Olive oil was never something I particularly spend much time thinking about and I usually just got any random olive oil from the supermarket – probably on sale. However, ever since moving to Greece I’ve realized that for many Greeks olive oil is so much more than a fatty liquid to fry food in. Greece is one of the largest consumers and producers of olives and olive oil, and olive oil is an indispensable element in Greek cooking. Oil is used to pour over salads and boiled greens, to give a nice flavour to toasted bread and cheese, to bake flaky pies with crispy crusts, to stew seafood and meat in, and it’s even used for sweets and desserts. The use of olive oil in Greek food could be considered excessive – but being a glutton myself, I appreciate that.
Olive oil is an important part of Greek cuisine and culture
Of course, it is not just a matter of gluttony. Olive oil is an important part of Greek cuisine and culture. Because I always want to learn more about Greek produce and its many traditions, it seemed only logical for me to do some extra research and delve deeper into the process of harvesting olives and the production of that ‘liquid gold’, as Homer famously called it (Homer, the epic poet, not the Simpson’s patriarch). With that in mind, last November we decided to partake in some ‘ecotourism’ and travelled to Patra in the South of mainland Greece where a friend and his family own some olive tree groves.
But let’s start off with some more background information before I get into the essay-like documentation of my ‘food adventure’. The use of olives and olive oil is a tradition that has a long history stretching back to ancient times and its importance is evident in many ancient myths and fables, but also in the many depictions of olive trees and its fruit and oil in ancient art, architecture, earthenware pots and other decorations. Since olive trees are so deeply rooted (get it?) in Greek history and culture, it’s not a big surprise that even nowadays the olive harvest, which starts at the end of October throughout November, is still an important family tradition. As is the case for my friend’s family, the annual harvest provides families and some lucky neighbours and friends with lots of high-quality olive oil to be used throughout the year.
extra-virgin olive oil is best used fresh and unheated
Greek olive oil is considered one of the most delicious in the world, but what makes a delicious, high-quality olive oil? Olive oils are rated based on their extraction process and on their acidity, with ‘extra-virgin’ olive oil being the highest grade. Real extra-virgin olive oil comes from the very first pressing of the olives and should contain no more than 1% acid. Equally important is the fact that extraction of the oil happens only by way of pressure without any chemical treatment, known as cold pressing. By the way, just to illustrate how strict oil-rating is: if the oil of the first pressing contains over 1% up to 3% of acid its already considered to be a slightly lesser, basic ‘virgin olive oil’… without the ‘extra’. Harsh. I believe any type of fat always plays a major part in making flavourful food and extra-virgin olive oil does so in in particular. Because of its pureness, extra-virgin olive oil is best used fresh and unheated as a dip for bread, or drizzled over vegetables, to get the most out of its nutritional benefits and its floral, fruity flavour. And yes, it is a fresh product and should not be kept for too many years… it will turn rancid.
Maybe now you can understand why I was excited for the olive harvest: I would for the first time get to taste one of these ‘first cold press’ oils that would be more superior in quality and flavour than any other oil I had ever tasted before (and that would surely ruin me for the future… goodbye basic supermarket brand!). But, before I got to taste that delicious oil, I had roll up my sleeves and actually get those olives off of their branches… but how does one get all of those olives out of the trees? Honestly, before this entire adventure I thought we would just somehow shake the trees, manually pick each olive of the branches, or beat them with sticks, or something. I was only half wrong.
Turns out, you do get to beat on branches with sticks and tiny little rakes, which is a labour-intensive procedure from the past that has stuck around. However, luckily, the family also used many different types of machinery to harvest the olives. First of all, we would spread out large nets across the field and around each tree to make sure we would catch every olive that would fall down. Then, there were the electric saws to take down the large branches full of olives, not only to make them more accessible, but also to prune the tree to give it a better shape and space for the coming years. These branches were then beaten with the little rakes, or dragged over a machine that would loudly shake and mechanically beat the olives of off the branch by way of rubber protrusions whirring round and round, either launching the olives into the air, or dropping them into a large sack attached to the machine. Fun. I totally hogged this shaky-whirring-olive-launch-machine (I am sure that’s what it’s called). There was also a smaller version of this whirring contraption attached to a large stick, which was used to propel the leftover stubborn olives straight out of the tree onto the nets on the ground, with some of them bouncing of off your head first. After getting as many olives onto the nets, the nets were then gathered together making all the olives meet in a huge pile in the middle.
While rolling up your sleeves and taking part in the harvest really gives you a sense of satisfaction and appreciation for olives and oil, one also does appreciate the occasional break, which we did by eating homemade mushroom pies and club sandwiches in the cooling shade of a large olive tree. Please don’t judge me when I say that while I truly enjoyed learning about Greek culture and cuisine in a hands-on manner, I also really looked forward to these family picnic-breaks. Can you blame me? Olives are nice, but eating homemade pies and sandwiches beneath a 100-year-old olive tree is great.
Mere decades earlier, the process of getting all the olives out of the trees really was no picnic
Whilst enjoying our break, we were told that having all that cool equipment was a real blessing. Mere decades earlier, the process of getting all the olives out of the trees really was no picnic. Besides modern machinery not existing, most people did not own fields full of olive trees and every tree and little olive was considered precious, which explains those sticks and small rake-like utensils I mentioned earlier, which were used to carefully beat the olives off of the branches without damaging the tree too much. The leftover good olives were then picked out of the tree, or from the ground by hand, which I saw the grandparents do in their garden a bit later as well – every little olive which had dropped from a single tree in the garden was lovingly picked up (and saved from being eaten by the tiny kittens roaming around) and placed into the bags with the other olives.
In the past, harvesting could take several weeks, even when one owned just a couple of trees. Naturally, the transportation of the bags full of olives also took a lot of time. While we used a big truck, which could carry at least a dozen of bags plus the entire family stuffed on the back seat and the cargo bed, traditionally, the bags of olives were transported by donkeys – if you were lucky. The pressing and grinding of the olives used to be donkey-powered as well… either that, or there was a lot of foot-stomping involved. You know, like in the early wine days.
But gone are the feet- and donkey-days: after collecting all the olives on these surprisingly hot and bright Greek sunny November days, stuffing them in heavy bags and loading them into the truck, we brought the bags to the local olive press. The olive press turned out to be factory-sized and there were no donkeys and I could only see huge, shiny machines and trucks – probably for the better. Many families had also arrived at the local factory just before sunset to drop off their heavy olive loot and there was somewhat of a queue. Every particular load was then hauled off inside the factory to be dumped into a large hole in the floor, where the olives would be crushed and pressed, after which the liquid gold would flow from a nozzle at the end of the production line as if from a tiny, greasy fountain. It only took a couple of hours, or minutes, before our fresh oil was ready to be taken home.
Finally, we got to have a taste of some of our own harvested oil, which turned out to be just under 2% of acidity due to this year not being the greatest for olives. Major changes in the weather and pests damaged many of Greece’s olive crops this year, which was also evident during our harvest from the many discoloured and shrivelled up olives that were present on some of the trees. Honestly, it did not affect the flavour of our oil at all, at least, not according to my yet-untrained tastebuds; it still turned out to be better than anything I had ever tasted before.
My friend’s mother, was, of course, very proud and excited about this year’s first batch of fresh olive oil (named protolado, or agourelaio in Greek) and decided to immediately make some good use of it by frying up some loukoumades (fried dough balls with honey) for all of us to have as dessert after dinner. While I am usually not that interested in loukoumades, these homemade hot little spheres really featured the amazingly fresh, almost fruity flavour of the new oil, which hardly needed the slight drizzle of honey – they were delicious. I ate a lot. And, of course, the family did not let us go home without taking a 5-litre bottle filled to the brim with greenish – not gold, turns out – freshly pressed oil.
the Greek equivalent of “blood, sweat, and tears”, but tastier
As interesting of an experience harvesting bags full of olives is, IT IS HARD WORK. Before you get to indulge in that delicious olive oil, you have to go through the long hard process of sawing off- and lifting up huge branches, dragging them through a machine that constantly tries to pull you in as well, and dragging huge nets and bags full of olives across a slightly muddy field. Unsurprisingly, there is a common saying in Greece “μου έβγαλε το λαδί”, which roughly translates to something along the lines of “it squeezes the olive oil out of me”, meaning something takes extreme effort to do – the Greek equivalent of “blood, sweat, and tears”, but tastier. I totally understand the meaning of this saying, yet I now too understand why the Greeks love olive oil so much: all that hard work does make it taste so much better!