The Greek Olives, the olive tree and its oil have been one of the basic necessities of life and has been since the beginnings of civilisation the main essence of the food of Greece. In some Minoan graves, archaeologists have discovered ceramic pots containing charred olive stones which shows that they were cultivated in Greece some 3,500 years ago. The Greek poet, Homer, once described Greece’s olive oil as ‘liquid gold’ and for a long time olive groves were protected. Greece has something like 143 million olive trees and is a huge exporter of olive oil.
Over 100 different types of olive trees are cultivated in Greece which thrive in the Greek climate of long hot summers and mild winters with very little frost. The majority of trees yield ‘oil olives’ from which olive oil is extracted. Also, there are a great number of types which are cultivated for eating. The most famous, and some argue. the tastiest are those grown in the regions of Kalamata and Amphissa. However, the olives cultivated in the regions of Agrinio, Chalkidiki, Thassos and other areas are equally good. The black Lianolia olives from Corfu are unusual in as much as they can be eaten as well as used to make olive oil.
The Kalamata olive is almond-shaped and ranges in length from about 1⁄2 to 1 inch. They are a dark purple color and have a rich, fruity flavor. The Amfissas, round and black, have a pleasant nutty flavour. Atalanti olives are large, luscious and fruity. Ionian olives are beautifully mild and mellow. For an extra tangy flavour try Thassos olives, salty with a wrinkled black skin. Finally, the cracked green olives are the perfect Martini olive – strong and sharp.
Winter is the time that olives are picked and olive oil is produced at olive-oil mills. The gathering of the olives begins at the end of the year in November and lasts till the following March. When the fruit is purple or black it is almost, but not quite, ripe and this is the time when they are ready to be picked. It is important to harvest the fruit before they are absolutely ripe, because if they are left too late before picking then the quality of the olive oil deteriorates and the acidity increases.
Special nets or big pieces of synthetic fabric are placed under the trees to collect the olives that drop from the trees. Putting these nets in place is usually a job for women and children, with the men operating the mechanical harvesters if they are used. The annual harvest is very much a community affair and it is very common for relatives and friends to help each other to harvest their trees.. Everything has to be done quickly and efficiently because the whole procedure is dependant upon the weather which should not be wet or windy.
The traditional way of harvesting, which is still used by many small farmers and individuals, who harvest their crop for their own consumption, as well as some large producers is with long flexible wooden sticks that are used to hit the olives from the trees. Another form of olive harvesting is with a small handheld plastic “comb” that combs the olives off the branches. This is used only when the trees are very young and short. The large commercial farmers, however, use special, portable electric harvesters which results in a fast harvest. However, the best way to pick olives is by hand so the fruit isn’t bruised. When all the olives have been harvested from one tree, then they proceed to the next tree. This means that the nets have to be emptied into sacks and then placed under the next tree.
During the harvesting season the day starts early in the morning and lasts till late in the afternoon (8:30 – 16:00). At the end of the day the full sacks are taken to the oil mills. This is done at the end of every day, even if harvesting lasts for several days because if the olives aren’t processed immediately, then oxidation will occur resulting in a lower quality olive oil. The oil has to come out perfectly. With 70% of all production in Greece being Extra Virgin Olive Oil, it is not a quantity but a quality game and everybody abides by the rules.
The olives are then taken to the local mills for processing. At the oil mill the fruit is put into a bin feeding hopper attached to a moving belt and the leaves are removed. Afterwards the fruit is washed to remove any foreign materials. The olives are crushed and the olive oil is separated. Finally the olive oil is delivered to the producer to be stored in metal tanks or glass bottles. (Plastic containers are not suitable for storing olive oil.). Generally six kilos of olives will yield about one kilo of oil.