Why Picking Olives In Italy Was My Version Of A Spa Retreat

By Nikki Padilla 

I’m a pretty unoriginal traveler. I’ve been fortunate to travel through most of Europe and have a very long list of spots I’d love to go one day — China, South America and Portland, to name a few; but every opportunity I get, I just keep going back to Italy.

My love affair with this land of wine, pasta and olives began during a college study abroad program. From there I became a tour guide, showing guests around my home of NYC but also bringing groups of Americans who shared my thirst for Tuscany’s sour cherry sangiovese, Sicilian citrus and countryside-inspired olive oil adorned tables to Italy. It was an amazing experience, but to be honest after five years of regular visits — not to mention countless wine tours and cooking lessons — I soon realized I didn’t want to tour around the country anymore. I wanted to BE there, punto. 

So, when the opportunity arose to help with the olive harvest on a good family friend’s farm in Rome’s countryside, Castelli Romani, I bought my plane ticket the next day.

Did I mention that I’m absolutely obsessed with olive oil?

When the opportunity arose to help with the olive harvest on a farm in #Rome's countryside, I… Click To Tweet

A Typical Day On An Olive Farm

7:30am: I’d be up and dressed, grabbing a quick breakfast of milk and cereal with tea and honey made from the farm’s apiary just in front of the house. After breakfast I’d head out the back door where two of the family dogs would greet me and escort me out to the olive fields, just behind the house. There, I’d meet with the other workers — the majority of which were older, Italian men — and help them spread out nets underneath the trees to catch the falling fruits.

8am: The actual picking of the olives was women’s work back in the day. My host explained that the field would be filled with women picking olives and singing songs, which he’d demonstrate.

I used a plastic rake to comb the branches like hair, letting the olives fall onto the ground, and was eventually upgraded to the machine — which, by the way, was very exciting — vibrating combs on a long pole that you could use to reach the taller branches.

After we’d gather up the nets and pour the fallen olives into baskets which would then dump into the a cart pulled by an old tractor.

I used a plastic rake to comb the branches like hair, letting the olives fall onto the ground...… Click To Tweet

10:30am: We’d take seats on the upturned baskets underneath the trees and take a break for panini (thin cut prosciutto or mortadella on fresh bread) and “young” wine made in my host’s grotto, which he’d serve from a simple glass bottle.

Once sufficiently satiated (and just slightly buzzed) the picking continued until we filled the cart, then transporting it to the local mill. Here we’d dump the olives and get a processing time. That way we could come back when they were ready to process the olives to be able to watch — and monitor — each step.

12:30pm: Very unlike American factories, you could walk right up to the machinery. On one side of the mill they had a more modern set up with machines, while the other had the old school mill and press. My host chose the old school way; as in our olives were ground to a paste by a stone mill, pressed to let the juices out and then spun in a centrifuge to separate the oil from the water.

He insisted I stick my finger under the spout as the oil poured from the centrifuge into our caster containers. It was magical.

My host insisted I stick my finger under the spout as #oliveoil poured from the centrifuge into… Click To Tweet

1:30pm: After a huge lunch set up outside — everything harvested on the farm, from the meat to the vegetables to the oil — I’d spend the rest of the day hanging around and tagging along on errands with my host. With no phone, no internet and no work I was able to fully immerse myself in the experience of living like a local in Italy. We’d grab meat for dinner from the butcher, head into town to grab an espresso and walk around the piazza to catch up with his friends or visit his grotto to check on the wine.

My favorite stop was to a “hardware store” — actually a man’s garage. Here, after grabbing some tools, my host left a soda bottle sample of his young wine for the hardware man to analyze, which was his other business, to see if anything needed to be added while it matured.

10:30pm: After an early dinner (for Rome, anyway) I’d shower, practice some yoga, then hop into bed for a book where I’d read for at least an hour before turning the lights out. All things I never have time for at home.

After the week I was stronger (from the picking), healthier (from all the farm-fresh food), calmer, happier and more relaxed than I’d been in a long time.

For me, travel shows how other people live around the world, allowing me to choose what I think works best for me to have a happy, healthy, fun and balanced life. A week picking olives in Italy was all I needed to remind me how important leisure is.

Which reminds me, it’s time for my afternoon coffee break.

A week picking olives in #Italy was all I needed to remind me how important leisure is. #travel… Click To Tweet

Nikki Padilla in Italy

About Nikki Padilla

Nikki lives in Queens  — the 4th generation in her house — with her husband and furchild, Rosy, a Husky German-Shepherd. She loves olive oil, dumplings and salsa dancing. A licensed NYC Tour Guide, Nikki specializes in food and culture, and also works as tour operator and trip organizer for Bare Feet Tours, which offers dance tours around the world. To ask about a custom NYC walking/food tour email Nikki at NikkiBLP@gmail.com or visit her website. To dance tango with the locals in Buenos Aires, salsa in Puerto Rico, flamenco in Spain, and other awesome dance experiences check out BareFeetTours.com

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Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of Epicure & Culture as well as Jessie on a Journey. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.


    1. @Al: Right? The writer, Nikki, is actually a personal friend of mine. When she returned she invited me over to actually taste some of the olive oil she made. Delicious!

    1. @Maggie: I’m eating olive oil on my salad as I type this! ha. Agreed. It’s definitely cool to see how much more travelers are wanting these immersive experiences. Nikki has definitely inspired a desire in me to want to go pick olives in Italy for sure!

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