Thursday, 3 December 2009

Olive Menuet

(picture: old olive press at Milellia)

I did not sleep much the night before we took off to do a walk described by the Andersons in their book on walking on Lesvos. The walks as they recommend them are not necessarily my favorites, because there’s always a risk of getting lost and the estimated time they say a walk will take, usually ends up doubled! Given my poor walking experience I was also worried whether I would actually reach the destination of this walk, the village of Kournella that is situated high up a mountain overlooking the coast on the southern side of the island. For years when driving to the port town of Plomari, I have seen this Kournella from a distance, hanging on the mountainside and have wondered how is this place could be reached and what it was like.

The walk was not too bad, though right to the end I did not take my eyes from the top of the mountain, desperately watching out for the village to appear. And when it did, and we arrived, I even had enough energy left to wander along its streets, admiring the play of the autumn coloring plane trees and the picturesque houses, most of them abandoned. Only three people are still living there, so obviously the village must have known better times.

Walking back was much easier because the road winds gradually down back to the sea and the village of Melinda. Just under Paleochori, the village opposing Kournella at the other side of a valley, we had to cross a little stream, its water smelled bad and was of a purple colour. Not only do I know now how to get to Kournella, but I also know from where this dark and dirty water comes, — you can see it on the beautiful quartz pebble beach at Melinda, flowing into the sea — it’s from the olive press in Paleochori!

To press olives for their oil it takes no more than machines and water. But the process is a source of pollution. What comes out is the water used to clean the olives and what is needed for the pressing itself is also mixed with waste juices and other waste products which together is called the Olive Mill Waste (OMW).

OMW contains mucilage, pectic substances and small amounts of oil, all organic substances, but they do not easily degrade naturally into the environment. Especially polyphenols which occur naturally in fruits and berries like olives but are not necessarily good friends of the environment when concentrated in large quantities. However, according to Wikipedia, polyphenols seem to be more healthy for human beings as an antioxidants. They might possibly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer and new researches even believe they could help decrease the encroachment of Alzheimer’s disease.

These days the polyphenols which are much in demand by the food industry flow freely all through the Lesvorian landscape. Lesvos has some 70 olive presses (all big villages have one) that during the coming months will be working hard to reduce thousands tons of olives into the beautiful green-yellow oil.

In earlier times there were many more olive presses on the island, although the modern presses have more capacity. In the golden years of Lesvos around 1900 there were some 200 olive presses, most of them worked by steam engines. A lot of them are now in ruins, although some have been preserved and turned into little museums like in Millelia, Mandamados and Paleochori. There are two new museums which are restored old olive presses: The Museum of Industrial Olive Oil in Agia Paraskevi and the Industrial Museum in Papados, where they restored one of the first steam engines of the island, but I bet you will find no more flows of OMW from there! Two olive presses even have been transformed into a hotel: The Olive Press in Molyvos and Hotel Zaira in Skala Loutron.

The environmental authorities in Europe have been looking into the problem of OMW, because as well as Greece, Italy, Spain and France all have olive oil industries. And up to now none have found a satisfactory way to dispose of their olive press waste. In Spain they try to reduce the outflow by using less water; in Kalamata (Peloponnesus) they tried to turn OMW into compost; on Crete they use lakes to evaporate the waste; on Chios they dump it into holes in the ground, but none of these experiments give us a cleaner environment.

The food industry claims it puts more and more healthier products on the market and they are interested in this OMW - especially in the polyphenol that it contains. So let us hope that these mighty industrials will cry out for so much polyphenol they get the OMW flowing as quickly into their tanker-trucks as the oil flows into the bottles!

Last week I worked for some days in the olive harvest. As long as you don’t have to do it for weeks on end harvesting is fun when you do it with friends. The men slay the trees and make big jokes, the women empty the nets while they gossip, and after a day of hard work the communal meal is even more fun. When you are not used to this work you better visit a hot spring afterwards in order to heal your muscles for the next day.

Although I was nose deep into the olive branches for days I did not harvest any muscle pains but instead acquired a fast runny nose and lots of sneezing. And I thought I was doing very healthy work amongst those heavenly smelling olives! I probably did not inhale enough of the polyphenol, or maybe I have developed an allergy against it?

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

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