There is something surprisingly modest about olive trees, given their noble history and legendary reputation, going back far before biblical times. If you ever get a chance to climb one to pick its fruit, the feeling will no doubt remind you of climbing into the lap of a favorite old aunt, the one who’d benignly allow you to yank at her necklace without a hint of protest or resistance.
For most Mediterranean people, the olive tree has been seen throughout history as almost holy – a symbol of peace, victory, and endurance. The ancient trees grow in wondrous, tangled ways, with trunks resembling characters in fairy tales. The olive tree is one of the heartiest of all trees on the planet: able to survive salt water, adapting itself to almost any sunny and temperate environment, able to thrive in most soils, retaining its leaves year round, and living in some cases more than a thousand years, occasionally bearing fruit for centuries. In Greek mythology, Zeus pronounced Athena the victor in a competition because it was she who had bestowed upon mankind the most useful plant of all: the olive tree.
Olive harvesting for those who have a few hundred trees or less is a family affair in much of Lebanon. Hiring Syrian or Bedouin workers is the norm these days to help with the harvesting. Generally, one to three people work on a tree, first laying down a nylon sheet under it. One person starts on the upper branches, while the others work on the lower ones. With their hands they slide the olives gently down the branch, as if sliding beads off a necklace. Both the green and the black are harvested; a mix of the two makes for the most flavorful olive oil. The tree offers no resistance – no thorns, no tug of war – there is an almost effortless, childlike easiness to the process. The day’s work progresses amidst gossip, jokes, and the pleasant sound of olives plopping onto the ground in a soft rain of purple, black, yellow and green.
Ideally, after they are harvested, the olives will be stored in their crates for just a day before they are brought to the mill. Olives do not go well with mechanization. It’s a fact that the quality of the oil decreases with the increase of mechanization because the more gently the olives are treated the better the resulting oil.
At the mill, local farmers, friends and helpers meet and chat about their yield, the weather and how this year’s harvest compares with last. But, everyone is very concerned about their olives and often stays there during the process, out of eagerness and anticipation, and just to ensure that the olive oil they end up with is indeed from their batch of olives. Mills are operated during the day and sometimes part of the night to accommodate the need of farmers to press the olives as fast as possible. The entire milling process must be done at a very low temperature, in order that the nutritious elements, color and flavor are preserved. So, the mills are not exactly warm places to hang out, but nonetheless the mood is usually festive and friendly.
Every region, every piece of land, almost every hill, has its own particular oil. Some have a delicate taste, some are full-bodied, and some could almost be described as tangy or spicy. The weather at the time of harvest is of great importance, and experienced farmers know when it’s the right moment to start – before the wet, cold days of fall set in.
Olive harvesting is a right of passage of seasons in Lebanon. It’s that moment in time when autumn is nearing its final days and winter is just around the corner. Seasons passing, life goes on from snow to melt, from blooming and thriving to wilting and migrating, becoming orange and brown, harvesting to hibernating… All falls into place in this spectacle of seasons as the olive trees wait for the blood of their fruits to be grown, harvested, transformed, and consumed; their love providing to many.
The Painting is called Olive Picking by Sleiman Mansour, oil on canvas, 1988
If you’d like to see a small clip on that: