A Sicilian Olive Harvest: One Family’s Annual Tradition

A Sicilian Olive Harvest: One Family’s Annual Tradition

Along with grapes and grain, it was the humble olive that
enabled an ancient civilisation to build the great Greek temples of
Sicily back in 7th century BC. With
no temples to build but plenty of pasta sauce to make, one family’s
annual olive harvest produces a year’s worth of organic olive oil
for friends and family.

Harvest week

It’s 23 degrees in mid-October
in western Sicily, yet Marcello Manzo is dressed for deepest
winter. Wearing a thick, woolly cardigan, corduroy trousers and a
tweed flat cap, he triumphantly marches into the olive grove
bearing a plate piled high with cannoli – traditional Sicilian
ricotta-filled pastries.

We’re on the grounds of Villa Santa Maria, a 17th-century
monastery-turned-holiday-home that has been in the Manzo family for
over a hundred years. The turreted, honey-coloured baglio
(farmhouse) is surrounded by vineyards, a reminder that it was once
the setting for a wine business. But now it’s the olives that take
centre stage.

During Villa Santa Maria’s week-long olive harvest, half a dozen
local pickers work their way through the neat line of 160 trees
packed with fruit ready to be plucked. Their faces tanned and
marked by the strong Sicilian sun, they’re here from 8AM until the
sun begins its gradual descent. They work as quickly as they can,
with various members of the Manzo clan taking turns throughout the
day. The yield is split 50/50 on a sharecropping basis between
pickers and landowner as is the custom here. The days are long days
and Marcello’s cannoli come as a welcome break.

The work is satisfyingly methodical – they pick as a team, tree
by tree, some up wooden ladders, others down below. Spread
underneath the trees are green mesh nets to catch the olives.
Occasionally they share a joke in Sicilian dialect, but otherwise
silence is broken only by the rhythmic “plop” of falling fruit.

The handpicking method may be time consuming but the results are
worth it, promises Marcello and his English wife Caroline; they’ve
been producing their organic extra-virgin olive oil for six years
now. “The secret to good olive oil is to pick when the fruit is
still on the trees and barely ripe,” Marcello confides. “In some
parts of Italy, like Calabria, and in Spain, they use machines – or
even worse, wait for the fruit to fall from the trees,” he
grimaces. “That’s not good.”

As the light turns from rose-pink to pale gold and the
temperature drops a few degrees, Marcello and head picker Santoro –
whose sunglasses seem to be a permanent facial fixture – start to
fill recycled coffee sacks with the little green jewels to take
together to the local mill (or frantoio as it’s called here). “I
think I’m turning into an olive!” puffs Santoro, heaving the last
sack into the boot of a battered 1995 Volvo Estate. They both
laugh, and set off down the palm tree-lined driveway towards the

The olive mill

Surrounded by flat, empty land 4km from Villa Santa Maria, the
Agropan mill is a hive of activity during October and November.
Plastic crates of barely ripe green and black olives are stacked
high, waiting to be weighed, washed and processed. Industrial
machines hum and roar and the familiar aroma of quality olive oil
perfumes the air.

Each farmer’s olives are processed separately. They’re given a
number for every crate they fill, and allocated a time over the
next 24 hours. What slot they get is pot luck – it could be 4pm or
4am. “The most important thing is that the olives are pressed very
soon after they’re picked”, says Antonio Pipitone, the mill’s chief
agronomist. He’s been in the olive business for 30 years now, and
still talks about the process with shining eyes. “I worked in the
wine industry before,” he confides, “but I found my true calling in
the humble olive”.

After a cold wash, the olives are churned into a paste (that
looks a lot like pesto) through a trough with spiral mixing blades.
The oil is then separated from the olive’s crushed flesh, stone and
water through a centrifuge system before pouring out the other end.
The whole process takes about an hour, during which a cluster of
middle-aged men huddle by the machines – watching, waiting as their
precious olives meet their liquid fate.

“You can taste the fruits of our land in our oil; orange
blossom, artichokes, tomatoes…it’s all there” Pipitone had promised
me. While different provinces favour different olive varieties,
here in Mazara and the Val di Belice it’s the green Nocellara olive
that’s most commonly used for oil. Its strong and spicy
characteristics cater to Sicilian tastes. Some producers blend it
with the more delicate Bianca Lilla olive or the Cerasuola olive
for a subtler flavour, but many, like Marcello, prefer to keep it
pure and punchy.

A year’s supply of olive oil

Back at Villa Santa Maria, a production line has formed in the
garden underneath the shade of the lemon trees. Now that the
picking is over, the Manzo family spend an afternoon decanting the
extra-virgin organic oil from big drums into 500ml tins (for easy
transportation). Next, they stick on the Santa Maria labels once
used for the estate’s wine production all those years ago. It’s
been a successful harvest – 800 litres of oil to store in the
pantry for 12 months’ worth of seasoning, cooking and

This year’s oil is spicier than usual with very low acidity,
Marcello proudly tells me. “It will taste even better after
settling for two weeks or so,” he says as he wipes off the last bit
of spilt liquid from the wooden tables. Next week, his brother
Silvio starts his olive harvest on the neighbouring groves, but for
Marcello and Caroline, it’s a wrap.

For the umpteenth time this week, I dab a chunk of rustic local
pane encrusted with sesame seeds into a bowl of bottle-green oil
and watch it absorb the liquid like a sponge before savouring its
fresh, aromatic flavour. Two and a half thousand years ago the
Sicilian Greeks were savouring durum wheat bread with local olive
oil this very same way. I recall Pipitone’s words: “You can taste
the fruits of our land in our oil…” And he was right, although
not just the flavours of Sicily but also its history and memories
of things past.