The olive tree
From its ancient start to its modern way of helping Greece’s economy, the olive is more than just a meze
The olive tree is a blessed tree. Myth tells us that the Goddess Athena caused the olive tree to spring up so she could win the favour of the Athenians, hence the city is named after her and the Parthenon dedicated to her.
It grows in harsh climatic conditions, in the cold winters and hot summers, and on unfriendly rocky terrain. It has shaped the history of Mediterranean culture; it was the backbone of the economy. It was the liquid gold for thousands of years. It was used for food, cosmetics, fuel, rituals, medicine and crowning athletes with its leaves. All parts of the olive tree were used, the wood, leaves and the fruit. Today, it is still used for all these except fuel.
Seeds of the wild olive tree have been found on Crete and Boeotia dating back to the Neolithic era around 1000 BC - a period that saw the advent of crop cultivation and domestication of animals. On Nisyros, Kymi and Santorini, fossilised leaves of the European olive tree were found dating back as far as 50,000 years, but it was first cultivated in Crete by the Early Minoans about 3500 BC, as we know it today in Greece. It is believed that the Phoenicians might have been the first to tame the olive tree - as the Cretans and the Phoenicians were trading partners and very dominant powers in the Mediterranean it makes sense.
From Crete it spread to mainland Greece and to the islands. Mycenaean olive fossils dating 1600 BC have been discovered on the mainland. On the
island of Santorini in the city of Akrotiri, the olive wood and olive seed fossils buried near the site have shown through carbon dating that the volcanic eruption occurred between 1660 BC and 1600 BC and may have contributed to the destruction of the Minoan civilization (many scholars argue that one of these sites was the lost city of Atlantis). From here the Greeks who colonised Southern Italy, Southern France and the west coast of Spain took the cultivation of the olive tree with them. Others went east to the shores of the Black Sea with their knowledge of the cultivated olive tree
These days we are told that Greece is the third largest producer of olive oil worldwide. But this position is false if one takes into account that out of 70 per cent of the total production is extra virgin olive oil, half of which exported to other productive countries - mainly to Italy for example - raising their ratio.
Greece has at least 143 million olive trees today and cultivates over one hundred different types of olives. In Amphissa alone (near Delphi) it is estimated that there are approximately seven million trees.
In fact, Greece is the world's largest exporter of extra virgin olive oil. After one third of their production is exported, the remaining quantity gives Greece the first position in per capita consumption.
Unquestionably Greek olive oil is the best in the world, and there can be no argument that Greek edible olives are the best in world with many varieties. A Greek dinner table always has a bowl of olives in the centre.
The most famous of these edible olives outside Greece is the renowned Kalamata olive which is grown in the Southern Peloponnese and part of Crete, and is certified P.D.O. (protected designation of origin). This is called the Koroneiki variety, the smallest type of olive and from which the majority of Greek olive oil is extracted. It is also considered the smoothest olive oil in the world.
Further north in central Greece, in Etelokarnania, Fthiotida, Magnissia, Arta and Fokida the black olive is grown. It's big and meatier then the Kalamata variety and in Greece it is commonly known as voliotiki. It is cured in sea water and, unlike the Kalamata, is not sour.
Further north in Chalkidiki the huge green olive is grown known as the "Gaidouroelia" (donkey olive) in English known as the "mammoth" olive because of its size.
Smaller varieties mostly grown on islands are cured with sea salt and dried in the sun; these are called throubes.
The olives mentioned above are the most famous, are more readily exported and can be found in supermarkets all over the world. These days they are also flavoured with garlic and chilli (especially the green varieties), they are stuffed with almonds, feta, red capsicum and pickled in coriander and other spices.
One year I was fortunate to be present during harvest time when I lived on the island of Agistri (just off Aegina), where I had exiled myself for six months to paint seascapes. On this island the olive trees are grown for local use as spraying is not allowed. This is because the harvest is too close to the villages and because of this the olives are not good to look at, therefore all the produce is made into olive oil. I saw my first pressing of olives and the oil production and have since become very sceptical about what is actually extra virgin. The first cold pressing is hazy in colour and certainly not see-through and that is the most virgin of oils ones we can get, after that it is refined, heated and other processes are used to get on the supermarket shelves. Even so the locals on this island do collect edible olives out of the harvest but one has to sit and pick the good olives one by one and this is very time consuming.
The harvest starts in November and can go up until March. They are harvested by putting nets under the trees and shaking them so the olives fall down, then they are gathered. In large commercial growing areas the nets are placed under trees and the fruit is then harvested using machinery. The olive must be harvested before it gets too ripe as once ripe the acidity increases and neither the oil nor the edible olive is of high quality.
There is so much more to write about the humble olive tree, as it has been for many thousands of years the lifeline of the Eastern Mediterranean, so next time you go shopping look for these varieties and help Greece in your small way.
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