Saturday, 7 December 2013

Polishing Off the Olives

The inexperienced British couple arrived at the olive mill full of pride and expectation. It was their first ever visit with a few sacks of their own olives, harvested with their very own hands. When their turn eventually came and a couple of mill workers undid their sacks in readiness for pouring the olives into the stainless steel hopper at the start of the oil production process, they were rather put out when the two men exchanged grins and then turned to their customers, their faces only a gnat's whisker away from a laugh.

At first our couple of harvesters didn't discern that there was benevolence in the grins. They were a bit worried when the older of the two men asked, "Did you polish them too?"

Alan and Julie have lived out here for quite a number of years. Their house backs on to some olive groves which are owned by a friendly and now somewhat ancient old Horiatis called Fotis. Fotis is one of those old Greeks who has more olive trees than he knows what to do with. Maka'ri [I wish] say many of those who hear this.

Just beyond the boundary of Alan and Julie's garden are some really beautiful olive trees which are probably a couple of hundred years old, so still quite young, then. Fotis has been acquiring trees by the dozen or more for a few decades now, mainly through deaths in the family, or perhaps cases of other relatives who've lost the taste for labouring away in the groves for three or four weeks, thus sustaining substantial injury to the forearms and enduring aches in muscles they never knew that they had, every year in the run-up to Christmas.

This year isn't a good one for the olive harvest, apparently. Our old friend Gilmas, who knows just about anything there is to know about horticulture on Rhodes, told us the reason why a week or two ago. We'd been asking around, all our usual contacts - Dimitri the Horse, Taki and Naomi down the lane, Mihali the smallholder in Kalathos, George from up north near Rhodes Town, plus on or two more - but drawn a blank. Owning up here: I too, this time around, didn't feel like the hard graft that would have been involved. Mind you, having just had surgery I suppose I can ever so slightly be excused for feeling physically fragile. The better half though, ever ready for a bit of spit and graft in the groves (bless her), would readily have rolled up her sleeves if there was any work to be had. Kyrie Gilma though, enlightened us, as he also lamented on his own dearth of oil supplies. But this time we just wanted to buy some oil off someone, anyone!

"Last May was the problem, paidia," began Gilma. I always love the way he leans slightly forward when telling us such things, almost as if walls had ears and we weren't in fact about twenty kilometres from the nearest village and at least a hundred metres from the nearest neighbour. "Last May it was windy. The wind blew the tiny fragile flowers off of the trees, along with the already-forming olives, which were still only about the size of a sesame seed. If it's too windy or it rains too hard in May, there will be few olives in November and December," he continued, to the sound of the two of us also joining in the spirit of the thing by leaning forward and uttering our "aaaahs" of understanding.

Thus it is that we have, for the first time in seven years, an empty 35 litre barrel which we shall have to take to the mill and beg them to fill for us at a hopefully reasonable price.

Alan and Julie, on the other hand, whilst conversing with their neighbour Foti, were thrilled when he told them that there were eight trees right outside their garden fence that they were welcome to harvest, if they'd be prepared to do the work, and thus to keep the oil as their own. Fotis is in the enviable position of owning trees which are in a low valley, well sheltered from the direction from which the wind was blowing last May. Fotis could afford to be generous.

I've described a few times our own experience of harvesting olives. There are accounts in both "A Plethora of Posts" and chapter 5 of "Moussaka to My Ears" (which you'll have read if you've followed my mutterings for any length of time. If not, why not? Catch up, will you!!). In the "Moussaka" account I talked about the first time that we ever took part in an olive harvest, working for Dimitri "the Horse". Not long after we'd begun gathering the little black slippery marbles from the net beneath our very first tree we'd become aware of Dimitri hovering, intent on saying something but without wanting to make us look like idiots, which of course, in this regard, we were.

"You're being too thorough," he'd told us, as he'd watched us sift out every leaf, every twig (however tiny) before pouring the luscious little balls into the crate for stacking in readiness for their trip to the mill. He had a kind of contraption of the type which we've now become well used to seeing everywhere, sitting in the grove. It's about waist height, with a metal mesh table, beneath which is a sloping tapered channel down which the fruit roll into the crate or sack. The mesh is large enough to allow the olives to drop through, accompanied by a goodly number of leaves and twigs to keep them company. There we were, wet behind the ears harvesters, worrying about every leaf, every twig, thus ensuring that each crate or sack contained nothing but olives and olives alone.

Photo borrowed, with thanks, from this blog.

Of course, when we'd eventually gone to the mill ourselves and seen how much general debris fell out of all the Greeks' sacks or crates as the contents were being tipped into the hopper, we soon realized that an early stage in the process, carried out by the machinery itself, involves all this extra material being separated from the fruit before the olives are washed and sent into the grinder.

Alan and Julie, on the other hand, set about their first ever olive harvest alone. Full marks to them, they did all eight trees and took a goodly number of sacks to the mill. They slaved away for a week or more, cutting out the middle of the tree as they'd seen the Greeks do, for it to "breath". They'd crawled around on their hands and knees collecting every last olive so as not to let a single one go to waste. They'd rolled up their nets, packed their sacks full and loaded them into the back of their car and come to realize as had we some years back that a car-full of sacks of olives tends to sit right down on the stops, the weight being rather more than they'd expected. They'd driven their family saloon in a sit-up-and-beg attitude, the front was so high, along the road among the pickups and trucks all the way to the mill at Arhangelos and waited their turn in the queue. They felt accomplished. They felt (as indeed had we) assimilated. They felt like they belonged just that little bit more than they had before.

Then the men tipped out their harvest into the hopper and found it hard to restrain themselves from bursting out laughing, partly too from amazement. They didn't want to upset Alan and Julie, but they simply couldn't believe what the were seeing. Never had such a clean sackful olives, in fact sackful after sackful of the same, been tipped into their hopper as these they were tipping now. The men were genuinely in awe of just how meticulous this couple had been. Thus they asked the question, "Did you polish them too?"

As the couple were telling us this experience over a hot coffee recently, they said that they hadn't known at first how to take this question? Had they been remiss in some way? Ought they to have "polished" the olives before taking them to the mill? Did "polishing" involve some process that one does in the grove that they hadn't known about? Only when the men slapped them both on the shoulders and explained what had amused them did they get it. 

All's well that ends well, they told us. It ended up with the four of them falling about. The British couple over all that wasted effort and the Greeks in relief that they hadn't upset their clients.

Alan and Julie have the last laugh anyway. They have a barrel-full of oil this winter. We don't!


  1. An explanation about the lack of oil. Thank you John.

    Best wishes,


    1. Glad you've been investigating too Ian. I'd been meaning to mention to you about this post, but forgot!!

    2. Yeah, John, I've been reading your stuff and enjoying it very much. You've got a great way with words and are obviously full-on into the life of your island, an island which, to be honest, I have hardly scratched the surface of despite the fact that it's just next door so to speak.

      Funny thing about those May winds, though, I can't for the life of me recall them. But then again that's not saying much.


    3. You know, I don't remember any particularly bad winds in May either. but I think it has more to do with the direction rather than the strength maybe.

      Regarding Rhodes, you know, before moving out here we were rather snobby about the place, "far too commercial" we used to say and never holidayed here. Having come here to live, though, we now realise that it's two islands in one!! Down our way it's much more the real Greece. It has its tourist hotspots [mainly further North], but we steer clear of them most of the time. Even saying that, it's quite nice to have them there on the rare occasion when we are starved for "kosmos" so to speak!

  2. RE: Rhodes I can see where you are coming from. I enjoyed a great stay in the old town years ago, but it was early April and tourists were relatively thin on the ground. And I have heard about the south being a different kind of place. We occasionally do our shopping on Rhodes and I always get a kick out of it, especially in winter when a lot of stuff is closed and the place just feels like another part of Greece. We always find the people warm, humorous and friendly and, like most Greeks, they have good memories too. They always remember you when you come back.