Pruned as per textbook

We had a dry winter and by the end of January 2017 I had pruned sixty olive trees at 1¼ hours each; as we have three olive groves each of about 120 trees I do one grove a year.

In mid-February I was busy with pruning hundreds of vines and cutting by hand the weeds around their legs. With March being the finish of the pruning season the olives had to be done quickly, so I called on Senhor V and his team again: they did over two hundred trees in eight man-days, not in the pretty and theory-recommended way that I would, but in a serviceable manner.

 

Top olival, fast pruning

Following the pruning 10mm of rain fell in April and 76mm in early May; not enough for a good crop when the next rainfall was only 3.5mm in August and 16mm in October. After this rain the locals spread their toldos (plastic nets about six or eight metres square) under each tree and harvested what it had managed to produce.

Janet and I were concerned because their crop was small, the harvest should be four weeks later, and maybe they knew something we hadn’t heard yet. We walked through our olive groves and found that despite Sr V’s rough work the stunted trees would yield enough olives to give us a colheita; maybe I had misjudged his ability to get the trees into fruit.

Varejador runs off the tractor battery

 

 

We had heard the buzzing rattling sound of “the latest thing” in getting the olives off the tree without having to use ladders; there are actually two gadgets with an electric motor on the end of a telescopic pole.

 

 

One, bata-palmas, is like a pair of seven-fingered plastic hands which clap together. The other, a varejador. is a pair of five-fingered hands which oscillate past each other like small beaters. In both cases you comb the fingers through the drupes (olive-laden twigs) to shake free the olives. Having been told they make the job several times faster and much safer, we went out and bought a varejador.

It is lovely working in the top olival, quiet.

Clive combing olives from the tree

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Long story short, four days later we loaded seventeen crates of galega olives into the Subaru and took them to the co-operative lagar in Fundão (which is a cold-press mill), arriving mid afternoon.

Janet with the winnower to remove leaves and twigs

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were fortieth in the queue to the gates of the olive mill, and in the compound there were maybe sixteen more vehicles waiting or unloading.  I went to the front office and paid to become a member of the co-operative of olive growers. We waited for another hour.

Quarter of a ton of fresh olives

After an hour’s wait, now 30th in line.

Nearer to the front of queue for the lagar

 

We did a cryptic crossword. It went dark.

We waited. I walked to the nearest coffee bar for a coffee; it was full of chaps like me who had left their vehicles loaded with olives in the queue.

The moon came up and the temperature went down and you could see your breath. We sat in the cold car and we waited.

A two-wheeled tractor with trailer full of olives

All manner of vehicles arrive to unload olives at the press, from large commercial tipping lorries with several tons, medium-sized drop-down tailboard lorries, tractors with trailers, vans, Mitsubishi L200’s, two-wheeled tractors with trailers, and estate cars. By the time we emptied our crates into the balances it was after eight at night.

We took a day off then did it all again but went to the lagar early on a frosty morning, although it was lunchtime before we unloaded. Total yield, half a tonne, with very low acidity so Extra Virgin quality, which will be ready in a few days for collection.

The ladders, toldos and varejador are stored away for next November. The oil has just become available for members and we bought some to try – it is lemony yellow, buttery and softly fragrant like olives and citrus – delicious!

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.