On a sunny October day in the southwest Peloponnese, about 3 hours outside Athens, countless electric green olives were weighing down branches, signaling that it was time for an annual ritual: hand-picking olives in Greece.
I was joining the workers for my first time olive-picking experience. I rolled up my sleeves and waited for instructions to participate in this tradition. In Costa Navarino there are 6,000 olive trees that need to be picked by hand, and I was about to see the masters at work.
Getting Started Picking Olives
In Greece, little has changed over time, and that includes the way olives are harvested. There are no crazy tree-shaking machines here – just a few strong men with a rake-like tool and a big green net for gathering olives. Right after I arrived at tree #1 for the day, one man grabbed hold of the gnarled trunk, climbing towards the top, and pruned off entire branches. I learned that when the tree feels threatened, it bears more fruit, hence the seemingly severe pruning.
Still in observation mode, I watched as workers on the ground snatched up these clipped branches, whacking them to release olives onto the net below. Each swing sent hard olives flying in all directions, making me wonder whether I should be wearing safety goggles before jumping in to participate.
Before I could give much thought to safety equipment, I was tapped on the shoulder by a green overalls-clad worker, ‘Want to give it a try?’ he asked, handing me a long rake. He pointed to a section of the tree filled with fruit, and showed me the procedure. And yet as I combed through the leaves, I couldn’t seem to make it rain olives. The experienced worker showed me the motion again, suggesting I put a little more elbow grease behind each pull.
As I tried to make a dent in my assigned branch, I listened to stories about the history of harvesting olives. I learned that traditionally, during the weeks of harvest, the entire family was involved in the process, right down to the babies. A cloth bassinet was constructed and hung between branches of an olive tree, keeping them safe while all family members picked the olives at their peak.
Just as I was getting used to the rake tool, it was time for the next step in the process.
Gathering the Olives
Up until this point in the process, olives were flying in all directions but landing on top of a large green net surrounding the tree. This net not only keeps the olives from touching the ground (thus maintaining their purity) but also helps to gather the olives into burlap sacks more easily. All of the olives were first piled up on one section of the netting, then workers sorted through the mound of fruit, tossing any bad olives aside. When only bright green ones remained, burlap sacks were filled to the brim – weighing in at about 100 pounds – and thrown over a shoulder to be carried to the truck.
The whole process seemed to have a sense of urgency, and upon questioning the workers, I learned that the best olive oil is made quickly after picking. While some workers set up their net on the next tree to start the process from the beginning, I jumped into the truck with a pickup full of sacks of olives to head to the mill.
At the Mill
The next step of the process of making olive oil takes place away from the olive groves and in the mill. When I arrived at the mill, there was no time for small talk: the faster the process begins, the better the olive oil.
The truck backed up into the mouth of the mill and one by one, sacks of olives were poured into a metal bin and scooped up by a conveyor belt. Modern machinery pressed and churned the olives, filling the room with an incredibly rich aroma. The whole process was surprisingly scientific and temperature controlled by a serious set of gadgets I didn’t dare go near. At the end of the process, the first drops of olive oil of the season emerged.
It was time to taste the fruit of my labor. First I spooned some of the electric green oil onto a slice of toasted, thick-cut bread, taking my time to slowly chew and taste. Next olive oil tasting jars appeared. After some olive oil was poured in the jar, I placed the lid on top and warmed the oil in the palm of my hand. Next I inhaled the fragrance before raising it to my lips for a taste. It was hard to believe that just hours before, this delicious substance had been olives on a tree, perfectly ripe and waiting to be picked by hand.
A Day’s Work
The whole experience gave me a new appreciation for humble olive oil. I saw firsthand that there are many hands involved in the process and a great deal of time and care is spent in ensuring its superb quality. With tight shoulders and sore muscles, my day’s work was done. But, this was just the beginning of a harvest season for local farmers who would hand-pick every last olive.
Written by Jessica Colley for EuropeUpClose.com