The olive`s life begins as a tiny, delightful, white, star-shaped bloom, which falls in beautiful white carpets beneath the trees. After pollination, when the fruit has set, the delicate little olive, the size of a grape pip, languishes amongst the branches and sometimes from the trunk itself, usually only from last years wood.
The olives change colour throughout the year. As they take on board the first rains and begin to swell, they become slightly yellowish-green, with a light-reflective quality. Later on as they ripen, a beautiful shade of plum colours the flesh, until they are ready for harvesting, almost fully black with hues of purple. Sometimes the fruit takes on the colour of the leaves themselves, thus rendering them camouflaged to a certain extent, seemingly, almost an intentional attempt of the fruit to remain amongst the branches to achieve it`s fullest, ripened state. So attractive is the fruit, that as you`re harvesting, you feel you could eat them. Alas the normal olive used for oil is not pleasant, even ripened.
There is a particular olive, which is allowed to fall from the tree when it is fully ripened, which you can eat straight from the ground. For this purpose, the nets are laid in readiness and they are gathered periodically as they fall.
All machinery and equipment comes out of storage in advance for inspection. The large green nets which we spread beneath the trees are checked for damage, as having any sized holes in the nets renders me with the self-inflicted job of groping around on the olive grove ground, trying to retrieve the escapees, as I have an innate need to gather every single little olive, and leave not one behind. An affliction which often proves to be something of a curse.
The equipment required seems vast and can half fill the truck before we even think about loading the sacks of olives at the end of the day.
Harvesting though, is heart-warmingly enjoyable, but tough work, so a fine breakfast is recommended to keep you going. Of course, a well prepared picnic with the basics, a flask of hot coffee, bread, cheese and brined olives, just ripening oranges or mandarins. The days are long and dependent on the weather. But on arriving home with the truck laden and laying low with the weight of the harvest, shoes, pockets and collars spilling rogue olives, clothing showing the oily stamps from the impact of the olive as it`s beaten from the tree, leaves us satisfied that we`ve assured our oil supply for the forthcoming year.
The most enjoyable and rewarding part is actually being able go to the factory to watch your olives being pressed, churned and separated from the water content, and to see the thick green liquid trickle from the spout.
After harvesting, comes the pruning. Trees are pruned in a low, umbrella shape, allowing horizontal or near horizontal branches to remain only, making it easier to harvest. Usually, the orchard is dug over, fertilizer laid and the gate closed till next year.
The tree has amazing drought resilience and providing that it has never been artificially watered ie, by man, then it can endure the fiercest droughts. Even if the tree is irrigated and suddenly deprived of this water, it may suffer badly, even die back, but the vitality of this tree wont allow it to die completely, always from the roots below, it will manage to throw up another shoot to replace the original tree.
If the tree is not irrigated, then the crops are relevant. For a non irrigated tree you can expect to have a good yield every 5 ish years, the in between years, yielding low or zero crops. For irrigated trees, of course, the crops are more consistent and can usually be depended on each year. However, irrigating the tree causes the rooting system to be more surface orientated, ie where the water is. If the tree is not irrigated, then the rooting system is forced to search deeper for it`s water, this gives the tree its remarkable resilience.
Olive oil has been around since ancient times, and records show that it was used not only for food, but for medicinal purposes too.
Ancient Greeks used to lather their bodies in olive oil, and scrape off the residue with a razor like instrument, taking with it any dirt and grime. It was a major source of fuel in tilley lanterns. They drank the oil as a remedy for many ailments, and as an aphrodisiac. It was also rubbed into wounds as an antiseptic.
It is still made into soap today, and some of the older generation still make their own olive oil soap at home. In fact, it is believed that the appearance of soap, originally evolved from the lathering of the body with oil by the ancient Greeks.
It can be used on your wooden furniture to give a nice shine, and will waterproof your leather boots or coats.
As for food, well, it pretty much goes everywhere, including stews, salads, sauces, cakes, biscuits, pastry, desserts, and as food preservative.
It plays an important role in Greek Orthodox ceremonies and is used in the lanterns inside the church. A child being baptized is rubbed with olive oil, as it is one of the three blessed earth products, the others being wine and grain. It is said that the oil and water from the baptism font, will calm a rough sea, so after the ceremony, you`ll see the font being carried down to the coastline and the contents being emptied into the sea. Oil is also fasted at certain times of the year according to the Greek Orthodox religion.
With the agricultural population, it was a traditional means of currency exchange for centuries.
It is often referred to as the essence of the Mediterranean diet and scientists believe that olive oil is one of the main factors which account for the longevity here in Crete.
The darker green oil is from the pressing of early olives (not fully ripened) and is highly sought after, despite being slightly peppery, as having medicinal qualities. Later pressings from ripened olives will provide golden coloured oil, and obviously have a greater yield. Certain levels of bitterness are sought after because of the nutritional levels it provides.
With countless proven health benefits, scientists are still discovering new beneficial facts about the olive and its oil.
We usually consume up to 100 kilos of olive oil per year. Butter puts in the odd rare appearance in my cooking (eg. almond biscuits Κουραμπιέδες), but oil is my preferred ingredient, including pastries here, bread, cakes here, and biscuits here, all oven cooked roasts, and as a preservative here.
I successfully made some olive oil soap, using the dregs from the barrel bottom, which I have uploaded on another post here