Monday, 1 December 2008

Olive Blues

The beautiful warm weather of these last few weeks, with only a few declines of a small cold front and a solid night of rain, mean that many people have started their olive harvest. The olives are ripe early this year, just as the rest of nature is a little confused because of all that heat. A few days ago, we already found the first messenger of spring, in the form of an anemone, although winter has yet to start (in Greece it's said that winter begins in January and ends in February).

The winter of 1850 was also preceded by a warm autumn. In January that year the olive trees were full of fermenting spring juices, just like all other trees and plants were ready for spring. On January 12, however, dark clouds gathered over the island and in the afternoon the temperature quickly fell to below -10°C.

In the book 'Froso's little violet' the priest Prodromos Anagnostou describes this disastrous day. How the animals returned at noon from the fields to the villages and stables, crying for a hiding place, which frightened the residents of the island out of their minds. The sea began to fume, the earth shook and everywhere a frightening noise could be heard.

Because of the sudden drop of temperature, the sap in the trees froze which made the bark split open, which was the awful noise. Most of the olive trees on Lesvos died that day.

Famine followed, plus a wave of emigration. Those who remained behind, however, set themselves to work. The dead trees were converted into charcoal and sold as far away as Russia. It was decided that the whole island would be planted with new olive trees and they used less frost-sensitive species such as the kolovi and the adramytiana. Walls for new terraces were built, earth was brought up the mountains and the trees grew as never before.

Curiously, the year 1850 was the start of the last great economic boom period for the island. Despite the taxes that had to be paid to the Ottoman Empire (the island since 1462 was occupied by the Ottomans), the new trees brought prosperity to the island. The olive presses were driven by steam engines, olive pits were found to be an excellent fuel and the soap industry took off. Modern English machines were imported through Smyrna (modern day Izmir) and investments were made in countries such as Egypt, Russia and Romania. Olive oil and olive soap constituted 70% of the exports of the island, most of which went to France, Russia and England.

Between 1875 and 1895 3800 tons of soap annually was manufactured on Lesvos, which was shipped to the ports of the Ottoman Empire and from there exported to elsewhere in the world.

Like Smyrna and Constantinople (Istanbul), Mytilini was a cosmopolitan city, where international steam boats came and went. Wealthy families built large houses and Western furniture was introduced into the Greek living rooms. Lesvos was prosperous again.

Early in the 20th century business began to slow down, and everything changed dramatically in 1912 when Lesvos freed itself from Turkey and again became part of Greece. The oriental market was still accessed through the Greeks living in the Ottoman Empire, but when in 1922 all Greeks were expelled from the Ottoman Empire, this market dried up for good.

Lesvos received thousands of refugees from the other side causing a shortage of food, housing and capital to invest. Thanks to new land divisions the rich people fled the island. Lesvos again became an island of small farmers.

Today Lesvos has approximately 11 million olive trees. That is 126 olive trees for every resident. For the rest of Greece that number is 9.5, 3.0 in Italy and in Spain 5.4. Lesvorian olive oil is about a quarter of the total Greek production.

The total world production this year has increased by 9.1% to 2,870,000 tonnes (Spain produces 1,110,000, Italy 560,000 and Greece 370,000). Which is not good news for the olive farmers on Lesvos, because with the increase in production prices will fall. And the prices will go down anyway, thanks to the economic crisis, because olive oil consumption is declining.

The co-operatives on the island, where the oil is pressed and stored, can do nothing other than wait and see how prices develop. Currently prices on Lesvos are still fairly stable. Perhaps that's why everyone's hurrying to finish the olive harvest. Who knows what harsh winter we are facing...

Copyright © Smitaki 2008

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