Even though olive picking, unlike grape picking, does not have a patron saint or a dedicated festival, this ancient fruit it is a valuable, perhaps even vital part of local spirit. After all, the locals say that you “tear off” grapes, but olives are always – picked.
The most important thing about olive raising is the choice of time for the picking, which can significantly influence both the quality and flavor of the oil. The olive picking season is from the second week of October through the end of November, but the right time depends on a variety of factors.
The first is the fact that the oil has to accumulate in the fruit itself. The sign of that happening is the change in coloration: the fruit slowly turns from green at the stem to yellow-red at the other end. It’s vital to choose the right time since, calculations say, up to 30% of oil’s quality depends on it.
The choice of time for picking also affects olive oil’s taste. Oil from a fruit that has only started ripening has a fresh flavor, reminiscent of the fruit itself. It can be a little bitter, but that depends on the variety of olive, not on when it was picked. Such virgin oil, which ancient Romans called Ex Albis Ulivis, is very healthy because it contains natural antioxidants and reduces inflammation.
In some parts of Croatia olives are left to ripen on the tree, which gives the oil a completely different flavor, but that is not the case in northwest Istria. The quality depends not only on the ripening, but also on the rainfall during the weeks prior to the picking: the olive is a very sensitive fruit! Too much rain is just as bad as too little. If the summer is too long, there will be less fruit and consequently less oil, something Croatian olive farmers learned in 2014 when the crops were halved.
The best olive picking experience involves good company! Some prefer dewy mornings because the pickers first take breakfast, so as to avoid making mud by walking over wet soil, while others love starting the day by picking fruit from the trees. It’s not just a fun way of spending several days out in the fresh air, doing work more gentle on the back than picking grapes, it’s also more efficient. You see, picking olives in this way results in up to 20% increase in crop size. Also, working with your hands is always quality work – this is true of olive picking also, because hand picking damages the fruit much less than shaking it off the tree into a net under it. Any damage to the fruit also decreases the quality of oil.
Ideally, the best oil comes from olives processed on the same day they were picked. This is one of the reasons why Istrian olive farmers offer people the chance to come hand pick olives – pickers are always needed in large numbers. On the other hand, olive pickers are no longer only those lucky enough to know someone who inherited grandpa’s olive farm; now everyone has a chance to experience something unique - picking olives on the hillsides of magical Istria is meditation in motion – and learn about various types of olives, the types of Istrian soil and its effect on oil quality, as well as various local traditions of olive oil making.