Saturday, 29 November 2014

O-live to Tell the Tale

When we got stuck into pruning the olive tree belonging to our lady-friend in a nearby village who hasn't a man to "do" for her recently, we didn't quite realize what we may be putting her through.

The retired lady concerned is someone we have helped establish her garden from the very start, some seven years ago now, planting and maintaining the plants (including the olive tree) during all that time. I have to confess to a measure of pride to be able to relate the following story.

This is how the newly created garden looked in late 2008. The olive tree is visible far right, in the nearer of the two square beds. Nowadays it's considerably larger than this!

This time of the year, as I've often remarked before, sees the roads devoid of any appreciable amount of traffic, making them a pleasure to drive along for most permanent residents. At least, this applies after dark, but during the daylight hours one can encounter quite a lot of overladen pickup trucks as their owners wend they way to the olive mills. Everywhere you go in the rural areas you can see groups of folk among their olive trees, some up ladders vigorously agitating the upper boughs and branches to get them to release their little black treasures and let them drop. Others are on their hands and knees upon the nets that have been spread all over the ground around each tree in its turn, meticulously gathering each and every olive by hand. No little dark globule is allowed to escape. They must all be gathered into the sacks or crates that will transport them to the mill. Waste not, want not.

There are men with chainsaws lopping off the central branches to let the tree "breathe" and there are women who can be seen breaking out the lunch of rough village bread, cheese and something to drink, although we've worked in the past with people who will go from dawn until dusk without hardly anything passing their lips. I'd be dead by 11 am if I tried that!

Anyway, our friend who lives nearby has this splendid little olive tree that's not very old, but this year was veritably dripping with lovely, dark, oil-stuffed fruit and to begin with she just wanted us to trim and shape the tree, but once we got started it became very apparent that not to harvest the olives and see if there were enough to take to the mill would be a crime.


Yup! These are from the same little tree, seven years on.
 There were that many olives on this gallant little tree that many of its lower branches were drooping almost to the ground with their weight. So, we set to the job with secateurs, loppers and saws, after first spreading our makeshift olive net (a huge and very tough decorator's dustsheet in fact) over the ground beneath. As we worked away and filled plastic buckets with the fruit our expressions of amazement ran out of superlatives and our host had to find something to put the olives in, since there was definitely going to be a trip to the mill. Out came the bathroom scales and, in the absence of a proper hessian sack or suitable plastic crate, a couple of old cotton pillow slips were enlisted to carry the olives. Once stuffed with the olives and we'd satisfied ourselves that we'd harvested every possible olive from that tree and the ground beneath it, we weighed the bulging pillowslips and were well please with a total of just over 21kg of olives.

Our friend was beside herself with glee and we assured her that, from our limited experience, it would be well worth a trip to the mill. We reckoned that she'd probably net around 5kg of oil. Not to be sneezed at, since olive oil in the supermarkets here is just as expensive as in the UK, which is a scandal, but that's how it is. Plus, of course, she'd be carrying home the best quality virgin oil straight from her own front garden.

Just as a side point, people often ask what the difference is between green and black olives. I am reliably informed by our old Greek friend Gilma, that the only difference is that the green ones aren't yet ripe. Of course, when it comes to eating olives, green ones are harvested and bottled in their unripe state simply because they taste very different from the ripe, black ones and some people prefer their taste.

When it comes to the quality of the oil, I am told that you get just as good a quality of oil from green olives as from the black ones, but you get less of it. The riper the fruit, the more oil it renders when processed. This was the answer I received when I asked this same question some years back when I'd been at the mill and seen lots of harvesters tipping great quantities of green olives into the vat along with black ones. Today though, 99% of our close friend's olives were black, as black as you can get. This meant that they were liable to produce a good yield.

Once we'd placed the stuffed pillowslips into our friend's car, we prepared to leave at around 4.00pm, whereupon she asked us, "Where do you suggest I take them for processing?"

I replied that I'd suggest she go to the Arhangelos mill, which is also now open to the public during the tourist season, having recently been renovated to turn it into an "Olive OIl Factory" for tourists to look around. There are at least two more mills in Arhangelos, but one tends to stick with what one knows and I knew that one well, since the better half and I have taken olives there ourselves on more than one occasion in the past.

"It's easy," I told our friend, "You just drive around the building on the right hand side and you'll see the doorway at the far end of the building, just inside of which you'll see the stainless steel hopper into which the olives are tipped for processing." I went on to tell her how, if there's a queue, they'll write her name on a white board on the wall and she'll be told at approximately what time her olives will be scheduled in. Easy, nothing to it, was the impression I gave her.

The following morning, as we were having a late breakfast and thinking about what we had to get done during the day, the phone rang. Glancing at the phone's display, I could see that it was our female friend with the olive tree. Thinking she'd be telling me how much oil she'd come home with, I answered with a cheerful greeting. She wasn't too happy.

"When I got there, at about 10 o'clock," she told me, "there were so many pickups in the queue before me and so many men hanging around in their lumberjack jackets and big boots that I couldn't even get near to the entrance. Then I thought, "Who do I ask? I had no idea who was maybe staff and who were customers and then there was the language problem. The fact is, the queue was so big that the pickups were double parked and the queue ran all the way around the building and almost back to the entrance to the parking area. I did get out of the car, but then got back in again!"

Now you might think she was being a bit woossy. But hold on a minute, remember she's turning up at an olive mill at the peak time for olive processing, one little female senior citizen in her compact hatchback car with two pillowslips full of olives and she's suddenly confronted with a bunch of rough and ready men in their olive-harvesting clothes, hardly visible over their piles of olive sacks and crates, all standing around puffing at cigarettes and looking generally pretty intimidating.

"I felt a bit silly," our friend continued, "I mean, there were all these blokes with olives piled high on the backs of their trucks and there was I with a couple of pillowslips-full. I had to admit that after I'd sat there and taken all this in I bottled out. What am I going to do? How long do you think my olives will last in those cotton pillowslips before starting to go off?"

It was at this point, as she was evidently very deflated after yesterday's elation at how we'd managed to harvest over 21 kilos of olives, and her voice revealed her level of anxiety, that we (the phone was on 'speaker' so that Maria, my wife, could hear our conversation) realised what we'd put her through. I hadn't thought about the fact that right now is the peak time and quite forgotten too just what a hubbub she may encounter at the mill. We'd have taken the olives for her, but she'd really wanted to go through the process herself and rightly so.

Racking my brains for a suggestion, the only one I could come up with was this. "Tell you what," I said, "why not go back up there later this afternoon. Most people turn up in the morning and you'll probably find it a lot quieter at around 4.00pm. Plus, if you go to the other end of the building and into the doorway where people leave with their oil, you'll see a small glass enclosure that serves as the office. I think someone there will speak English. Maybe tell them, …well, show them what you've got and I'm sure they'll say, 'OK, love, leave them with us and we'll slot them in.' They'll maybe say go and have a cup of coffee, or maybe come back in the morning, but I reckon it'll be OK."

Full marks to our plucky friend, she took that suggestion as a good one and rang off. Later that afternoon, at around 4.30pm, the phone went again.

"Hi John. Good news!" She exclaimed in a much more happy voice than used in the last time we'd talked. I asked her what the good news was. She continued:

"I took your advice and went to the other door, at the 'wrong' end of the building and a very nice young man called George asked if he could help me. I told him my dilemma and he couldn't have been nicer. He took me into the office where a very courteous man weighed my olives and even told me how much oil I was likely to get. Guess what, he reckons around five and a half kilos!! That's quite a result isn't it? he also said, after taking a look at my olives, that they were among the best he'd ever seen."

I agreed that indeed it was a result. It also suggested that my wife and I had guessed almost right about how much the olives would yield - more by luck than judgment, granted. Incidentally, if you've ever wondered how to convert kilos into litres of oil, it's roughly one kilo equals 1.24 litres. Only just found that out!

"Anyway," our friend went on, "the man told me to leave the olives with him and he'd have them done for me by early next morning. He was so nice and the other young man interpreted for us too. They were both so helpful. I think they took pity on an 'old lady'!"
"More likely they just exhibited the kind of respect for a helpless female that's part of the culture," I replied, but I was secretly very relieved that her experience was now likely turning into a positive one.

Next morning yet another phone call. This time our friend was quite elated. "I went back at 8.00 o'clock this morning and the man said they were just putting my olives through. He showed me the big machine and even made me a cup of coffee and had me sit in his office while they finished the job. No one could have been more courteous, I felt like the Queen! When I'd finished my coffee he brought my barrel round to the office and opened it to show me my oil. Guess what, he told me I'd netted seven litres!!! He even said that, as he'd suspected, this was extremely good oil and that my olives were top quality."

I could hardly contain my relief and happiness at how she was now feeling. "That's fantastic!" I replied, "even more than we'd thought and more then he'd estimated yesterday too! How much did he charge you for the processing?" Now I was hoping that her answer wouldn't take the shine off of the whole thing.

"Two and a half Euros!! I think I've come out of this pretty well, don't you?"

When you consider that to buy a 5 litre can of reasonably good extra virgin oil in the supermarket here you're gonna pay around 20 Euros, even more in some of the smaller stores, I'd say she could be well pleased with the result. Both of us congratulated her on her pluckiness and courage. After all, she'd taken on a pretty difficult task in driving into an olive mill full of rural men, all of whom probably knew eachother and were doing what they've done for probably their entire lives, and had no idea how to go about it. After a shaky start, she'd shown initiative and bravery and been well rewarded for her tenacity. What was especially nice was hearing that she'd been treated with such kindness and courtesy by the men at the mill. I had rather suspected that this would be the case, since it's the fact that, however rough and ready a man may be in appearance, most Greek men will treat women with kindness and respect, especially when they discern that she's out of her comfort zone and trying to get on with her life by trying to assimilate in a foreign society.

After I'd commended her for the umpteenth time and told her she had every reason to be proud of herself, we rang off. I wanted to share this story with you because it's a feelgood tale. It's one that brings out the nicer side of living in this culture. It's one that brings a warm glow to the cockles of your heart, eh?

See, I'm so happy for our friend that I can't even think of ways to be witty.


  1. I am SO envious!!!! Every year i intend to be there for the olive harvest but have never made it due to one thing or another., so every year its a case of converting the weight of litre bottles ,kindly given to us by every man and his wife!!!!!.into bring back with us with fingers crossed it will survive the airline battering that our luggage takes!!! How satisfying it would be to see the process from start to finish as your friend did,you cant beat the taste of REAL olive oil. !!!!! Best Regards Porridge Oats

  2. Only good comments allowed , John ?
    Mine has been removed because it was a bad review about the olive press.

    1. Basically, Trevor, yes. The whole point of the blog is to encourage people to come to Greece and Rhodes in particular. Yes there are "tourist traps" here, as there are all over the planet. But holidaymakers will decide whether they want to spend money in such places and often they're happy to do so. To be honest Trevor, there have been previous occasions when your comments on this blog have upset me, yet I've always tried to play that down and respond with dignity and humour. But the fact is, it IS MY blog and I do exercise the right to decide what goes - or stays - on it, that's fair and just, right?

      Your perspective as one who lives on the island is quite different from the majority of my readers who spend their holidays here. Thus I believe that they want to hear what's good about their favourite holiday destination. Elsewhere on this blog I've explained that there are things that I could speak negatively about, but I choose to keep these things off the blog, in favour if cheering my readers up with primarily positive things. Where I have poked fun at the Greek system, I have done it with a humour that I believe reveals my underlying love for this country and this island.

      Frankly, I applaud the people at the olive press for taking the initiative to turn it into somewhere that tourists would like to see. Greece needs tourism and it needs to "put on a show" as it were. These people who run the olive oil factory have given visitors something very interesting to see and many indeed do want to see how olives become olive oil. Full marks to the folk at Arhangelos for showing creativity.

      By all means continue post your comments on my blog. There have been occasions, as you know, where I've thanked you for your input and admitted to having been educated by it, but the comment I removed I believe wasn't helpful and that's why I took it off.

  3. I'm glad to hear that the olive harvest on Rhodes looks set to be a good one, if your friend's was so productive. In Spain and Italy this year it has been disastrous due to the infestation by some little creature which would normally have been killed off by cold weather that never materialised. At least, that's my understanding of it.......................
    How's your little tree doing John?


    1. It yielded some nice olives this year, but not enough to make a trip to the mill.

  4. Nice story John. I saw the harvest one year on Crete and your post reminded me of the frenetic efforts of every member of the family recovering the olives by hand with nets on the ground. Once saw a tractor in Spain picking almonds with a device on the back that enveloped the trunk of the tree like a giant batwing and then shook the tree until it had given up its crop. Not sure if that would work with olives?

    1. I have seen some weird machines on TV, but not here on Rhodes. Nice to hear from you Andy. How's life in deepest Devon?

    2. Very good at the moment John thanks. Getting ready for a traditional family (part of) Christmas and looking forward to a rich selection of Devon fayre, probably including clotted cream with the pudding! We are planning on getting out to the coast as well as Darmoor over the festive season. Trust all is well with you both....