While the morning air is still cool, we are off on a hike through the three villages above Limin Hersonisou. Just downhill from our apartment, we pass the olive oil factory (now a stylish café) on the central street of the village. It makes us wonder where the local farmers have their olives processed these days.
Our friend Pavlos mentioned a cooperative, but we have never seen it. The hillside villages – Koutouloufari (where we live), Piskopiano, and Ano Hersonisos – are surrounded by olive groves. Despite the growth of tourism, these are still farming communities and olives are a big part of their economy.
We arrive at a nearly empty platia in Ano Hersonisos. The little square is encircled by several cafés, a bakery, and the butcher’s shop, but it is always quiet at this time of day. Only the bakery (which bakes its bread before sunrise) is busy in the morning.
Adonis, an acquaintance of ours, is sitting in front of his empty café. He asks if we are ready for a cool drink, so we must stop to visit. We sit at one of the outdoor tables, and Adonis – without asking what we want – disappears into the café. A short time later he serves coffee frappes, metrio me gala (medium sweet with milk), as we always order them.
After drinking our frappes and chatting with Adonis, we continue to the village edge and more olive groves. At the roadside is an abandoned olive mill, which Duane begins to examine. He attracts the interest of an elderly fellow, who stops and speaks to us – first in Greek and then in German (he knows no English). Duane attended high school in Germany, so we manage a multi-language conversation.
The man says the owner discarded this equipment because the mill stones are no longer serviceable. He points out wear patterns on the stones. While we don’t understand everything he is saying, we gather that such portable olive mills were kept near the groves and shared by neighboring farmers.
This makes sense, considering how olives are harvested. As in ancient times, it is often a community chore involving families and friends. In November, after the autumn rains, olives are gathered for the year’s oil. This can continue into January, if good weather lasts.
Harvesters shake olives from the trees by pulling on the branches, tapping them with sticks, or using plastic rakes that won’t damage the tree. The fruit – along with leaves and twigs – fall onto netting or tarps spread on the ground beneath the trees. This is all collected in bags and hauled to a nearby olive press, where the olives are washed and prepared for processing.
In ancient times, the clean olives were dumped into a stone basin and ground into a mash by a heavy millstone, which was rolled around the basin on an axle – usually harnessed to a donkey. In some places it is still done this way. In fact, we have seen many old olive mills and millstones during our travels.
Workers then scooped the olive mash into loosely woven baskets and allowed the oil to drain into vats. Even more olive oil could be extracted by squeezing the baskets of mash. The pulp-filled baskets were stacked and placed under heavy stones or a weighted beam anchored into a wall. Later, various types of screw presses were used to compress the baskets, extracting the last drops of oil from the mash.
More than half the pulp of an olive is oil, and the average olive tree can produce up to 18 gallons of oil annually. After the pressing, any oil residue was used to make soap, and the hulls were used to feed livestock or dried and burned for heat in winter. There was no waste.
These methods may seem old fashioned, but not when you consider that rural areas of mainland Greece and the islands did not have a stable electrical power grid until fairly recently. So the old (non-electrical) methods worked well for farmers who could not rely on modern technology.
Many farmers now own pickup trucks, which carry more olives greater distances than donkeys can. So farmers can now take their harvest miles away to a cooperative processing plant. These plants have automated equipment to clean the olives and transport them into blades of a macerator, which quickly produces an olive slush that is piped into a centrifuge. The spinning centrifuge extracts the olive oil much more efficiently than the old olive press.
Some farmers think the old way is best, but those methods cannot process the vast quantities of olives produced by the larger growers. That discussion could go on forever, because olives are a part of Greek culture. According to an ancient myth, the goddess Athena gave Greeks the olive tree as a gift – one that keeps producing for hundreds of years. There have been olives and olive oil as long as there have been Greeks.
After our conversation with the old farmer, we hike back to Koutouloufari. It is noon when we arrive, and we are ready for lunch. We stop at our favorite little taverna for something light – mezes and a village salad with lemon juice and olive oil.