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Accidental Olive Farmers

Aug. 9, 2010
John Dunn

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In 1978, a skinny leather-clad biker was prowl­ing the floor of the can­teen at Havelock House, a Newcastle University res­i­dence hall. Marcus Milton had tem­porar­ily sev­ered his rela­tion­ship with the University (code for cocked up his exams) and was dis­play­ing his early entre­pre­neur­ial ten­den­cies by talk­ing his way into free meal and board from a naive, unsus­pect­ing first-year stu­dent (code for me).

From these inaus­pi­cious begin­nings via dis­patch rid­ing, author­ing com­puter books and writ­ing adverts for Triumph Motorcycles (Marcus), and coal min­ing, round the world cycling and plun­der­ing exotic mar­kets in the Far East (me), a life­time of friend­ship found us 30 years later in shorts and T‑shirts in a bak­ing hot mid-November, quaffing Retsina and pick­ing olives from boun­ti­ful trees in our very own olive groves in Western Crete. The rea­son? We are now Accidental Olive Farmers’.

I have to give credit to Marcus and his wife Kirsty for the envi­able posi­tion we found our­selves in. If not for their deci­sion some 10 years ago to ditch the pres­sure-cooker exis­tence of run­ning their suc­cess­ful adver­tis­ing agency for the com­par­a­tive leisure of own­ing half of the Peak District (well, a cou­ple of large hol­i­day homes any­way), I would still be flog­ging my way around Asia sell­ing semi­con­duc­tor equip­ment instead of tak­ing a relax­ing lunch of fresh bread and feta sur­rounded by the afore­men­tioned trees in the shad­ows of the beau­ti­ful White Mountains of Crete.

In 2004, Marcus and Kirsty had decided to expand their UK hol­i­day homes busi­ness over­seas and Crete was their choice of loca­tion. I am not sure why they asked me and my wife Tina to join the ven­ture, I like to think it was my renowned busi­ness skill and entre­pre­neur­ial flair and Tina’s cook­ing but it was prob­a­bly that they were short a few quid. After suck­er­ing me out of a plate of chips in 1978, Marcus thought he would have no prob­lem suck­er­ing me out of a few grand in 2004.

In the begin­ning, olive oil was the fur­thest thing from our minds: we find a nice par­cel of land, we buy the land, we build some lovely vil­las and Babis is your Uncle.

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We now had four beau­ti­ful rental vil­las plus a fifth we kept pri­vate for our­selves. Each with their own swim­ming pool, nes­tled in an olive grove with spec­tac­u­lar moun­tains sur­round­ing them and the Mediterranean sea just a short stag­ger down the road. A hol­i­day haven now pop­u­lated with relaxed, con­tented guests, enjoy­ing a lit­tle bit of par­adise we had cre­ated for them.

Things were work­ing out but with the suc­cess of the vil­las and the plea­sure of fre­quent trips to Crete for main­te­nance work and fam­ily hol­i­days, we were not see­ing the wood for the olive trees. The 200 odd trees on our land were for us a mar­ket­ing bonus. How much eas­ier to attract peo­ple for a hol­i­day to the vil­las if we could encour­age them with images of ver­dant olive trees pro­vid­ing shade on beau­ti­ful sum­mer days. We had some­thing to stick a table and chairs under for a nice lunch in the sun, a sell­ing point and we left it at that.

At the end of our first rent­ing sea­son, the heav­ily laden trees had to be har­vested. Our good friend Christos, son of a local sheep farmer and waiter in our favorite restau­rant, was more than happy to do the job in return for 50% of the result­ing oil. As for the other 50%? Bung a few liters to friends and fam­ily as a Christmas gift and use the remain­der our­selves. The remain­der’ turned out to be about 300 liters! I pour a lot on my sal­ads, but that is going some!

Still the light didn’t go on. But then we tasted the oil. Wow! I have tasted a lot of olive oil in my trav­els around the world — from plas­tic sachets in American fast food joints to the finest oil at upmar­ket restau­rants in Rome — but this was some­thing spe­cial. The look, the taste, the glo­ri­ous pep­per kick. This oil was fan­tas­tic and not to be wasted. I was rec­on­ciled to eat­ing about 50 bowls of salad a day and force-feed­ing the neighbor’s dog when some­one put their hand up with an idea. Whether it was Marcus, Kirsty or Tina is still dis­puted but it was cer­tainly not me (I was on my 9th bowl of salad at the time). We could start an olive oil busi­ness,” some­one said.

An olive oil busi­ness! The other 3 of us jumped at the idea. We had the trees so we had the prod­uct and we had the team. Marcus (an expert adver­tis­ing writer to pro­mote the busi­ness and build the web­sites), Kirsty (a top-notch graphic designer to cre­ate the labels and the look of the bot­tle), Tina (with a great net­work of con­tacts in our tar­get mar­ket area) and … some­one to make the tea. I put the ket­tle on and we started to plan.

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First up, how were we going to nur­ture the trees? We were very lucky to have bought land at the base of a moun­tain. There is lit­tle rain for 6 months from April to October which is great for our hol­i­day guests but could be a prob­lem for fruit-bear­ing olive trees. Not in our case. The locals call our area Dorkes’ in Greek which means some­thing like bowl’ or ditch’ where moun­tain water is held in the sub­soil dur­ing the dry months. Our decades-old trees (some over 150 years) have put down deep roots so they can find this water dur­ing the hot dry summers.

Our trees seemed to be very pro­duc­tive, with each one spawn­ing an aver­age of 40 kilos of olives. So we had no need to start throw­ing hand­fuls of pes­ti­cide and fer­til­izer around to get a good crop. We real­ized we could be organic! This was an extremely impor­tant start­ing point for us. Nature would do the hard work of putting olives on the trees but how were we going to get them off?

We made an early deci­sion that Marcus and I would do the har­vest our­selves — this equates to only about 1½ strap­ping lads’ and fur­ther­more we were not yet experts, so we needed help. Desperately.

The first choice was an affa­ble local chap Giorgos (George) who owned an olive grove oppo­site us and is a dab hand at pick­ing. He also spoke excel­lent English. Giorgos also hap­pens to own a great restau­rant in our local sea­side vil­lage, Almryrida. In a clas­sic case of vil­lage bar­ter­ing and mutual back scratch­ing (which crops up reg­u­larly in this ven­ture), we agreed to pro­mote his restau­rant to our villa guests in return for a crash course in the art of olive picking.

Day 1 was the­ory and we passed with fly­ing col­ors. The fol­low­ing went into our notebooks:

  1. buy a great big green net and spread it around the tree
  2. use a big stick or your hands to knock the olives off the tree so they drop onto the big green net
  3. rake the olives to remove any sticks or leaves
  4. shovel the olives into cloth sacks
  5. tie the sacks and load into a van.

If we put our backs into it, we should fill 20 sacks a day. Each sack would make about 10 liters of oil – so that’s 200 liters of oil a day. This was easy! A trip to the local farm shop to buy the above hard­ware and we were ready!

At about mid­day on Day 2 with a one-quar­ter bag filled (slight exag­ger­a­tion but it was not going well), we real­ized we needed more mus­cle. Step up two strap­ping lads in the shape of ex-pat locals Mark and Andy. Mark and Andy are a key rea­son why our villa rental busi­ness runs like clock­work. They look after the houses and guests through­out the year and our guest com­ment-book invari­ably alludes to how great they are. It would be waste­ful to over­look their tal­ents (espe­cially as Mark is also a qual­i­fied tree-sur­geon) so we would get them work­ing in the fields with us in return for as much olive fire­wood they each needed over the win­ter. Hurrah! They agreed to join the har­vest­ing team.

Another early deci­sion was to con­trol the process directly our­selves from tree to the bot­tle’. In other words to be phys­i­cally present at all times. We took this lit­er­ally, which meant tak­ing the bags of olives to the fac­tory our­selves and rid­ing shot­gun’ while the olives were pressed so we could be assured we really were pro­duc­ing sin­gle estate, unblended, unfil­tered oil. We had cho­sen the fac­tory with the best rep­u­ta­tion for qual­ity in our region so we knew we were going to get
great oil. We just wanted to make sure it was our great oil.

The next ques­tion was transport.

Once picked, the olives must be taken to the fac­tory for pro­cess­ing as fast as pos­si­ble, oth­er­wise the nat­ural enzymes present begin to fer­ment and heat up the olives from inside the bag. To min­i­mize this poten­tially dis­as­trous dete­ri­o­ra­tion, the huge piles of olives we had picked were kept loose on ground­sheets. A cou­ple of days saw us col­lect about 1500 kg. We then bagged the olives in breath­able cloth sacks and rushed to the fac­tory. The 3 door hatch­back we hired was not going to take kindly to that sort of weight, so we needed a lorry. We didn’t have one of course but the answer was obvi­ous: call Andreas the swim­ming pool sales­man. Andreas has a big white van used to deliver pool­side equip­ment to local cus­tomers. Andreas loves olive oil, but has none. We have lots of olive oil but have no lorry. A lit­tle more vil­lage bar­ter­ing (which also involved some plead­ing) and we were on the road to the moun­tain vil­lage where we would find one of the finest olive oil fac­to­ries in Western Crete.

It is hard to describe the excite­ment of see­ing your own olives loaded into hop­pers and watch­ing the fas­ci­nat­ing process of turn­ing raw olives into liq­uid green oil. First, fans blow the excess sticks and leaves away. The olives are cleaned and put through the press­ing process at which point you can smell the rich aroma of your own olive oil from the trees you were har­vest­ing that morn­ing. The oil pours out as an opaque green liq­uid (look­ing not unlike pond water, it needs a few months to set­tle before it achieves that beau­ti­ful, deep clear green color).

The fac­tory owner him­self made up a deli­cious mari­nade of fresh oil, freshly squeezed lemon, tomato, and rock salt which he handed to me with a plate of crusty bread. Olives that had been hang­ing on a tree that very morn­ing were now pro­vid­ing me with a heav­enly taste I will remem­ber forever.

Marcus and I sat back, downed a glass of Retsina, and toasted the day we had met 30 years before. He stills owe me for that plate of chips and a night’s accommodation…

You can buy John, Marcus, Kirsty, and Tina’s extra vir­gin olive oil online from the UK. Visit their web­site, see pho­tos from the olive har­vest and per­haps join them next sea­son in a unique olive pick­ing activ­ity hol­i­day sched­uled for November 2010.

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