Seeing containers of beautiful, ready-to-eat green Gordals, pimento-stuffed Manzanillas, and black Hojiblanca olives on store shelves, you might not ever guess that they all started out as delicate, easily bruised green fruit.
In fact, when olive harvesting season begins in September, all these types of olives share a similar green hue. As they ripen — a period known as the ‘envero’ — the world’s favourite table olives develop their distinctive colours, changing from green to yellowish green, and in the case of Hojiblancas, to purple and finally black.
While modern farming practices have made harvesting crops for olive oil production much easier than old-school farmers could have ever imagined, the painstaking care that goes into picking table olives hasn’t changed much over the centuries.
Today, olives grown to make olive oil can be gently jostled out of the trees by vibrating machines, but table olives still demand special treatment.
Olive skins are sublimely delicate. They break so easily that, just as in centuries past, they must be plucked by hand and carried in large baskets called macacos that harvesters wear hung around their necks. Picking olives is so similar to the gentle, firm motion used to milk a cow that it’s known as ordeño — “milking”.
It’s slow work, but that’s what it takes to provide perfectly formed table olives to every corner of the world.
A great deal of ingenuity has gone into cultivating European table olives, and a lot of careful, deliberate work continues to go into harvesting them every year.
It’s something to think about the next time you reach for some big green Gordals, pimento-stuffed Manzanillas, or black Hojiblancas, for a healthy snack or an elegant appetizer!