Friday, 16 December 2011

Let’s get the olives done

(Harvesting the olives: for old and young people)

Everybody on the island is busy picking the olives from the trees. This year the harvest has not been abundant because there was such little rain (and because of that not too many insects to spoil the fruit so the harvest is of good quality).

Each year I help friends with their harvest and after days of work my body feels totally broken. But even though it’s hard work, harvesting together with your friends can be fun. Especially when the days end with a communal dinner. This year it was also the beautiful warm weather that made it nice to help out: yesterday I could have picked the olives from the nets in my bikini, it was that warm in the sun.

Lesvos has millions of olive trees, but most of them are harvested by hand. In some fields they use those small trilling machines, a kind of vibrator, sticks with round flying plastic strokes– a marvellous toy for the men. But mostly getting the olives out of the trees is done with a long wooden stick that you use to bat the olives out of the trees, just like the ancient Greeks used to do.

In Morocco also they use wooden sticks to get the olives out of the tree. Looking at this little movie on YouTube The olive oil of Bhalil,
anyone who knows how to harvest will wonder why there are so few and such small nets under the trees. My experience is that when harvesting, you put as many nets as you can in a huge square around the trees, so that afterwards there is no need to creep around on the soil to pick all the olives that have fallen beyond the nets.

The movie shows a pretty old-fashioned olive press: with huge millstones, which here on Lesvos are only found in the museums; they make a paste out of the olives, which is spread on thin mats, which are stapled and then pressed for the oil. It is not so long ago that on Lesvos they were pressing the oil in the same way.

In America they have mobile olive presses. Those would be nice to have on the island: because the press drives to your field you are assured that the olives are pressed immediately (the quicker the harvested olives are pressed, the better the quality) and you do not have to haul all those heavy sacks full of olives to the press.

The human race likes to invent things to make life better and this is how a person made this harvestmachine – a multi vibrator. Although I ask myself if this is useful. Mostly it looks like this way the man can very happily and relaxed drive his tractor along the trees, while afterwards it’s the women who have to go into the nets and clean up his mess.

Than the fully automatic foldable, turned-upside-down umbrellas with built-in vibrators do a better job. You just embrace the tree and give it a tight hug and hoppa, on to the next tree. And women are no longer needed to pick up the spoiled olives.

It can be done even quicker if you use those monstrous machines, which drive right over the trees while at the same time picking the olives. I might be a little old fashioned, but I think this method has some minor flaws: The trees must be kept small and form long straight lines. This way you get a land full of olive hedges. Imagine if here on Lesvos they were to cut all those old and beautifully formed olive trees in order to plant rows of small trees? The landscape would be altered considerably. And harvesting would no longer be such a party: one person would just race over all those trees and finished. Gone would be the romantic harvest of the olives.

I do understand that this way you would get a bigger harvest, but what’s wrong with the olives of Lesvos, which are treasures – mostly harvested with pleasure and producing a high quality oil? I do hope that it will take some time before the wooden sticks and the nets are replaced by such all-in-one machines. Don’t forget that olives picked by hand give the best quality oil.

In Morocco donkeys still participate in the olive harvest. Here in Greece most of them have already been replaced by pick-ups. Donkeys here are even at risk of dying-out; but that is a story for another time. On YouTube you can see how they make the olive oil here on Lesvos: simply – but with care.

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

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