Olive-Picking: The Director’s Cut

Last week, The Wall Street Journal published an article by me, which you can read here. It had to be cut a fair amount; here’s the original version, with the added bonus of a bunch of photos.

Oddly, Tonio Creanza is not familiar with the expression “low-hanging fruit.” It’s odd because although he’s a native of Altamura, in the Puglia region of southeastern Italy (the heel of the boot), he has spent most of his time in Vancouver for years and is completely fluent in English. It’s also odd because the low-hanging fruit is precisely what he is instructing me to get.

On a cloudy but mild mid-November morning, we’re standing under an olive tree outside Altamura—one of 700 his family owns on seven separate plots, and, for six generations, have harvested to produce olive oil. It’s smack dab in the middle of the harvest, which is short (about two weeks) but intense: “non-stop running,” Tonio calls it. The operation is too big for the Creanzas to pick all the olives themselves, but small enough that if they hired workers, an already iffy balance sheet would plunge straight to deep red. So they rely on volunteers, one of whom is me.

Gigi wielding the rastrello.

The technique Tonio’s showing me is pretty simple, and, with minor variations, the way the harvest has been done for millennia. With one hand, grab a hand-rake (rastrello, in Italian). With the other, bunch some branches, laden with that low-hanging purple fruit. Then start methodically brushing the olives out. They come loose easily, landing on appropriately olive-colored netting (reto) spread out under the tree, with satisfying plunks. In fact, they’re so plentiful that after I’ve been at it for ten minutes, Tonio rushes over to gently inform me that as I move about, I have been stepping on the olives and crushing them, spilling the oil and ever so slightly diminishing the yield. “Look where you are putting your feet,” he says. “Work from there, then find a new spot for each foot. It’s a mindset.”

Olives on the netting.

And it’s a lesson I’ll absorb over the upcoming days of work: although the 700 trees will yield about twenty tons of olives, each one is precious.

I first encountered Tonio Creanza, 51, when my wife, Gigi, searching for opportunities to work on art restoration in Italy, came upon his program Messors  (www.messors.com). We signed on, and in July 2018 spend a fascinating nine days working to maintain religious frescoes, some nearly 1000 years old, in the underground caves that dot the Puglian countryside. Over dinner one night, Tonio mentioned that the family relies on volunteers each November to harvest the olives that go into Famiglia Creanza olive oil (which we were at that precise moment generously applying to home-made eggplant parmigiana).

The seed of the idea, thus planted, grew for a year or so, till we finally asked Tonio if he would take us on. Gigi and I don’t fit the mold: in his posting on Workaway (https://www.workaway.info/) – which connects volunteers and hosts worldwide – he asks for a commitment of three weeks in exchange for room and board, and chooses six hardy twenty-somethings out of sixty or more applicants. We are Medicare age, wanted to work for only four days, and preferred finding our own accommodations.

If he had said no, we probably would have signed on to a food-based Messors workshop, held in September, in which participants learn about, and cook with, “the fundamentals of southern Italian cuisine” — olive oil, wine, durum wheat flour, cheese, and seasonal produce, in the process hanging around with farmers, chefs, cheese-makers, and shepherds. (https://messors.com/shepherds-food-culture-cooking-culinary-heritage/)

But he said yes. And so, when November 11 rolled around, we flew to Rome, boarded a four-hour express train to the Puglian seaside city of Bari, rented a car, drove forty minutes to our elegant $55-a-day Airbnb in the heart of Altamura, a city of 70,000, then took a ten-minute walk to the Creanza house for dinner.

We were buzzed in and ascended to the second floor, where we found Tonio’s 85-year-old mother, Grazia, hard at work grating cheese. (In our experience, she was always hard at work, always wearing black, always, despite the barrier of her not speaking English and us not speaking Italian, making it clear we were welcome in her home.) At the stove was his sister-in-law Rosanna, who lives upstairs with Tonio’s brother Peppe and their two grown daughters. Tonio and the volunteers drifted in. There was Faith, on sabbatical from the food industry in New Orleans; Dylan, on sabbatical from construction work in Ontario; Marie, a native of Switzerland on sabbatical from her work as a chocolatier in Vancouver …. everybody seemed to be on sabbatical from something

They’d been together long enough to develop multi-lingual in-jokes and patter. Tonight, they were figuring out how to say “Sorry, not sorry” in Italian. (“Mi dispiace, non mi dispiace.”) Dylan – soft-spoken, tight-end-sized, and, we’d discover, the volunteer who took on the heaviest labor and never tired – had been consuming maybe a few more calories than the prodigious number he expended, and had developed a commensurate belly. His friends decided he looked “otto messi” – eight months pregnant. But despite our advanced age and newcomer status, the group immediately took us in as equals.

The day before, this olive oil was olives.

When we sat down to eat, I began to understand what happened to Dylan. The meal was fresh, local, and fabulous: pasta with cabbage (a Puglian specialty), dressed with home-made croutons and that grated cheese; delicately fried slices of zucchini; the characteristic yellow-hued bread Altamura is famous for; red wine from a neighbor’s vineyard; and, for dessert, caramelized onions and a local melon called gialetto. On everything but the dessert, we poured olive oil that had been pressed the night before from olives picked the day before. It was green, nutty in taste, and invitingly pungent. Tonio explained that while the oil the family bottles and ships at the end of the harvest is a mix of the different varietals found in their groves, Mrs. Creanza insists on bottles entirely from the Ogliarola trees. “The minerals in the limestone give it a special taste,” he says.

We drove to the Creanzas’ the next morning at 7:30, and followed two white vans to the Ogliarola groves about twenty minutes outside of town. The group, with a scant week of experience, worked like a well-oiled machine. Within minutes, the reti were laid under a group of four or five trees and the labor was wordlessly divided. Tonio, Dylan, and Faith poked the higher branches with long-handled pneumatic devices with two flapping rakes at the end (abbacchiatore); the rest of us took up rastrelli and started raking branches. It took fifteen or twenty minutes to denude a tree. At that point, a couple of people would pick up the reto at the corners so that the olives were bunched in the middle; kneel down to discard any sticks or small branches; then pour the fruit into crates. When three or four crates were full, four or five of us would form a “train” to pick them up and carry them to the vans. (Each one weighed about 30 kilos, or 66 pounds.) Then repeat.

The work was absorbing in the way repetitive but mindful labor can be, and before I knew it, it was lunchtime. Ah, lunchtime. The meal was laid out on a table cloth and served on china: a bread and tomato salad called cialledda, ratatouille-like caponata, a cold peppers dish called composta, olive oil, bread, wine, cookies, and local oranges. (The Creanzas aren’t vegetarian, but Puglian cuisine is sparing in its use of meat.)


Two separate cars slowed as they passed us, and the drivers each shouted something in Italian. Tonio told us, “They’re saying, ‘This is the way you work??’”

The answer to that rhetorical question is yes: the sit-down lunch is of a piece with Tonio’s feelings about maintaining and celebrating the ways of his region. Thus he doesn’t miss a moment to give Gigi, me, and the others deep background on what we’re eating, doing, or seeing. And he doesn’t just use the volunteers for labor, but, after the harvest is done, spends a week shepherding them to cultural attractions in the area, including the city of Matera, a UNESCO historical site because of its sassi, or caves.

With that in mind, it’s not surprising to learn that the his approach to the olive oil business is curatorial as much as entrepreneurial. He does sell the oil in boutique food shops in Vancouver, and worldwide via the Messors.com website, but 2500 liters (this year’s eventual output, making it an excellent year) isn’t going to make for a financial bonanza. When I asked him some bottom-line questions over e-mail, he replied, “Doing the numbers on this operation doesn’t really make sense because we can’t really count the number of hours spent by my brother and my dad in tending to the trees all year long. The olive oil production is more a mean for preserve a culture, connecting people and a vehicle to spread values of integrity about food.”

On site, he was more succinct: “Even if we had a ton more, it would be an economic disaster.”

Our final three days went much as the first. At the groves by 8, harvest and gather, great lunch, harvest and gather some more, work till it’s dark, go home for a shower and change of clothes, then reconvene for an astonishing dinner at the Creanzas.  A couple of times, I got to wield the abbacchiatore, which was satisfying but wearying, and made me appreciate the younger people’s muscular fortitude.

Me with the pneumatic rake.

One night Gigi and I went to the local press with Tonio and the 1000 kilos of olives the group had picked that day. When we walked in we were nearly bowled over by the rich and inviting smell. As Blanche DuBois says about the odor of cheap perfume, it was penetrating. We watched the Rube Goldberg process whereby the olives were crushed and oil extracted in a series of spotless stainless steel machines. Most of the Creanza oil went into storage, to be put into bottles and tins before Christmas, but Tonio brought home a few liters for home use.

Olives being processed.

Our last night, a Sunday, Grazia and Rosanna outdid themselves, with a meal of lasagna, porchetta (roast pork), and tiramisu. We finished with two kinds of home-made liqueur—limoncello and padre peppe, an Altamura specialty made from infusing green walnuts and spices in alcohol.

Before we said our goodbyes to Dylan, Faith, and the rest of the crew—who still had a week of work to go and were angling (unsuccessfully) for a day off, Tonio waxed philosophical about the annual olive rite.

“For me, it’s a regenerative process,” he said. “I regenerate my soul.”

I knew exactly what he meant.