Sunday, 25 November 2007

Olive Blues

I am shattered. Two days of olive picking doesn't make you fit. But I won't complain. There are people who harvest olives for weeks on end in order to earn some money. I just helped some friends picking olives. And then doing the olives with friends is more like a party than like slave labour. Especially when the weather is as good as it was the last few days.

The olive tree is originally from the Mediterranean and it is said that already in 8,000 BC people gathered its fruit from wild olive trees. It's believed that the cultivation of olives started about 4,000 BC on Crete. But it's also said that around 6,000 BC the first oil was pressed from olives in Anatoly (modern day Turkey). And then two islands are fighting for the honour of having the eldest olive tree: Brioni in Istria, Croatia (1,600 years old) and Crete (2,000 years old). Well, let's not argue about years and just agree that for centuries now olives have been cultivated for oil and preserved olives.

In the Odyssey Homer writes about olive oil, calling it liquid gold. The Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankamun was buried with his golden treasures and an olive branch. In ancient times a winner in the Olympic Games was offered an olive branch, because the Greeks believed that the vitality of the sacred tree was transmitted to the recipient through the branch. According to the bible (Genesis) a dove was sent from Noahs Ark to find land. He came back with a branch of an olive tree, which meant that they were close to land. And Thomas Jefferson, third president of America, wrote that the olive tree was the best gift ever from heaven.

According to Greek mythology the olive tree was a gift from the goddess Athena. When Zeus devised a game for the name of the city of Athens, Athena presented an olive tree, which was preferred by the citizens of Athens to the horse Poseidon presented, or a salt water spring (it's not certain what Poseidon exactly brought into this game). This is how the capital of Greece got its name and how the Greeks got their olive tree. And they still enjoy it. Nowhere in the world is the consumption of olive oil higher than in Greece: 23.7 kilos per capita per annum against 13.62 kilos per capita in Italy.

During the olive harvest the men bat the olives out of the tree with long sticks, and the women, and in earlier times also the children, gather the olives under the trees. I wish it were only the olives that fell from the trees during the battering, but also a lot of leaves and little branches fly all over the place, far away from the net which is spread out under the tree to collect the olives. Then the branches have to be sorted out and the olives around the net have to be picked up. Sometimes, seeing such a big heap of leaves with only a few olives underneath it, I just sat down and wondered about how long this work I was doing had been around in the world. Only the nets would be a modern invention, although the Romans put clothes under the trees.

Although there are millions of trees on Lesvos, the harvest here is not that spectacular, because all families on the island have an olive grove somewhere that they harvest themselves. In the bigger groves Albanian, Bulgarian, Romanian or other cheap workers are hired. In countries such as Italy and Spain, who are the biggest exporters of olives, they use enormous machines that skim over the trees and pick, sort and gather the olives. They seem to me to be monsters of machines, that take all the romance out of the harvest. In Italy they use computer driven machines that shake the olives out of the trees and gather them in nets folded out from the machines.

The only machines you encounter here on the island are a stick with a battery that drills the olives out of the tree and a kind of vacuum cleaner that you put on you back so that you can pick up the olives without bending to the ground. But the nicest story is of two English ladies, who have on olive grove near Plomari, who do all the picking by hand from the tree, clean the fruits one by one and press the oil themselves. Then they sell this very exclusive oil to very exclusive people for a very exclusive high price. That's the way to make money!

Well, I have to tell you that picking olives from a tree is not as tiring as picking them up off the ground. But then you have to climb the tree in order to get all the olives. In Spain, where they use machines to race over the trees, they intentionally keep the trees as small as possible. But then you will never have those beautiful shaped trees that make the landscape here in Greece so attractive. A columnist for the English language paper Athens News once wrote about his ideal way of doing the olive harvest: saw off the branches and pick the olives!

No, here on the island the harvest is done like it's been done for centuries: batting the olives out of the trees and picking up the olives from the ground. It's a tiring job, but then you will have lots of oil for the whole family, even for the members who live in the big cities. In Europe it's thought that the Spanish and Italian oil is the best because those are the most exported. In 2005 Spain produced about 6 million tonnes of olive oil. Greece produced about 2.4 million tonnes. That doesn't make the Spanish oil better. The Greeks are just not good enough at marketing and then most of their oil is exported to Italy where it often ends up in bottles with an Italian label. On Lesvos the olives are not all picked by hand, like the two ladies close to Plomari do, but the oil is no bulk product that is produced by racing over trees or shaking all the olives loose. You feel it in all your limbs, oil here is a fair product.

Today at the end of the afternoon, when we looked at the grove, there were another 11 trees to be done tomorrow. However, the good news was that a neighbour was offering to come with some fish, so we organized a barbecue. And that's the good thing about a harvest here on Lesvos: food and working, drinking and picking, laughing and sweating, it all goes together.

Copyright © Smitaki 2007

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