'The harvest truly is plenteous, but the laborers are few.'
Bible, Matthew ix. 37
Extract from Chapter 3: The Harvest:
With the beginning of the New Year and the start of the harvest, the Gypsies split into separate work groups and accompany the farmers to their plantations. The work is long and hard under bad conditions but the Gypsies know that they have to endure it until the harvest is over. The money from the olive picking is essential to the continued survival of the whole group. The Gypsy convoy, along with the gread horse herd accompaning them, winds their way through the velley to their pre-selected campsite.
Olives fresh off the tree are too bitter and too tough to eat, so they are put into large vats made from hickory and undergo a process called 'Brine Curing'. To begin the brine processing, cold water with just a touch of salt was poured over the olives sitting in the vats. The water had to be changed every day for at least ten days to leach the bitter glycosides out of the fruit. At the end of this period, a more permanent brine solution was created to complete the process.
Using roughly, one cup of sea salt to each gallon of water, the mix is poured into the vats until all the olives are covered. This solution then needed to be changed weekly for the first month, after that, a weaker brine is used and the olives may take up to another 6 to 8 weeks before they develop the rich flavour that makes them so sought after.
After the curing processes were complete, the olives and any oils extracted would then undergo further journeys. From the valley, they were transported onwards to Granada and Cordoba, for further distribution throughout Spain. Many of the olives went directly to Malaga, to be placed on ships and sent throughout the Mediterranean and even over to the Spanish Americas.
The Gypsies knew little of what happened to the olives once they left the valley; it was doubtful they even cared. They knew only that the work required them to be up well before dawn, and then in dark and freezing conditions trek to their work places negotiating frozen terrain that played havoc with both horses and wagons.
They were also aware that, at the first sign of light, the Patron would appear in the field, and this would be the signal for the days toil to begin. Then the valley would echo to the sounds of the barras’ clashing against the trees. Ice and frost that had accumulated on the trees would rain down on the workers, freezing their hands and melting into their clothing with the only way to stay warm was by continuous hard work.
Usually, a few hours after first light, the heat of the sun would just begin to warm through and make itself felt. From dawn, they worked right through to mid-morning without pause, stopping only for a ten-minute break in which water and salted strips of meat were passed around to keep the hunger out.
Around about midday, the workers would stop once more. This time for around about thirty minutes and more substantial food such as bread, cheese, meats and strong fortified red wine were eagerly passed around. A hastily built fire would also be lit, and workers would stand around as near as possible, to warm limbs and dry out their sodden clothing.
By this time, the winter sun would now have reached its strength, and was generating enough heat to begin the process of thawing out the land. The frozen ground now became soft and spongy, and as centimetres of mud and clay started to cling and build upon the footwear of the workers, walking on the fields became more difficult.
As the men continued beating the olives from the trees, the women - in between sorting on the Olympida and loading the donkeys - would be on their hands and knees beneath the trees collecting olives that had missed the nets. So this routine would continue all day until the sinking sun disappeared behind the mountains, and even twilight could no longer afford the light needed to continue work. For ten to twelve weeks - depending on the weather and the size of the crop, the Gypsies would continue this routine.