as she gathers olives a few fields away; cow bells clang from a dairy herd on a distant hillside; the thumps of falling olive branches can be heard as a man prunes and slashes at a tree he's picking in an orchard down below; the playful warble and chatter of birds sail through the air on the best of days when the sun shines; a bumble bee suddenly buzzes by.

Yet, locals say olive harvests today are a shadow of the sense of kinship and excitement that they were in the past because of a seemingly inexorable abandonment of the countryside in Castelbuono and across most of Sicily, one of the more impoverished regions of the European Union.

A bottle of fresh olive oil is put on display for sale at the town market in Castelbuono, Sicily, in November 2022. The back-breaking olive harvest is a joyous time in Mediterranean towns like Castelbuono. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News)

“At one time there was a lot more harmony in the olive harvest,” says Anna Franca Zangara, a 45-year-old caretaker, as she waits for her olive oil to be processed at a mill. She and her husband bought a small piece of land with a couple dozen olive trees with which to make oil.

“That was also the case with the grape harvest,” she says. “There was a festive feeling with so many people reuniting in the countryside.”

But in this digital age, she says, that sense of “harmony,” as she puts it, is gone.

“Now, there's solitude in the countryside because young people want to be on their smartphones, are always on social media,” she laments. “They're not looking to be in touch with nature.”

She says the hope is that through the local schools children can be taught to cherish nature with programs to plant trees and grow gardens.

“The olive harvest season is so beautiful,” she says, her eyes lighting up. “But country life is hard: You have to get your hands dirty; you need to sweat. It's tough, so you have to be passionate about it.”

She darts back through wooden doors into the roaring noise of the mill because her bright green oil is about to pour forth after going through the long extraction process.

Five miles from Castelbuono deep in a valley, Enzo Carollo is working late into the season and battling the winds, rains and chills of December.

ADVERTISEMENT
Enzo Carollo, an olive farmer in Castelbuono, Sicily, uses a wooden contraption he built to sift out leaves and twigs from olives he gathered in December 2022 to make olive oil. The back-breaking olive harvest is a joyous time in Mediterranean towns like Castelbuono. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News)

He's one of Castelbuono's most dedicated olive harvesters – a stock of work-hardened people carrying on this centuries-old tradition of planting, picking and pruning olive trees.

A devotee of top-grade olive oil, Carollo has spent the past two decades proselytizing the idea that Castelbuono can preserve its traditions of olive oil by making better oil. He's become one of the town's best-known oil producers with a sizable number of clients eager for his organically-certified premium oil.

“We have to remember one thing,” he says. “The oil here isn't worth much for one reason: I do it, you do it, he does it. No one has a need for oil. But as soon as you put your nose outside of Italy, outside our context, you can ask any price you want.”

He's hopeful young people in Castelbuono are adopting modern techniques to make cleaner, tastier and higher-quality oil fit for export.

“We need to become more professional,” he says. “You need to build up experience both by working in the field but also by talking with knowledgeable people.”

Many locals, though, are unwilling to change, he says.

“It's not about talking to folks at the bar. At the bar, I've tried explaining for hours how to make good oil. What do I hear back? 'But my grandfather did it this other way.' I give up and say: 'Then do it like your grandfather did it.'

“Sicilians need to realize the value of what they possess. We need to better understand what the market wants.”

He stoops to pick up yet another olive net scattered with precious plump green olives.

Enzo Carollo, center, stoops to sift through olives during the olive harvest in December 2022. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News)

“The work has become a bit hard physically for me,” the 58-year-old olive farmer says as he teases the net free from brambles. “But let's say I still do it willingly because I enjoy it.”

Since October, Carollo has been getting up with the sun to start his long days. As is common for Italian manual workers, he first makes his way to one of the town's morning cafes.

In the early-morning cafes, groggy harvesters, dressed in stained work clothes and talking in Sicilian dialect, mill about to share news, chat about tools, local politics, prices and people. They drink espressos, eat pastries, glance over the newspapers, smoke cigarettes.

One after another, the olive pickers arrive and slowly head off into the quiet orchards surrounding Castelbuono – often behind the steering wheels of Fiat Pandas, a boxy, simple and ubiquitous workhorse of Italian cars.

Carollo picks up a device with what looks like a flapping two-pronged claw at the end of a long pole. It's an electric olive picker, a tool that's become more common in Castelbuono and made harvests much faster. He turns it on and combs a tree's branches. Olives rain down on a net.

“My day ends when I take my oil from the mill to my warehouse, which can be around 8:30-9 in the evening,” he says. “Then, it's time to eat, get some sleep and in the morning it starts all over again.”

Despite the hardships, he's optimistic about the future and sees his family's olive business slowly expanding.

“Agriculture slows you down,” he says. “It makes you calm down. Bit by bit, it will give back what you put into it. The more you put into it, the more you get back. But it takes time. It's not like commerce where you buy one day and are making a profit the next.”

He strolls down into the orchard to look at the last few trees left to pick. Birds chirp and there's the sound of water running in a river below.

“It's relaxing,” he says about his labors amid the trees.

If anything tests his calm, it's the way Italy's political classes do so little to help farmers.

“Politicians who don't represent you and think you're a cow to be milked,” he says bitterly. “It can't go on like this. I'll keep working in the countryside for as long as it allows me to feed myself.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Enzo Carollo, an olive farmer, holds green olives in his hands during the late part of the harvest in December 2022. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News)

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...