We are, without a doubt, privileged to be doing what we are doing. Most days we have to pinch ourselves to make sure this is all real and not just a dream. Even for us though, there are a few occasions where something happens that makes us say “now that is why we are doing this…that is what it is all about.” And today was one of those days. Today we had an experience that you can’t book online, that you can’t get details about in the Lonely Planet. Today was about being in the right place at the right time and taking the opportunity that presented itself. Let me tell you about it…
This morning we made a packed lunch and set off for a walk in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. We are in the north side of the mountains, staying near a little village called Beas de Granada, where it feels as though time has stood still.
Our walk took us up into the hills surrounding the town, on a path that ultimately (16km later) would end in Granada. We weren’t planning to do the whole route today, but we wanted to get some closer views of the majestic snow-capped mountains we could see from our campsite. As we climbed higher, the views were spectacular, not only of the peaks of the Sierra Nevadas, but also of the hills and valleys surrounding them. The hillsides here are covered in olive and almond trees, laid out in neat rows and terraces that lend beautiful patterns to the landscape.
About an hour into our walk, we passed a family who were hard at work collecting olives from some trees on a patch of land right next to the path. It is olive harvesting season at the moment and this was not the first time we had seen people out doing this work. We stopped a moment to watch and one of the group asked us if we were English. “My husband is English,” she said and called him over to talk to us.
Neil was from Preston and he was with his Spanish wife, Encarni, and members of her extended family. They were collecting black olives from an area of about 35 trees owned by Encarni’s mother, Encarna. Also helping were Maria José (Encarni’s cousin) and her husband Pedro, and Manolo (Encarni’s uncle), who all live in Beas.
They were already well on with the job when we walked past in the early afternoon. The olives are harvested in pretty much the same way as they have been for centuries: beating the tree with sticks to knock the olives to the ground where they fall onto huge nets that have been laid out underneath. Similar to many people around here, Encarni and her family also had a petrol powered olive harvester, which is basically a long pole with a thick hook on the end of it. You hook it around one of the branches of the olive tree and press a button and it vibrates rapidly, shaking the tree to release its dark fruit.
Pedro was in charge of the harvester, whilst Manolo and Maria finished off the job, beating any reluctant olives from their branches with sticks. Within minutes, we were offered sticks to join in and have a go at dislodging the olives ourselves. Manolo showed Emma how to handle the stick, hitting downwards hard at specific olives rather than gingerly stroking the tree. It was hard physical work and your arms soon tired, but it was fun to be actively helping rather than just watching.
After all the olives were off the trees, the next job was to lift the sides of the nets to roll the olives into one big pile. The nets were very coarse and heavy and we really had to heave to lift them up. I guess they have to withstand being dragged around the stony ground so they have to be pretty tough. When they had a big pile of olives, it was time to start bagging up. We helped hold the sides of the net up so that the olives didn’t roll back and picked big clumps of leaves off the top as Pedro and Manolo positioned the bags and guided the olives into them using their hands. They made it look easy, but I am sure it was exhausting, bending over and leaning forwards to scoop more olives down and into the sacks. Hardly a single olive was wasted, with just a few left scattered on the ground at the end. Encarni told us that when she was young, the children were allowed to go round afterwards and collect any stray olives, which they could then sell to get some pocket money.
As we worked, we chatted about living in Beas and what a beautiful area this is. Encarni told us that she is originally from Beas, but she and Neil have been splitting their time between Beas and Preston for the last 20 years, living 6 months of the year in each. This time though they were here to buy a house in the area to make their base here more permanent. The rest of the family live in Beas or nearby Granada. Her mother has a house in Beas but also an apartment in Granada because she said the winters can be really cold up here in the mountains. In fact, not far from here is one of the highest ski resorts in Europe. Encarni explained that people here don’t have gas central heating as the town isn’t connected for gas: she told us that her mother has recently had a pellet oven installed. Pellet ovens are rather like wood burning stoves but they burn pellets made from reconstituted waste wood and are an environmentally friendly heating option. She joked though that her mother doesn’t get on with it and still retreats to Granada when the weather gets too cold.
We also talked about olives and the traditions around here. Encarni told us that as well as this patch of trees in the hills overlooking the town, her mother also has another area of about 95 trees somewhere else, so they had a few weekends of harvesting to do. She explained that different families owned different areas and that the olive trees on these hills had often been farmed by the same family for generations. We were surprised at how traditional the process was and that it was all still done by hand. She said that some of the slopes are so steep that people have to use mules to help move the olives because even the small tractors can’t manage the slopes. What is also incredible is that the trees seem to thrive in the poorest, stoniest of soils.
After everything was bagged up, we helped fold the enormous nets neatly so that they could be rolled and tied ready for the next time. Finally, Pedro started up the little tractor and brought it over to load up the sacks of olives. He lifted the girls into the back and gave them a ride on it as he manoeuvred between the trees, which they thought was great fun.
Once the trailer was all loaded up, the day was almost finished. Encarni and her family posed for a photograph with us, with the Sierra Nevada mountains in the background. They thanked us for all our help and we, in turn, thanked them for letting us join in with their harvesting. We had learnt so much from them and had really enjoyed our afternoon.
Their next stop was going to be the local co-operative in the town where they would have the olives weighed ready to go to the pressing plant to be made into oil. Encarni said that most of it they would keep for their own use, or if they had an excess, they would sell it back to the co-op. Interestingly, she said that black olives are always used for making oil: the black olives that we eat are normally green olives that have turned black during their processing.
We watched the family go, disappearing across the hills on the tiny tractor, then we continued our walk for a short way, but we were all getting tired, so we retraced our steps back down into Beas. As the path reached the edge of town, we passed what we realised straight away was the co-operative that Encarni had talked about. We watched as farmer after farmer reversed their trailers up to the edge of a large hopper, then tipped the olives into it. The olives were taken up a conveyor and deposited into a sorting machine that separated out and removed any leaves. They were then moved on to another hopper where they were weighed, before another conveyor transported them to the back of the building and they dropped onto the top of an ever-growing shiny black mound. The people there were so friendly, ushering us in to have a closer look and explaining exactly what was going on. Of course, we didn’t understand much of what they were saying, but we nodded and said ‘Si’ a lot and smiled.
On the way back to the campsite, we stopped in Bar Muleto opposite the church and ordered a couple of beers and some lemonade. We figured we had definitely earned them with our busy day of walking and olive harvesting. In this part of Spain, the tradition of giving some tapas with every drink is still alive and well, so our first beer came with a big plate of crisps. Apparently, the tapas gets better with every drink and true to form, our second beers were accompanied by some of the biggest (and most delicious) pork scratchings I have ever had. But, the sun was starting to go down and we still had the walk up the hill to the campsite to negotiate, so we never found out what delight would accompany a third beer. Maybe next time!
As we stepped outside into the cool evening air, we found that the town and the mountains were bathed in a lovely warm glow by the setting sun, giving us fabulous views for our walk back home. It was as though the sun had put a cherry on top of our perfect day!
What an amazing day it had been: one of those days that you know you will never forget. We felt truly privileged to have been able to participate in something so traditional and so typical of this area. And we are so thankful to Encarni, Neil and their family for letting us join in with their harvesting.