This summer I posted a blog titled Olive Oil and told about the importance of olive oil to the village. I mentioned that in the 1940’s there were absolutely no olive trees in the village, and after the war the villagers planted them everywhere and anywhere they could. The people never wanted to be without oil again. During WWII many villagers died of starvation because they had no olive oil. The longer that I live here, the better I become at identifying my surroundings. Now, everywhere I look I see olive trees, or eliés (e-lee-ES). They are very distinct, growing low to the ground, with the underside of their leaves shimmering silver as the strong winds blow across the mountainside. They aren’t very tall, and their branches sprawl from the trunk with just the right spacing to entice a child to climb.
Everyone in the village has olive trees. I think everyone on the island has olive trees! And not just one tree, but a lot of trees. In November, people start returning to the island from Athens, or even from America, to pick their trees clean of olives. People work at collecting olives for 8 hours a day, every rain free day they can for weeks and weeks on end. It’s not difficult work, just monotonous. I know because a few relatives gave me the opportunity to help. Early in the season I spent two days with Marina, Yianni, and Petros at one of their plots of trees. We drove 10 minutes outside of Karavostamo, up the mountain, and when the road turned to rock, I parked my father’s car and climbed into the truck with Yianni and Marina to reach our destination. A few “bottom” hits later, we reached a few dozen eliés. I am guessing this land was brought into our family 100 years ago. My great-grandfather, Papa Petros (a priest) bought this land when he had 9 children and planted fava beans. Yianni told me that when he was 15, he helped his father, George (the youngest of my grandmother Demetra’s siblings) clear the land and plant these olive trees. For five to ten years Yianni and his father tended the trees and carried water up the mountainside during the dry summer months so the trees would grow. Olive trees don’t produce olives until they are about 10 years old. Their peek of production is between 30 and 70 years, but they can live and produce olives for well over 100 years.
When we arrived I saw Petro’s head reaching above the branches of a tree, as he stood inside and raked away at the highest branches, releasing the olives onto a large tarp below. We carried our buckets, tarps, and hand rakes down into the middle of the trees to where we’d be working. After spreading out two large tarps under the expansive tree, I was given a hand rack and told to go for it. I grabbed on to a branch overhead, thankful the trees don’t grow too high, and began combing the branch, just like you’d comb a tangled mess of hair–gently. I heard the “tap-tap-tap-tap-tap” of the olives falling to the ground followed by a “Bravo Zackie, bravo.” We continued raking and shaking olives out of the tree for a few hours. When I ran out of branches I could reach from the ground, I decided to try my hand at climbing in the branches and releasing olives from above. Olive tree branches aren’t large in diameter, but they are made from a very strong wood. I could climb out fairly far, feeling the branch bough underneath my weight. I’d hold on somewhere, keeping my center of gravity close to the anchor point and reach out as far as I could. I did a fairly good job, as long as I didn’t reach look down and think about falling.
A few weeks later, Chris arrived, and the two of us went with another cousin, Sideris, to “do olives.” I figure Chris may not be Greek, but he’s a hard worker and comes from a farming family. He’d be a great help! These trees where on a plot of land overlooking the water (doesn’t everything here overlook the sea?) that belongs to his sister, Sophia and her family. They live in Athens and were not returning to collect the olives this year, so Sid was caring for them. He collects olive a bit differently. He begins by laying out the tarps underneath and then prunes the branches. Chris and I would pick up the large cut piece and with a stick, repeatedly hit the branch until it was left with only leaves (which would later be used to feed Sid’s goats). Branch after branch we knocked and hit. Then, we’d lift the edges of the tarp until all of the olives were centered and scoop them into buckets. The buckets would then be dumped into large plastic feed bags. Olives are remarkably heavy. One bag full of three buckets weighed enough to knock Chris off-balance when tried to heave it over his shoulder. We spent another day with Sid, and his wife and son, Stephano, joined us as well. With five people working we accomplished a lot.
A few days later, when the clouds were dumping buckets of rain and it wasn’t a good olive picking day, we went with Sid to the town of Ploumari, 20 minutes east of Karavostamo, where they turn to olives into olive oil. Not all olives are pressed into oil; some are kept, rinsed, soaked, salted, and stored in bottles to eat whole. There are a variety of olive trees that grow on the island, some native and some from other islands. The type of olive determines whether or not it’s good for eating or turning into olive oil or both.
Apparently when you can’t pick olives, you go to press them. We arrived at 10 in the morning and Sid’s name was 15 people down on the list! The small space was cramped with men in their coveralls and work boots waiting their turn. Chris and I stuck out like a sore thumb. For the first 5 minutes we just stood there, looking around, pointing, and whispering to each other about how we thought it all worked. It didn’t take long before a man came over and grabbed my arm and took us over to a machine. First he pointed to the conveyor belt that takes the olives up to a machine that rinses and cleans the olives, blowing off any small leaves that made their way into the collection bags. He then took us to another machine, opened a door and pointed in. There was large mechanism inside that reminded me of a giant drill bit that was turning and churning the olives, mashing them into a paste. He pointed to a tube that was attached to the bottom which lead to another machine that pressed that paste into oil. From the press came three things–oil, water, and waste. The oil traveled through another tube into a large vat and machine and was eventually sent out of a spigot where it was collected by the olive’s “owner” into whatever containers he brought along. The waste from the press was sent through a tube outside and dumped into a large truck. That waste (the skins of the olives) is taken somewhere to be pressed into pellets and is used as fuel for the machines and the furnace the following year.
During our time many of the men talked with us and told us bits and pieces of how it all worked. One of the most interesting conversations came after I had just taken a photo of the outside door–in welded iron was what we took to be the name of the operation and the date it opened. We were speaking to the owner and he asked me who we were and where we were lived, curious as to why we were there. I told him who my father was, and he chuckled a bit. Apparently he’s a Calaboyias as well–a second cousin I believe. I went back outside and actually read what was on the door…and there it was, my last name. Chris has always told me that I’m not too observant!
Chris and I stayed for about four hours and learned as much as we could. We were given bits of bread to put into the flow of fresh olive oil that poured from the machines. We added a bit of salt and tasted the fruits of our labor. Delicious. Amazing. I wanted more. I watched as everyone enjoyed the fresh oil–one of the workers ate piece after piece and others toasted pieces of bread before dipping theirs into the oil. The air was think with oil, and the smell seeped into our pores, and Sid’s name was still 5 down on the list. The entire process, which begins when you dump your olives into a large box and they climb up the conveyor belt and ends when you weigh your oil, takes about an hour. They are able to start a new load every 15 minutes. Some people bring a few bags and others bring a truck full. We saw one man dump 34 bags of olives! I watched as people left with 40 and 50 kilos of olive oil. I was amazed at how many olives I saw in one day and thought about how many trees must be on the island and how many hours of labor must have been put in to collecting olives in the past few weeks. The olive press we visited presses 3000 kilos of oil in just one day, and there are other presses in other parts of the island.
Chris and I caught a ride back to the village with someone so we could return home before the kids returned from school. I was exhausted. It’s hard work standing around, waiting to see your olives pressed! We didn’t actually get to see the olives we picked go through the machines, but we were given a few bottles of oil from both Sid and Yianni. A few days later I asked Sid how long he was at the press. He said he returned after 6pm and promptly fell asleep on the couch! I never would have thought it was more exhausting to watch olive oil being made than it was to collect the olives.