The first time I picked olives during the harvesting season was not on the Olinda ranch, but actually at a friend's vineyard in Catalonia, Spain. The vineyards are skirted by several rows of olive trees, pressed into extra virgin olive oil, and sold as well. Even though grapes are Jordi's primary crop, he feels strongly about conserving the landscape and traditions of the area, and as the olive trees are a large part of the culture, he tends to them as well.
Jordi was gracious enough to let me learn about the manual methods they used to gather the olives. His father and neighbor were already up in the trees when I arrived. I admit I wondered what they thought about an American woman coming to pick olives! Jordi gave me a a small hand tool like a rake to comb through the branches, like brushing one's hair. The olives easily came off, sometimes with the whole branch. From the first moment I raked through the branch, I felt like I was at home. I imagined my mother and her family back in Sicily doing the same thing. A whole history coursed through me and I understood what the tales were about -- the black hands, the olive collections, the family gathering to work together. It was relaxing and satisfying to comb through the trees while the neighbor told tales about his army experience, and the men told jokes in general. I understood some as they spoke in Catalan, and occasionally translated in Spanish.
Jordi told me that originally the olives weren't picked until they were ripe. He asked his father when they would start, and he chimed in the thirteenth of December through mid-March! Nowadays, the mills wanted a more complex flavor that is achieved by picking them around November. Harvest time is condensed into three weeks or so.
Once we were finished with a tree, we would transfer the olives onto one net, move the rest to the next tree. The one left behind, we would pile up the olives, and then cart them to the truck to sort through a wire grate. As I was sorting through a batch, I came across a silver watch that fell off of the neighbor while he worked! Later, Jordi and his father would drive the whole batch to the local mill the next town away. Jordi said that after some time, if you stick your hand in the middle of the batch, it gets really hot as the olives start to ferment.