A strange but comforting sight greets visitors to our corner of Tuscany towards the end of autumn. Despite the distinct chill in the air at this time of year – a symptom of the seasonal arrival of the gregale, the strong and cool northeasterly mediterranean wind generated by a low pressure system located somewhere near Malta – entire families can be found congregating in olive groves, for it is time to harvest those precious precursors to liquid gold.
And it is truly a family affair. Olive trees left practically untouched since the previous year’s aggressive pruning – shown since the 1960s, despite much initial scepticism, to improve significantly the bounty per tree – are now subjected to all sorts of ministrations. At the most basic level ancient and rickety ladders are inserted into their midsts while those that have weathered more raccolte (harvests) than others – typically the nonni (grandparents) – balance precariously on gnarled branches to pick the olives by hand. A net spread on the ground catches any that escape their dependable grasp, and a couple of helpful nipoti (grandchildren) can always be coaxed into making sure they find their way into a basket. More forward-looking adults might be tempted by some modern assistance: previously this came in the guise of a sturdy chestnut cane with which to beat the branches, or a type of rake on a long handle which strips the olives from the tree. Now there is even available a gadget which shakes your trees in much the same way as olives are harvested industrially.
But none of this is acceptable to the purists locally here in the Garfagnana, who have worked and harvested the land for generations and who maintain that any such intervention damages the tree – thus diminishing future yields – and, perhaps even more importantly, risks bruising the olives and embittering the oil. It simply isn’t worth trying to salvage a few days now, to be reminded of one’s impatience every time the fruits of the raccolta are savoured daily over the coming year.
RECIPE: Braised Chicken With Olives And Artichokes
Pre-heat the oven to 190℃ (not fan). Meanwhile heat a couple of tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil in a heavy-bottomed casserole and, when pretty hot, brown (in batches) eight chicken pieces – my preference is thighs with the skin on, for flavour. Transfer the chicken to a plate and add a bag (250g) of frozen, sliced artichoke hearts (you could also use jarred artichokes in oil, but drain well first) plus a couple of cloves of garlic, sliced, and a pinch of dried chilli flakes, adding a little more oil if the pan is dry. Once the artichokes begin to brown, add a glass of white wine to deglaze the pan and then add a punnet of halved cherry tomatoes (or you could use a good tin of Italian chopped tomatoes). Stir and cook for a minute or so until the tomatoes begin to soften. Then throw in a bountiful handful of pitted olives (of any type: use your favourites), a couple of branches of rosemary and the zest of half a lemon. Return the chicken pieces to the casserole, bring everything to a steady simmer, cover and then put in the pre-heated oven for about half an hour, or until the chicken is tender. Remove the chicken to a warmed serving plate, thicken the sauce a little by heating over a steady flame, check seasoning and then pour over the chicken and serve. Buon appetito!