Lorenzo's Olive Oil: Centuries Old Mediterranean Tradition
The olive grove knows not of good days or bad. It only knows that you must go.
(Lorenzo Guillen Candelario)
The Mediterranean and its mild climate has allowed numerous civilisations to flourish over time thanks to the fact that they had a strong agro-economy from which to build upon. Olive groves that reach to the horizon come to mind when one thinks of the Mediterranean. Olives and their liquid gold by-product, olive oil, were the economic backbone of many cultures in this region. This valuable crop has been harvested by hand since time immemorial and well into the 20th century when machines started to replace manual labour. Still, there are some who traditionally toil the groves in the same manner as the Romans and the Greeks and those who went before. I recently had the opportunity to photograph and talk to one such person as he harvested his beloved olive groves. Here’s his story.
I found myself contemplating the dark, stormy clouds at 7 a.m. on a chilly November morning in the small agricultural town of Los Santos de Maimona, in southwestern Spain. I was waiting for Lorenzo, a fourth-generation olive farmer who still harvested a part of his crop in the old traditional way. “Please, no rain” was all I could think of.
The day before, I had called Lorenzo Guillen Candelario after getting his number from a mutual acquaintance. My self-imposed mission was to photographically document how olives were stripped from their trees without the means of mechanised heavy machinery, in other words, how it has been done for generations all around the Mediterranean. As the phone rang, I considered how to counter the brush-off that I was certain to hear. After all, I thought: “townsfolk are suspicious of outsiders” and “farmers don’t have time to entertain us artistic creative types”. In my mind I could hear his sarcasm, “What? Take pictures of me?”. The laughter that echoed back was interrupted by a click. ”Hello?”. After we had hung up I was dumbfounded. Lorenzo couldn’t have been more accommodating and gracious, curiously anticipating a break in his daily routine. We agreed to meet early the following morning.
“Please don’t rain, please don’t rain, please don’t…” I was interrupted by Lorenzo's question: “Are you Robert?” I turned to face a tall and burly man, hand outstretched which, when shaken, could have crushed a coconut if he had desired so. “I’m Lorenzo”. And, almost apologetically, he volunteered that he hadn’t brought the tractor because this year’s crop was verging on disaster due to the severe drought that had permeated the summer of 2022 throughout the Mediterranean Basin. “So, I brought the truck and the small trailer because there aren’t going to be a lot of olives this morning. Ready? Follow me”.
Fifteen minutes later, we arrived at the grove and, while Lorenzo unloaded a three-metre wooden “vara” or staff, a gasoline-operated olive picker, nets, and some black baskets, I sat gawking at the girth of an olive tree, illuminated by my headlights, that was at least 200 years old. I was brought back to the moment by a swishing sound coming from somewhere in the darkness. I could only vaguely see the figure of Lorenzo who was intensely beating olives from a tree. Somehow, I had missed the placing of a net beneath the sparsely-laden branches. I rushed to get my cameras while the sky slowly transitioned from black to purple to orange with intermittent dark blotches of threatening clouds… “Please don’t rain.”
I crawled under the olive tree that was on the receiving end of Lorenzo’s repeated blows. Olives bounced off my head and camera as I clicked away with the dawn as a backdrop to silhouette the man as he followed in his forefathers’ footsteps.
The next several hours were spent observing, learning and photographing a routine that has been the driving force of Mediterranean economies for millennia. No words were spoken. The only sound was the swish of the "vara" as it swept through the air and the impact it made against the branches and olives bouncing off the net.
the three metre wooden 'vara'
Above and below: Lorenzo using the “vara”
The “vara” was used primarily to whack free the fruit in the upper outermost branches. After he had circled the tree, Lorenzo would toss the staff aside and start up the gasoline-operated olive picker, shattering the peace and quiet, and work on freeing the olives from the interior limbs. This was the only mechanised tool he used.
The morning sun shines through the trees as Lorenzo uses the gasoline-operated olive picker.
Once finished, the net was gathered, thus rolling the olives and leaves into a small pile. At that point, as many leaves as possible were separated from the yield and thrown from the net onto the ground.
Above and below: Gathering the net in order to make a pile of olives.
Above and below: Separating the leaves from the olives.
I was curious: “What do you do with the leaves?” Without breaking his machine-like pace he replied: “Either they’re burned here in the field or taken to the co-op where they’re picked up by a company that turns them into biofuel”.
Once the olives were in an almost leaf-free pile they were shovelled by hand into a basket whereupon they were carried to the trailer that was hitched to his truck and tossed in.
Above and below: The olives are scooped into a basket and dumped into the trailer.
Returning to fetch the net from under the recently stripped tree, I asked since when had he been working the fields. He smiled nostalgically as he replied, “I remember coming here with one of my grandfathers. We didn’t have a tractor in those days but we had a donkey. We’d put some saddlebags on the animal. On one side went the tools and provisions and on the other side, me. I must have been four or five.” He added that as far as he knew, he was at least the fourth generation to work these groves and that his son, who was an agricultural engineer, would inherit the fields. He hoped his son would continue in the family tradition.
Gathering the empty net from under the tree he dragged it off and artfully placed it under another.
Over the decades he had perfected this choreograph. His movements were not unlike those of a dancer,
or a fisherman hauling in his catch
and at other times he reminded me of a brave bullfighter with a net for a cape.
Having completed the cycle of harvesting olives from one tree, he would repeat it until all the trees in the grove had relinquished their precious fruit at which point his cargo was taken to the co-op where his olives would be pressed into olive oil, Lorenzo’s oil. Tired but smiling, he called it a day.
Oh, it never did rain.
Robert Ransley is a freelance writer and photographer living in Spain with his lovely wife and 13 year old son. He is available for assignment and travel. www.robertransley.com
This article and all of the photographs are © robert ransley 2022.
Great article! The photographs are excellent too as they bring this story to life! Would love too see a follow up on the processing of the olives into oil…