The men balancing on the branches of the 12-meter-high olive tree collecting its fruit look more like birds than humans. This isn’t the easiest way to collect olives, but if they’re harvested when they’re still green – before they mature and fall to the ground – they yield a much higher quality of extra virgin oil. And this is just one of the secrets of olive farmers that Eftychis came across and now employs to produce an olive oil that is as rich in nutrients as possible.
As with many traditional methods of production, minimum intervention in the natural process is key. The olive trees of the Tsounati variety that grow on the wild rocky slopes above the Cretan Sea do not require watering, pruning or spraying, but they are anything but low maintenance when it comes time to collect the olives. Getting to the trees means scaling the mountain, and getting to the fruit means scaling the tree. Then it’s a race against the clock to make sure that no more than five hours elapse between the harvest of the olive and the extraction of its oil. Furthermore, you need to make sure that the olives don’t get too hot, crushed during transportation or sullied by pollutants.
This explains the presence of the massive 80-kilogram batteries that are hauled up to the field every day to power the whipper wands without creating exhaust fumes. It sounds like a Sisyphean task, but it is indicative of the painstaking labor that goes into the production of high-quality olive oil – just like hand-picking the fruit, to make sure all the bad olives are cast aside.
Once the olives reach the processing facility, modern production methods take over. However, in the case of producers like Eftychis and Michalis, this phase could also be described as “handmade,” given that all 20 machines used at their olive press are of their own construction.
Things were not always as automated and I have the opportunity to discover a different era in olive oil’s history when I visit Agios Georgios Monastery Glebe in Karydi, Hania. As I walk beneath the dozen arches of the glebe’s old olive press, I wonder what the area would have looked like in the 19th century, with all four millstones grinding away to produce what must have been a truly impressive amount of olive oil. Today, even with the roof caved in, the space still exudes an air of grandeur.
Neighboring Vafes is another of the area’s villages renowned for its olive oil production. “We once had nine mills,” Manolis says proudly. One of those units is still in relatively good shape, so we get the keys from the coffee shop on the village’s main road and head there for a visit. I examine the massive millstones that were turned by donkeys and mules to crush the olives and peer at the press, which squeezed the pulp after it was placed in sacks. As the screw was turned tighter and tighter with a wooden shaft, the olive oil would seep out of the pores of the sacks stacked one on top of the other inside the press. I ask Manolis about the small black marks on the wall, and we surmise that they must be the mark of a finger dipped in the olive pomace to record the annual yield.
My walk around Apokoronas continues among the olive trees, so predominant in this area, and eventually I come across the Samonas olive tree, which is several thousand years old. This tree, near an ancient settlement, is so enormous and so ancient that it has been listed as a monument of nature. Its trunk has split in two, creating a passage that allows you to walk through and feel the curves, nooks and crannies it has acquired through the ages. Like many of Crete’s other ancient olive trees, this plant is a living sculpture whose shape has changed over the course of the centuries.
Photos courtesy of Giorgos Anastasakis / © Region of Crete