Janet picking peppers, 11th Nov.

 

This month the weather has been ideal for clearing the veg garden and gathering the olives. The sun has shone all day every day, with temperatures rising from eight degrees at 8am to twenty from noon until 5pm, sunset. There were only three days of rain.

 

 

 

Rained off, looking from the kitchen window across to the next tree to work on at the far left.

We generally take the tractor to the olive trees around 8.30 and are sawing out branches and combing the olives from the tree shortly thereafter. It is unhurried work and, with birdsong in the morning sun, very pleasant. We lay a green woven groundsheet on the earth to catch the olives as we strip them from the tree with a small hand rake, then we gather up the sheet and pour the olives into a plastic crate. Every three days we aim to prune seven trees and harvest seven crates of fruit, which clean up at about 100 kilos.

 During pruning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the fourth day I slowly pour the olives into a winnowing machine whilst Janet turns the handle. This shakes them through a wire mesh at the front where the leaves are blown off the mesh by wind created from four rotating blades inside the drum of the machine. The olives roll down a chute into the red barrow placed below it.

We thought we were working at a reasonable rate until we learned that a local team of four gathers that much in one afternoon. They use a machine which resembles a mechanised pair of clapping hands on a pole.

 

 

 

Commercially a tractor is used which shakes the tree and catches the falling olives in a large net which it spreads around the tree trunk. It strips a tree every five minutes, yielding about 150 kilos in an hour although no pruning is done.

We have visited our local olive press which has been closed for several years and is due to reopen next week. They require a minimum of 350 kilos for a single quinta pressing (olives from just one farm) so we are storing our olives in spring water until we have collected enough to produce our own oil straight from the press.

The veg garden has been stripped of its drip irrigation, the vines have shed most of their leaves so are now ready for pruning, and the cooling breeze from the Serra da Estrela is now a less welcome chilly wind. Winter is here.

It would be nice to sit in our lovely granite house, shut the doors and light the fire, and settle in. But this will not be yet. To cut a very long story short, it took from May to October, six months, of pushing carpenters to get two external oak doors made and fitted.

Pic: the front door and its frame in hallway prior to fitting,  Zé discussing the hinges with Clive.

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In order to fit security shutters as the French do I had to make the brackets myself, as we were unable to find them in any shop – my dad, who worked with metal all his life, would have been proud of me!

The finished doors with their secure shutters look lovely and we’re very pleased with them. Next we need internal doors.  The cost of buying them ready-made from a supplier and finishing them ourselves is not far off the cost of having Zé the carpenter make tham, so we will take the easy (?) route and have now asked  him to estimate the cost of making and fitting five internal doors; we called in to his workshop and he said he will start on them “next year”!

Pic: 140 kilos of olives for winnowing with the hand-powered machine. I tip the olives into the top and Janet cranks the handle round. In the cylinder are eight blades which whirl to blow the olive leaves off the fruit, which is shaken through a moving riddle onto the sloping chute and into the red collector on the floor.

We harvested the olives from 23 trees in five days at the end of November, and after cleaning them in our winnowing machine we took 222 kilos of olives to the lagar (place where the olives are crushed with big millstones to extract the oil) on Friday afternoon. Once they were delivered and weighed we were given a receipt and told that we should return in a week when our olives had been assayed for their oil content and enough of the new oil would be pressed for distribution. Rain started that evening and we had to wait a week until the rain cleared before it was safe to recommence the harvest.

Pic: rained off, leaving the prunings in lines ready for chopping into a mulch with the brushcutter on the back of my tractor.

Late November’s week of snow in the UK was a belt of rain in Portugal, and when it passed the clear skies, high light levels and sunny weather returned. We picked olives while the sun shone, and after five days picking from nine in the morning until dusk we had harvested another 200 kilos.

We winnowed them as the sun set, and the next day loaded them into the car and drove twenty miles to the lagar. 

Central and southern Portugal are clad in olive trees. Formerly there was a lagar in every village (ours had one, and the next was three miles away) and the olives were taken there in donkey-drawn carts to be pressed. Nowadays most have had to close because of EEC regulations (although the oil was always of top quality as it is a staple food, produced without chemical treatments). Consequently most home producers arrange for a friend with a pickup truck to take their olives to one of the few remaining lagars up to twenty five miles away. Since the catchment areas have increased from maybe ten square miles to six hundred, the pressure on them has also increased at least fifty-fold. Furthermore, it is uneconomical for these large lagars to press small loads so they set a guideline minimum of 200 kilos delivered. The little old ladies who are subsistence farming therefore have to use the service of some local farmer who will aggregate their crops into one load and deal with it.

Pic: our washed olives conveyed for weighing, see blog from Dec 08.

The queue for pressing was long, so we went food shopping and had an early lunch before returning and joining the line of lorries, pickup trucks and tractors with trailers. After several hours we learned that the lagar was overwhelmed with olives and was struggling to deal with the tonnages arriving. The sun set and the temperature began to drop. We were twenty-third in the line on arrival and could only move with it. We were cold and hungry (early lunch!) and slowly the line advanced. At 7.30 we passed through the yard gates where there were still eight vehicles in front of us.

The lagar had devised a method of simply washing and weighing half the clients’ loads whilst processing the other clients’ olives. Ours were not processed, and we were given a second receipt to reclaim in oil in a week. We left the lagar shortly before 10pm, chilled to the marrow and beyond hunger.

November 2008.

The traditional hand-picking method requires a ripador, a small hand-held rake to comb the olives from the branches of the tree onto a net spread on the ground. After I returned from a visit to England in mid-November, we sought one each. None were available at the market, one shop had sold out, a second was out of stock, a third hadn’t had any for ages and as they are hand-made by oldsters they didn’t have a source. We abandoned the search and looked instead into pneumatic palmetas, mechanical clappers to shake the olives (drupes) from the twigs. We bought a good-sized net (Ecocampo recommended eight metres by eight) to spread under the tree, for catching the olives, and crates to carry them in. A week later we were “mooching” in the old town and found two little shops which merit the appellation of Emporium or Aladdin’s Cave; we bought sacks and when we asked about ripadores, they had them! The first time we opened out the net it was obviously far too big, so we swapped it for a 6x6m (20ft square), which was manageable for two of us.

Although it was cold in the morning, the sun always came out and warmed the day to a comfortable 13°-20°C. We were in the olival just after 9am, stripping the drupes then lifting the net to pour them into a crate. At the end of the day we put the olives through a winnowing machine to clean the leaves from the fruit – when we bought the quinta we paid an extra €500 for farm equipment; the only piece that was of any use or value turns out to be the winnowing machine. The Portuguese have no word for this important machine; to them all machines are “maquina”, which covers anything with moving parts. A hand drill, electric drill, pneumatic drill, cement sprayer, car engine, JCB digger, all are “maquina”. To name each, you have to say what the maquina is for.

selecting and cleaning olives for preserving.

Now, once the olives are cleaned and bagged, you take them to a lagar to be pressed for the oil. Our nearest mill, Orca, is closed again this year, and JJ the JCB man suggested one in Vale de Prazeres (Valley of Pleasures). We visited, and found a grim-looking old warehouse mounded six feet deep in tons of bagged olives, lying sullen and forlorn in a thin river of black juice which trickled into the ground outside. No sound of action. A bored bloke shuffled out to “greet” us, fag in mouth and wearing a beret and boiler suit, waiting for us to speak first. Disheartened, it wasn’t worth the effort so we hardly bothered, deciding that any other lagar would probably be better.

Our first sacks of olives

We  were told that 200kg is the minimum acceptable weight for pressing,  so we needed to gather more olives and weigh them;  back to Ecocampo for more sacks and crates. They had sold out of our size and the rest would not stack on ours – typical. However, they did have a weighing machine on sale, so we bought that. And in a typical serendipitous conversation we met Julio the olive farmer, who suggested a lagar called Loca, beyond Fundão, 40mins drive from the quinta.

Two days later, on the way back to our villa, we went to find Loca. There was a queue of fifteen trucks and tractors with trailers right along the access road and onto the main road. Good news though, we stopped to look round the place and met Julio again, a mutual pleasure.

Working most of each day, we harvested 201kg in one week. We took our olives to lagar Loca where we were sixth in line, and only had to wait two hours for our turn – we felt sorry for the farmers who were in the long queue a few days ago!

There we emptied them through what looked like a cattle grid in the floor. They were washed, weighed as 201kg (yeah!), and pressed; we were looking forward to having our own oil but discovered that we were in fact adding to this year’s stocks of “Português” oil and would get one tenth of the weight of our olives as communal oil !


This was a blow, as we had taken over the 200kg  minimum, and their own lab had assayed our olives  as 8.3kg of olives to give a litre of oil.  At least the “extra virgin cold pressed” is VERY fresh and delicious, full flavoured with a hint of lemon.