Tuesday, 14 December 2010


It is not easy to write something new every week about life on the island when nothing much happens or where the highlights like celebrations and harvests come at the same time every year. At the moment, as always, people are busy with the olive harvest and every time you visit a friend you are more than likely given a bottle of newly pressed oil. It is so good could you could just drink it straight down. It smells like fresh herbs and I understand why people who take their oil from the mill immediately open the barrel to get a first taste.

The mill will have already told them what quality their pressing is - it always depends on how quickly (and when) it’s been harvested. Mostly the nets will have been spread under the trees for weeks, so that older olives will be mixed together with the newly fallen fruit. Oil made from this mix will be reasonable in quality but not the best. Oil made from the first fall only will be of low quality, but when the last fruit that ripens is quickly brought to the mill there’s a good chance it will be a very good oil.

So, the harvest has to be well organised, and the mill has to be told well in advance when the sacks are coming, or they will have to wait in line. Any delay will affect the quality - the more time between harvest and press the higher will be the level of acidity .The best oil comes from olives pressed the same day they are harvested.

However, even if there is a wait of a few days and your harvest is a hodgepodge of olives fallen off the trees at different times, your oil will always be better than anything you buy in a supermarket.

The actual time of the harvest also affects the product. As they ripen, olives turn from green to black and some people - in Greece and Italy - like them to be still a little green when pressed, whereas the Spanish prefer oil made when they are harvested late and very dark. Moroccans leave the olives in barrels until they are almost spoiled before they press them, so their oil is even heavier. Their preference indicates taste rather than quality to be the deciding factor.

And then there is the weather. In the Netherlands, even if it snows, or rains ice or it’s foggy and damp, people will always go to work because they are used to slipping around on the ice; but if it rains in Greece, there will be no harvesting. It’s not because the Greeks don’t like the wet, but because, they say, harvesting in wet weather will yield only poor quality oil. Why that is I don’t quite know.

Harvesting olives is not that complicated, but there are some rules you need to know. I like this time of year, but not stumbling across the nets being careful not to step on the olives.

So the winter storms don’t blow them away the nets are held down by stones, but in the groves where there are no stones to be found solutions have to be more creative. I have seen nets held in place by bright pink plastic bags full of sand, like a nice art project. The nets always used to be black but nowadays they come in all colours, green, orange, even red; but I don’t like red or green nets. They are so unnatural they hurt your eyes, and anyway. I like passing through olive country where the nets are black: they give the countryside a shiny gloss.

I have no olive trees so I don’t have to organise a harvest, which can be a nice thing to do for a few days, and although I am not much good at it I like to help friends and neighbours with their work. However, people with hundreds of trees or children who had to help each year with their parents’ harvest of their liquid gold, probably have nightmares as the time approaches. Check out: Why I dread the Olive Harvest.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

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