Pick, Prune, Press? Not in 2014. Tuscany’s Absent Olive Harvest

For nearly 20 years, picking my olives and making that liquid gold known as extra virgin olive oil has been one of life’s greatest pleasures. The olive harvest is an Italian cultural anchor, creating community through tradition, connecting people to land, underpinning a revered lifestyle. It is the centerpiece of a joyous harvest season. All this in one chartreuse opaque peppery liquid, the lifeblood of Italian cuisine.

This year, all of Tuscany suffered the most disastrous olive harvest in living memory. The olive groves were sad places in 2014.         

What Happened?

Olive trees are sturdy and resilient. The olives themselves have several pests which require a combination of climatic conditions in order to impact the harvest.

2014 was the perfect storm: the unusually mild winter of last year, followed by a cool wet summer and this year’s warm autumn/winter. Mild winters do not kill the harmful bacteria and insects; cool humid summers allowed them to spread.

The Pests.

The olive fruit fly is common throughout most of the Mediterranean, usually confined to low coastal areas. This year they were inland and in higher elevations. Ordinarily, my hilltop grove does not even see them. The larvae do not harm the tree but bore holes in the olives, causing the pulp to rot.

Funghi are the second round of attack, thriving in cool damp conditions and on the weakened olives.

Most groves are made up of several varietals and the yield differs among the various types from year to year. Fewer flowers, reduced numbers, premature rotting: by September, the olives had dropped to the ground. Olives are never, ever, ever picked up from the ground to be pressed for two reasons: to avoid dirt and bugs and because fallen olives have problems.

Liquid Gold, Indeed.

There were few olives on the trees this year; most people did not even bother to pick them. The few that were good required a great deal of hand-sorting for a pitifully small yield. There is no olive oil coming out of Tuscany. With a scarcity of oil, expect high prices. Spain, the largest producer of European olive oil, has had their own troubles with a severe drought in the south.

Throughout Tuscany, we hope for a cold winter, not freezing because that will kill the trees, but cold enough to kill the pests. And I hope to see this once again next year.