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Umbrian Olive Harvest Needs Hanukkah Miracle

Climate change imperils a Jewish tradition

Ruth Ellen Gruber
December 22, 2014
Olive press in Tuscany. (Shutterstock)
Olive press in Tuscany. (Shutterstock)

The news that archaeologists found traces of 8,000-year-old olive oil on prehistoric potsherds in northern Israel may have seemed like something of a modern “Hanukkah miracle.”

To me, though, it represented the cruelest of ironies.

The discovery, published in the Israel Journal of Plant Sciences, marks the earliest evidence of the use of olive oil in what is now Israel and “possibly the entire Mediterranean basin,” the researchers said in a statement.

What’s more, they added, “A comparison of the results of the extraction from the archeological shards with those of modern, one-year-old oil showed a strong resemblance between the two, indicating a particularly high level of preservation of the ancient material, which had survived close to its original composition for almost 8,000 years.”

It’s a good thing to have such evidence that olive oil stores well.

And it’s a good thing that they compared the ancient olive oil traces to last year’s batch–because they would be hard put to find it if they looked for this year’s oil in many parts of the Mediterranean basin.

The 2014 olive harvest has been a disaster in much of the region—especially in parts of France, Spain, and Italy. This includes central Italy’s Umbria region, where I have a house and olive trees and usually devote two weeks each fall, usually just ahead of Hanukkah, to harvesting my olives and taking them to the local press (frantoio). The hard little purple-black olives are crushed and turned into oil so dense and green that it glows almost chartreuse when the sun hits it.

For me, the olive harvest has become an annual autumn tradition, with bruschetta, rather than sufganiyot, my ritual Hanukkah oil-soaked food.

Sometimes friends or family members come to help with the harvest: last year it became an international feast, with my brother from California and friends from the Czech Republic and Northern Italy on hand to help spread the nets under the trees, pull the fruit from the branches with little plastic rakes, and haul it all off to the frantoio for pressing.

We had a great harvest last year, one of the best ever from our few dozen trees. Everyone who came to help took liters of fresh oil back home, and I had plenty more to take to my family in the states or give as gifts to other friends.

This year, though, like most of my neighbors—and many major producers—I had no olives to harvest. None.

A mild, wet winter and cool, wet spring and summer led to the worst infestation of olive flies in memory. The flies laid their eggs in the olives; the eggs hatched and bacteria set in. This resulted in misshapen, diseased, larva-ridden olives that simply fell off the trees. Rome’s La Repubblica newspaper called it a “Black year for Italian Oil,” with a more than 35 percent drop in production nationwide from last year’s levels and a more than 50 percent drop in Umbria and Tuscany.

Many producers, like me, had no olives to harvest at all. According to the Olive Oil Times, about half of the olive presses in Umbria failed to open. Those that did, such as my local frantoio in the next village, ran at much reduced schedules.

I think the culprit is climate change—or at least a changing climate. Though this year has seen the most dramatic evidence, it has been apparent to me for some time.

I first worked on an olive harvest in Italy as a student here more than 40 years ago: it was in Tuscany—and we picked the olives in late December. More than a decade later, we carried out the first harvest on my family’s land in Umbria in mid-December. That was in 1984, and the following winter was so cold that most of the trees died.

Since then, the harvest season has consistently moved earlier. For a while, I would invite friends to come and help around Thanksgiving. Nowadays some people start in late October—or even earlier.

This year’s disaster means oil prices will be going up. It means my neighbors, a village family of three generations living in the same house, will have to purchase oil for the first time ever. “There are six of us,” Aldo, the paterfamilias, told me. “We use a lot of oil.” (According to Bloomberg News, an average household in Italy uses 34 liters of oil a year. Aldo’s family uses much, much more.)

The harvest disaster also means I’m hoarding. I have about six-and-a-half liters left of the oil from last year. Granted, I’m still making latkes this Hanukkah and using my olive oil to fry them. After this, if I’m careful, and if I don’t give any more of it away, what I have should last me through until next year.

Meanwhile, fingers crossed for a cold snap this winter, to kill off the flies.

Ruth Ellen Gruber writes frequently about Jewish cultural and heritage issues and coordinates the web site Jewish Heritage Europe. Her Twitter feed is @ruthellengruber.