How many people does it take to pick an olive tree? I know it sounds like the beginning of a Christmas cracker joke, but I’m actually serious. Over the last couple of days we have been harvesting our olives. I’m not sure how many trees you need in order to use the term ‘harvest’ ? Similarly, how many olive trees constitute a grove? I don’t have a witty answer, but I do know this; we have 9 olive trees in our garden, and picking them by hand is hard work.
As I sit here writing on the terrace, the hot November sun (I still can’t get used to saying that) is rising next to the mountains. As far as the eye can see, lines of neat olive groves expand into the distance like rows of soldiers uniformly marching. The closest trees cast shadows on the ground, whilst the trees in the distance dissolve into each other. The majestic mountains dominate the view like a sergeant major, and there’s a gentle hush interspersed with song birds and insects.
Please excuse me for a second, Nancy-floss is trying to hook my herbal tea bag out of my mug…
Right, where was I? Oh yes. It’s stunningly beautiful and we are so grateful for such a magnificent view. It makes us feel insignificant and awestruck and we try not to take it for granted.
Sounds of the olive harvest…
As the morning warms up, the sound of activity arises. Trucks meander down the little lanes and the sound of machinery and cheerful voices fill the air. The acoustics are mysteriously fantastic. Conversations float up from the olive trees, despite in theory, being too far to be heard.
The electric machines that are used to pick the olives, whir into action. The rotating claws on the end of long poles are extended up into the trees. With a bit of persuasion, olives drop into the nets laid on the ground below. Good natured shouts and laughter rally back and forth, and sacks of green and purple olives are quickly filled. I know what you’re question is…do green and black olives come from the same tree or different trees? I never knew the answer to that either, but I’ve learnt a lot about olives. Let me impart a little of my new found olive wisdom…
Before we moved to Greece, we didn’t know anything about the olive harvest, or olive oil. We’ve now learnt that green and black olives are from the same tree. They start off green, and as they become more and more ripe, they turn from purple to a deep black. There are hundreds of different cultivars of olive, some are better for oil, whilst others are better for eating. Olives are made up of about 20% oil. They don’t require any preparation before being pressed for oil, however in order to be able to eat olives, they must be cured in brine and /or lye. Consequently, you can’t eat olives straight from the tree. There we go, maybe you already knew all of that anyway?
Let the olive harvest commence…
We always know when the olive harvest is close to commencing because we get passing traffic down our lane. Tractors and trucks rumble past, and older people from the village make their way down the rocky uneven path, clinging to each other for balance. Olives are accessed and inspected for signs that they are ready, and before long, the olive harvest in under way. It’s a bit like ‘bin day’ in the UK. There are a couple of organised neighbours who put their bins out with confidence, whilst the rest of the street peer out from net-curtained windows to check for confirmation.
Picking by hand vs machine…
You can’t get more mediterranean than olive picking. We’ve always dreamed of our life in Greece. It always involved a scene where we were picking our own olives.
There was an advert for margarine (made with olive oil) on tv that completely formed my impression of olive picking. Beautiful people leapt around catching plump juicy olives whilst being bathed in the Autumn sunshine. Trees were shaken (shook!? shooked?! shaked?!…who knows) and olives rained down into the bowls held beneath. They all laughed and smiled whilst a delicious feast was laid out on a table and everything had lashings of margarine on top…Of course that’s totally the traditional mediterranean diet which is known as one of the healthiest in the world. You remember the scene…Poseidon raised his trident before being seated in-between Venus and Athena, where they feasted on fresh octopus, figs, grapes and margarine on processed white bread.
Olive picking is every bit as beautiful and romantic as the advert suggests, providing you only have a few trees to pick. In reality, every person here has hundreds, if not thousands of trees. A Cretan that doesn’t own any olive trees is unheard of. It’s like a picnic without a flask of tea, or boiled eggs without salt. It happens from time to time, but not without regret. It’s a cultural thing, the law of physics.
Our olive harvest…
In reality, picking our own olives wasn’t quite like the scene detailed above. Mr Sidestepping-normal was precariously perched up the tree whilst I teetered upon a pair of old rusting swimming pool steps. As we reached and pulled at the olives, angry branches scratched our arms and tangled our hair (not so much of a problem for Mr SN).
In lieu of proper nets on the floor, we laid out a tarpaulin and the old liner from the above mentioned splash pool. It was difficult to catch all of the olives in our make-shift tarpaulin and pool liner set-up. So after a lot of grabbing and wrangling with a rake (to knock down the olives right at the top) we then scrambled around on the floor trying to recover the olives that escaped us. What’s more, our olives weren’t so much plump and juicy, more small and rotting. Unbeknownst to us, the olive fly had laid it’s eggs in our olives. The larvae had tunnelled beneath the skin of the olive, causing some of them to rot and fall to the ground. See, I told you it wasn’t quite as romantic as the margarine advert.
After we had slowly but successfully picked a few trees, we began to fill our sacks with the bounty harvest. Despite losing lots of our olives to rot, we marvelled at how much we had already acquired. Motivated, we relentlessly picked all day, despite the protest from our necks and backs. As the light began to fade, we rushed to pick the last tree and get our olives to the factory for pressing.
The olive factory…
The olive factory is one of two factories in our village. It’s located up a narrow street, and you can hear the hum of machinery before you get there. Flood lights illuminate the lane outside and the smell of olive oil wafts out from the warehouse. We hauled our olives up to the giant metal doors, where they were loaded onto a wooden pallet and manoeuvred inside by a fork lift truck. Our measly 5 bags seemed laughable compared to the thousands of kilos of olives waiting to be pressed. We gazed mesmerised by the machinery. It seamlessly sorted the good olives from the bad olives, washed them, pulped them and separated the oil. At the end of the machine, a stream of fluorescent green olive oil poured into a reservoir.
Fresh olive oil from green olives, tastes very different to normal olive oil. It’s vivid green, bitter and spicy. I absolutely love it fresh, but Mr SN isn’t so keen. It matures over a couple of months to become the deep gold that represents a good quality extra virgin olive oil.
Collecting our oil…
The next day we nervously made our way back to the olive factory to collect our oil. We didn’t know what to expect, and felt worried that they might have rejected our olives for some reason. Furthermore, we didn’t know how much oil our meagre harvest would produce. However our worries were unfounded; we almost fainted when they told us that we had picked 68.8kg’s of olives. From that, we received a total of 15 litres of oil. We were stunned that our 9 trees had yielded so much. Moreover, the owners of the factory had wavered the percentage that they are supposed to receive in return for pressing the olives. Overjoyed, we shook hands with the owner and left triumphantly with our organic, cold pressed olive oil in a borrowed plastic barrel.
The next day we decanted our oil from the borrowed plastic barrel. We funnelled it into glass wine bottles which had been saved by some friends. Oil dripped and ran down the side of the barrel and Dora-dog loitered around, waiting to lick it up. We were on a high from producing our own oil; this was the dream we had spent so many years longing for.
We worked out that the equivalent oil would have cost us €60 here in Crete. That’s more like £105 in the UK. There is the combined satisfaction of producing our own oil, as well as saving money.
Reflection on the olive harvest…
The owners of the olive factory, also own the little convenience shop in our village. We’ve just returned from dropping the plastic barrel back to them. We jumped on our little 125cc motorbike (called Carrie) and whizzed up the main village road. As I wrestled with the oily barrel on the back, the sun shone on our faces, and the breeze whipped through our hair.
As we passed the church (by this time my arm was really starting to ache from holding the barrel) and the houses draped in bougainvillea, I gave Mr SN a one-handed squeeze around the middle. I squeezed him because I’m glad I get to be the one sat on the back of his motorbike. I squeezed him because I’m grateful for our life filled with olive oil and bougainvillea, and I squeezed him because I needed to inform him that my arm was going dead and I couldn’t hold that barrel much longer.
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12 thoughts on “Our 1st olive harvest”
Fantastically informative and beautifully eloquent!
Loved this olive tale Steph,you are a very prolific writer, I hope you are going to put this into a book and publish it. it won’t be long before we see you in Cornwall, when do you arrive in UK? XX
Hiya:) Yes, plans for the book are underway! I just have to find some time to write it. Yes not long until we arrive back in the UK now. See you soon. x
Rather than picking by hand the traditional way of picking on Crete without machinery is to use a walking stick or similar to whack the branches from above, I’ve done this while helping my uncle with his olive grove also on Crete by the way.
Hi Christopher, that’s really interesting. It’s certainly hard work and we have such respect for people years ago that picked without machines. Every day when we eat our oil, we appreciate how much love and work went into it. I’m going to look into your idea, as we definitely need to perfect our technique! 🙂
You can also use a garden rake and rake along the branches to remove the olives, or you could get an electric harvester but at about £200 it might not be cost worthy for only 9 olive trees. Here’s a link for one in Greece that runs from a 12volt battery.
Lovely, thanks Chris. I’ll take at look at this.
These seem a good buy as you can put them on extending handles and they are much gentler on the tree than a garden rake. https://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/3-RAKE-BROOM-COLLECTOR-OLIVES-9-TEETH-HARVESTING-OLIVE-PICKER-NETS-NUTS-CAREY/123028101437?&shqty=1&isGTR=1#shId
Fab! Thanks so much. I’ll take a look:)
I think each well tended and irrigated tree should give a yield of 10-15 ltr of oil per tree. 🙂
Our new land has 20 trees but did not look as full as the ones in the grove. First job after completion will be irrigation and planting etc citrus and a couple of avocado trees which will take 7 years to fruit patience is a virtue 🙂
How exciting. Keep me informed with your progress…I love to hear of other people doing similar things. Good luck with it all ?
I think each well tended and irrigated tree should give a yield of 10-15 ltr of oil per tree. 🙂
Our new land has 20 trees but did not look as full as the ones in the groves as they have been left alone for a few years. First job after completion will be irrigation and planting etc citrus and a couple of avocado trees which will take 7 years to fruit patience is a virtue 🙂