There are probably very important looking machines that do all this in a lot less time of course, but Juan and his family still work the land in the age-old manner. The olive groves he and Maria work have been in the family for generations. When we ask how long exactly he shrugs his shoulders. He isn’t too sure. But a long, long time, he says.
How many trees do they have? He can’t remember that either. Enough, he says, smiling.
This is true Slow country. Everything here takes the right time. Life isn’t hurried, but lived. Far over the valley, we can make out the motorway, streaming with cars, lorries and coaches rushing to and fro from Malaga to the distant south, and the Portuguese border an hour or so to the west. It could be a different world. The hillside of olive trees is quiet. All you can hear are birds, the wind in the leaves, and some goats bleating, the bells on their collars ringing nicely out of tune.
Juan stretches his back and bends to pick up a long stick. It is a stick with only one purpose. His wife Maria carefully arranges a large black fishing net at the base of an ancient olive tree, its bark gnarled and knotted with age and the harsh winter winds of Andalucía. Suddenly they are both tapping the high branches of the tree. It’s a quick tap-tap-tap; more of a gentle encouragement than a beating, but it works. A rain of plump, small black olives falls into the net. Some twigs, leaves, the odd green olive. It’s hard not to kneel and start working your way through the harvest, feasting on olives. But of course you can’t. There’s a long wait before these babies will be ready. Doesn’t stop me licking my lips though. My mind instinctively fills with thoughts of cocktails, canapés, olives and summer, I confess.
Maria continues to work at the tree while Juan now scoops the fallen olives into hand-woven baskets and sacks. It’s a long, slow and back-breaking process. It can take two months to gather all the olives, Maria tells us.
What do they do with so many olives? Oil, of course. They sell their harvest to the local co-operative. Or most of it. We hold some back, says Juan. Our home-made olive oil is the best olive oil in the world, he says. Naturally.
We’re using “Juan The Hand” in our latest print ads actually. You can see Juan’s olives in the palm of his hands gracing the pages of Jamie magazine, and Waitrose Kitchen and elsewhere through May and June. One of my favourite shots of the shoot.
The Zahara district is just one of the many wonders to be found on a self-guided walking holiday through Andalucia – think sugar-cube
white towns and rugged mountains… and wine… and olives …and
…you can see more here