by Slow Food USA staffer Jerusha Klemperer
Following 7 months of visiting farms, talking to farmers, reading about production, and staying chained to my desk in Brooklyn, I finally did some harvesting in the days following Terra Madre, Slow Food’s International biennial sustainable food producers’ conference in Torino.
I traveled with a group of delegates from the Hudson River Valley out to the region of Lazio, to the outskirts of a small old town called Tuscania. There I stayed on the Caponetti farm, enjoying the Caponetti family’s hospitality, congeniality, and delicious regional cooking, in exchange for my help in hand-harvesting the ripe olives from their grove of over 500 trees.
I woke up at 6 am each day I was there, and although I was groggy, I was excited to work. It turns out my body is desperate for hard labor—although to call olive harvesting hard labor may be a bit of an exaggeration. The work is so pleasant, it doesn’t feel like work until you wake up the next day and your shoulders are sore and your thighs are tight from gripping the ladder. By the end of the first day, I was so exhilarated, I didn’t even notice the horseshit caked all over me.
Lay nylon nets, prop your ladder up in the cradle of the branches, tie on, ascend, grab a branch and your rake, and begin. The pinging sound of olives hitting the aluminum ladder on the way down, and then hitting the ground sounds like a gentle glockenspiel, like rain. Fold the nets in order to gather the bounty, remove the sticks, load the cassette, and on to the next tree. When the sun goes down, load up, drive to Bagnoregio, the neighboring town that houses the mill. Help load the cargo onto the pulley system that brings it to the second floor, take in the sounds (and smells, oh lord that cloud of verdant olive will knock you down) of local men shooting the shit while they wait their olives’ turn. Watch them grind, then press the olives into a bright green waterfall of oil. Bring it home and dream of eating it at lunch the next day, with fresh bread and sea salt and a midday glass of wine.
When visiting Greece last summer I was told the soft statistic that one olive tree produces enough olive oil for one person for one year. But, see, what if that olive oil is ridiculously, off-the-charts delicious and fresh? Mightn’t I up my yearly consumption? Mightn’t I, in one short week on an olive farm in Lazio, completely throw a wrench in such statistical reckoning?
Each time I look closely at the way artisanal food is produced, I am moved by the effort involved, moved by the choice of such producers not to follow the path of least resistance, but to forge the old path (often alone), the one grown over with brier and brush. This experience is no exception.
I leave Tuscania loving the Caponettis, loving my new friends from the Hudson Valley (sometimes you have to travel very very far to meet your neighbors), and loving olive oil—in the way you love someone once you really know them, once you’ve met their family, seen their childhood home, seen them break down or show fear, or cry with joy. And I leave extremely grateful for the opportunity to have followed up our big city conference with a visit to the farm, joining food producers on their land, throwing my carpal-tunneled office hands behind a rake.