Harvesting olives for olive oil & eating

We moved to Spain in 2014 - in October, just in time for almond harvest. 
Only two months later, it was time for our main crop: olive harvest time was there... 

Harvesting olives for olive oil & eating | Simple Living in Spain

Our first olive harvest was an amazing experience. We had a few friends help us out, and we learned so much in such a short time! 

Our olives are of the Empeltre variety. They can be used both for eating and pressing olive oil; most people around here leave them on the trees until they're nicely ripe and black. In the past few years, we found a few people who would harvest them when green for a different (stronger) taste, and it's definitely on our list of things to try. 
Most presses in the area belong to a "cooperativa" or co-op. Members can sell their olives to the co-op, bring the olives in and get oil in return (for a price), or sometimes a combination of both. Each co-op decides on when members are allowed to bring in their olives (both earliest date for bringing them in, as an ultimate deadline after which you're left with piles of useless olives). Our little cooperativa in our tiny village allowed us to start bringing in olives on December 9th - although some of the olives had been ripe for weeks before that. 

It took three men about two days to harvest olives from 45 trees by hand - hitting the branches with sticks, to make them fall into the nets.

It took three men about two days to harvest olives from 45 trees by hand - hitting the branches with sticks, to make them fall into the nets.

As I still had a full time job back then, DIY-man took it upon himself to manage the olive harvest. He set to work with 2 friends; buying the necessary equipment first (nets and sticks found at the cooperativa in the neighbouring village of Cretas), and borrowing crates to store and transport the harvest in.

To harvest the olives "by hand", we hit the branches / the olives with the sticks, so they fall into the nets we spread out on the ground. After every tree, we gather the olives into the crates (while leaving out the bigger branches). We have about 50 trees on our land, which took the three men one and a half days of work to harvest. At the end of the second day, they took the crates to the co-op in Lledo (our tiny village); our olives were weighed at almost 500 kg (1102 lbs / 78 stone). The next day, we were able to go and pick up 4 big barrels of olive oil (about 100 liters / 26 gallons). 
The cooperativa in Lledo is tiny, dark and the pictures reflect that. Our plan has been to take better pictures since that day... read on to find out why that didn't happen yet. 

Our olive oil is excellent; it is cold pressed virgin oil, and since we don't spray our trees (and neither do most of the people who bring their olives to Lledo), it's probably the healthiest olive oil I've ever had. You can really taste the olives, and it's excellent with my home made tomato bread!

That was 2014... fast forward to 2015. 

Over the course of the past year, we had used our olive oil for EVERYTHING. Gave it away as a gift, sold it to people, used it for salads, cooking, skin and hair care, you name it. We figured we were going to get a hundred liter a year, which was awesome! 

We were newbies, straight from the city. We had totally overlooked one important detail - olive trees are biennial. This means that they will have an excellent crop one year - and little to nothing the next. This can be evened out with careful pruning, but we didn’t make much time for pruning that first year. 

Our olive harvest in 2015 was…

Wait for it…

One plastic bag. Not even a big bag, just a normal plastic supermarket bag. We made some eating olives with it (see below), and started buying olive oil at the cooperativa. 

That spring, we somehow decided our trees needed a big pruning - it still baffles me as to why (we knew that in that case, we wouldn’t get a big harvest), and I was a little sad when afterwards our big majestic olive trees appeared very meagre and thin… However, by the beginning of summer, they were full of blossoms. So maybe they didn’t have that many branches left - at least we’d get some harvest! 

Alas, summer came and so did a bad spell of drought. The blossoms died right off the trees - and no olives came instead. From our 50-ish trees, only two produced olives… so we decided to keep them for eating. We also got gifted some green olives from a neighbour, and allowed to harvest one tree at a friends’ (that tree stands in the middle of a lawn, so had been given water all summer and had an amazing harvest), so we ended up with four big buckets of olives. 

Harvesting olives for olive oil & eating | Simple Living in Spain

We were lucky enough that winter to have three lovely volunteers over from California - and as the weather was too bad to work outside during their stay, they spent most of their working hours in our living room, preparing olives for eating. 

Did you know olives are absolutely and positively disgusting when you get them right off the tree? Really, the person who discovered they are actually edible after going through a whole process, deserves a medal. Well prepared olives taste nothing like the originals! 

Harvesting olives for olive oil & eating | Simple Living in Spain

There are several ways to prepare olives for eating. The laziest one is as they do in local villages - they fill up a barrel with salt water, drop the olives in, and wait for six months or so. Some people will take out a small batch to eat earlier; they’ll bruise them or make a cut in them (so they absorb the water and spices better), put them in brine, and change their water every other day until they’re ready to eat. 

Harvesting olives for olive oil & eating | Simple Living in Spain

Our technique is somewhat in the middle. 

First, we soak them in water for a bit to “clean” them. This is also the best way to keep them if we’re not ready to process them immediately; when kept without water, they will mould - but they’ll keep well for at least weeks in water. So we leave them in their big buckets, but add some water to it. 

Harvesting olives for olive oil & eating | Simple Living in Spain

When we’re ready to process the olives, we make a little cut in them. That’s where our American volunteers came in; they processed bucket after bucket and put the olives in jar after jar for days on end (all the while watching movies, series or just chatting). 

We fill glass jars with the olives, and add salt water to them - fill them up really well, so there’s not much air left in the jar. Those jars go into the cellar, where the olives can absorb the salt water (and lose their bitter taste) in peace. 

Harvesting olives for olive oil & eating | Simple Living in Spain

A few months later, we get the olives from the cellar, empty the salt water jars (the water has turned black by then), rinse the olives, and taste a few of them. On rare occasions, they’re good to eat - most of the time though, they either lack salt, or are way too salty… we haven’t been able to get our brine completely perfect yet. 
So we’ll put our little olives back into their jars, adding salt water (a little less or more salty depending on their needs). In most of the jars, we’ll also add spices, preferably from the garden: thyme, rosemary, garlic, maybe a hot pepper, oregano, or whatever we find an interesting experiment at that time. 

Harvesting olives for olive oil & eating | Simple Living in Spain

A few weeks later, we often have the most amazing olives to eat and serve to our guests. Every year, we’re amazed that we could make such bitter tasting little black balls into such a delicacy! 

Are there any olive trees where you live? 
Did you ever make your own eating olives from scratch?
Please leave me a comment to tell me all about it!