Monday 22 December 2014

Olive picking in Italian hills yields a harvest for the soul

Mary McKenna

Published 03/03/2014 | 02:30

ADVENTURE: Mary McKenna and her husband thrived on the experience of staying and working at Lino Olivieri’s Olive Farm.
ADVENTURE: Mary McKenna and her husband thrived on the experience of staying and working at Lino Olivieri’s Olive Farm.
Mary McKenna relaxes

I never had the student travel experience. I didn't go inter-railing around Europe, spend a summer on a kibbutz or go grape-picking in France. I was afraid of flying, but mostly I was just afraid. A sight-seeing weekend in Prague during the boom years left me underwhelmed and wondering what all the fuss was about, and ultimately served to copper fasten my belief that it was hard to beat time off at home with your kids, in your own place.

Now, as part of a couple whose child-rearing responsibilities are behind us, life has never been better. Seeing our children maturing into independent adults with adventurous spirits brings the realisation that it might be time for me to open up to a little adventure of my own.

Over coffee one Saturday morning in the Dublin Food Co-op, a friend described an Italian trip he was planning. I was instantly taken with the idea of travelling to Lino Olivieri's olive farm in Vieste to participate in the olive harvest. So was my husband. We had to wait a year for the harvest to come around again and also, due to my holidays being restricted to the school mid term, wait to see if, by that particular week, the olives would be ready.

They were. We handed the project over to Sharon at Way2gotravel.ie who did all the research into travel options and came back with the best route and price. This involved flying into Ciampino airport outside Rome, picking up a hire car from Goldcar rental and following the A24 and A25 motorways from Rome towards Pescara.

The journey took five and a half hours but the motorways were easy to navigate and well-served with rest stops and restaurants. Excellent signage meant you always knew how far you were from the next one. Sitting over coffee on our first stop, looking out on the sunny mountains, I felt the excitement in my stomach and we congratulated each other on actually getting there instead of just talking about it. Once we left the motorways, we followed windy coastal roads until we came to the seaside town of Vieste where our lovely host Lino met us to guide us the rest of the way. We followed him up dirt roads into the hills until we came to Agriturismo Colletta where his family have farmed for four generations.

The minute I stepped out of the car and onto the earth, I knew I loved this place. In the darkness, we could smell the fruit trees and hear the wonderful tinkling of the goat bells close by. I felt like I'd slipped back in time to one of my favourite childhood novels, Heidi.

It was the start of what was to be a feast for the senses. We sat outside on the terrace under mixed vines of green and red grapes, where Lino served delicious home-cooked meals with local wine, followed by coffee from the barista machine and sweet local delicacies. I was in heaven.

The sun woke us the first morning, streaming in through the shutters. After a leisurely breakfast on the terrace, we followed Lino into the surrounding fields where farm workers, Vincenzo, Francesco and Stefan, were well into their third hour of work. They were picking olives using a five-pronged fork. Nets were laid beneath the tree to catch the falling olives.

We joined in like the soft tourists we were. When the tree was bare, we'd gather the net and empty the olives into a bucket, which in turn would be emptied into a large sack. That afternoon, Lino took the olives to the Oleificio San Luca Olive Mill (www.oleificiosanluca.it) where we got a tour and saw our olives being pressed into oil. It was a hive of activity. Good weather and timing meant that everyone in the area was bringing their olives to be pressed that week. It was an unique insight into local life and the significance of the humble olive to the rural community.

From then on, the picking got more serious. A compressor was used to power three long-armed picking machines which increased the daily yield. Our job consisted of planning, placing and gathering the nets. Friends from Ireland joined us after a few days – which meant there were four Irish helpers working alongside the professionals. The rhythm of the days proved hypnotic. The physical work interspersed with rest and meals was surprisingly invigorating and refreshing. The absence of responsibility meant that the head switched off completely as the body soaked up this new experience. Sitting in the shade of the trees, waiting for the right time to gather and move the nets, watching the light on the ancient stones, the sense of history was palpable. You could be forgiven for wondering what century it was and half expecting a legion of Roman soldiers to advance over the hill. The physicality of the work brought the added bonus that you could indulge wholeheartedly in all the wonderful food on offer. Working on the farm also brought the bonus of free board and lodging. Alternatively, you can stay as a guest, which costs €25 per night throughout the year (€30 in August) for B&B. You can also book in for dinner for an extra €20 per day (main course, second dish with salad or vegetables, fruit and coffee, wine included).

The town of Vieste itself is built into the cliffs, and on approach from the hills it has a long seafront strip boasting holiday villages and hotels which hint at a vibrant tourist trade in high season.

It was great to head into town in the evenings and watch families gather in the main square. Groups of old men resembling groups of teenagers met at the close of day to discuss the news. The intonation and expressiveness of the Italian language often made us expect the chat to explode into a row. But good humour prevailed. Couples sat outside fancy bars sipping drinks and eating from plates of exotic-looking canapes. You can feed yourself cheaply. As much pizza as three of us could possibly eat, two beers and a soft drink came to under €14. It was a takeaway, but with chairs and tables on the street. It's like tourist prices haven't travelled this far south.

Mostly, we ate at home on the terrace where Lino cooked simple and delicious meals with local produce. When larger groups book in, Lucia comes in as a cook.

Catriona Burnby-Allan, who sometimes works on Lino's stall in the Dublin Food Co-op, loved the place so much when she and her mum visited last year, they're planning a gathering of their whole family next June for a week-long celebration. The house can hold up to 45 guests.

Because we were flying back from Rome, we left a day early, drove back up, checked into the Excel Roma hotel, dropped the car back to the airport and hopped on to a bus into central Rome. Although it was already dark, we saw a few sights including the Colosseum and the Trevi fountain, before meeting friends for dinner. Rome was alive and bustling as it was a holy day.

The hotel was lovely, welcoming and with a good breakfast and a free shuttle bus to the airport in the morning. I came home feeling invigorated, refreshed and healthy as a horse, and at long last, sharing my husband's long-held passion for Italy. I can now see how the 'walk and gawk' tourist experience holds little appeal for me. I now understand that my interest lies in experiencing a sense of place through living with people of the place.

We continue to savour this sense of place every day, as we enjoy the olive oil pressed from the olives we helped to harvest. No prizes for guessing what friends and family got for Christmas.

The farm

The farm's location makes it an excellent base from which to make daily excursions. The beautiful Forest Umbra is within 20 km and has wonderful trails for walkers and families. Mary and her husband came across two different groups of wild boar feasting on wild mushrooms at the side of the road.

The pilgrimage

San Giovanni Rotundo is a favourite place of pilgrimage for those devoted to Padre Pio. He died on September 23 1968 and since then millions have travelled to San Giovanni Rotondo to pay homage to the priest, now canonised, who bore the stigmata. For information, see www.conventosantuariopadrepio.it.

The Food

Food is always a highlight in Italy. The wine, the olives, the oils, the cheeses, the pizza, the pasta. Mary's favourite pasta dish was orchiette con frutti di mare which was a pasta shaped like little ears with seafood from the Adriatic Sea in Vieste.

The oil is available in Ireland from Lino Olivieri at the Dublin Food Co-op, and select retailers around Ireland. www.olivierioliveoil.comIDYLLIC: The relaxed pace of life on the Olive grove near Vieste, yet the sheer physicality of the work, followed by the restorative food, was a revelation to Mary McKenna, who previously had preferred holidaying at home.

The experience has awoken in her a desire to experience a place, rather than to just visit itThe Ryanair flight from Dublin to Rome flies into Ciampino airport outside Rome, which is the right side for following the A24 and A25 motorway from Rome towards Pescara.

The journey from Ciampino takes five and a half hours. Ryanair now also flies direct from Dublin into Bari, the capital of Puglia, which is just two and a half hours drive away from Vieste by car or bus. For bus details visit the website at (http://metaurobus.it/news/gargano-easy-reach-navetta-bus-da-bari-palese-al-gargano).

For more info about staying and/or working on Lino's olive farm, log on to www.agriturismocolletta.

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