Harvesting My Solitary Olive Tree in Marche, Italy
Story and photos by Jillian Dickens

Traveling to Italy to join her child—an adopted olive tree—a writer with a commitment phobia falls for the lure of creating bottles of extra virgin oil from her baby.

olive grove

I have come to Italy's Marche region to tend to my very own olive crop, small as it is. In fact, it is one single, modest and asymmetrical little tree. I had adopted Olie, as I'd come to call my tree, from Nudo, a collective of small, family-owned groves in the region. Although as part of the deal I can come by to visit, prune or just give Olie a hug whenever I want, it's a long way away, and this marks my first time making the journey. I've come at the ideal time, as it's harvest season, and I am busy.

I'm trying to climb the steep valley side, but the mud is suction-cupping my gumboots to the ground, making it more of a work-out than I'd planned. Scattered around me are healthy, multi-generational olive trees and across the valley's divide lay a half dozen other plots, some lined with ruler-straight rows of grape vines, and others with the characteristically loosely-strewn groves like the one I'm glued to.

After pulling my boots from the sticky earth enough times, I make it to my tree. Harvesting is a crude process: olives do not do well with mechanization. Nudo means "naked" in Italian, which is a nice way to illustrate the raw, organic methods used in everything from planting, growing and harvesting the crop. Following the local farmer's lead, I lay a massive net underneath my tree, and begin gently hand-picking from the branches, letting the clumps of ripe fruit fall to the ground. I employ a long wooden stick and ladder for the harder to reach branches. It's going well, but the clouds are coming in, and I fear rain. You can't harvest olives when they're wet because the moisture will cause them to spoil even before making it to the frantoio, or mill, for pressing.

Taking part in this adoption program, which is open to all for an annual fee, is uncharacteristic of me. No pets, no kids, no car—I have yet to commit to things that need regular care. This was a way to add to my quality of life through regular infusions of prime olive oil in the mail, while supporting a good cause, which in this case is the small, organically oriented collective. I consider visiting the grove a bonus.

A Village That Works the Land
It's a dream for many to abandon their cookie-cutter, city-slicker lives and head to the countryside, to tend to their land and their crops, eating what they grow. What's that old adage? Work to live, not live to work? In many of these fantasies the Italian countryside shines brightest, with its luscious rolling hills, vineyard-lined valleys, tops decorated with ancient stone villages. Loro Piceno, the closest to the grove, is one of these villages. After I've rid my tree of its fruit, I drive my rental along the twisting roadways to the village, to buy some supplies.

mixed olives

Loro Piceno, like any small town I suppose, has its share of colorful characters. Here the most dazzling is Giuseppe Dell'Orso, aka Peppe Cotto, Loro Piceno's dried-boar bow-tie wearing butcher. I visit Peppe to buy some of his ciauscolo, the Italian salami typical of Marche, and he serenades me with his make-shift stick and bones instrument and gives me a sampler of Vino Cotto, the home-cooked wine you're given wherever you go here, including the mayor's office. The difference at Peppe's is my glass is garnished with a giant heart-shaped slab of ciauscolo, grease-slick and all. Away from the village, these antics have marked Peppe with celebrity status, and when the chef and film-crew of "Feast with Heston Blumenthal" came to town, they worked with Peppe to create some culinary art for one of the episodes.

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