By Byron Ayanoglu
The Mediterraneans’ passion for olives transcends life and even death. The rains, the storms, the snows had wreaked havoc in the Mariou area. Roads had collapsed, electricity poles and TV transmitters were downed, all the houses leaked water, livestock had suffered, vegetables patches and oranges had frozen, but the olives had survived.
The olives are eternal. They are the life-giver. They are wealth. They can freeze and wither, and still their oil is intact, waiting to be extracted. But, the olive is not an accommodating fruit. It flowers in March and ripens slowly through the long summer and fall. It reaches maturity in December and is at its best if harvested right then, January being a back-up to complete whatever work has been left undone.
This year December had been such a wash-out that almost all the harvesting was left to the last minute. If January were to also be lost, then the whole crop would rot.
Landlords Niko and Erato, owners of a tidy string of olive groves around Mariou and the neighbouring village of Asomatos, went to their properties on dry days, even if it was too cold to comfortably work outdoors. The olives demanded their immediate attention, nothing else mattered.
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They waited for a somewhat warm, sunny day, and invited us to join them. I believe that they fully expected the two of us to work, but I craftily claimed to have caught stoithi, a Cretan chest ailment related to laima (throat) and caused by the same cold wet drafts. I set myself under an olive tree with a thermos of hot coffee to suffer without undue complaints.
Algis threw himself enthusiastically, if erratically, into the tasks at hand, though I caught him slacking off several times to take photographs. The family were too busy to notice. They had far too much to do, and it was a battle against time.
Olives have been pressed into olive oil on Crete since Minoan times. Modern paleontology techniques have given us proof that olive oil was not only known to the Ancients, it was a major export of theirs, and therefore a source of their wealth and power.
Not only is olive oil nutritious, it enhances everything with a luxurious taste. Be it a lowly tomato-feta cheese salad, or an elegant grilled fish, food becomes a delicacy when drizzled with fresh, cold-pressed olive oil.
The Minoans would easily have been able to figure out that the olive contains oil. It oozes out of the fruit without much crushing or squeezing. And amazingly, the oil that the olive relinquishes is sweet and flavourful, even though the raw fruit itself is bitter and unpleasant.
It is not known if the Minoans discovered the method necessary to render olives edible, but modern Cretans, beneficiaries of five-thousand years of olive-culture, certainly do know. Olives are either cracked or scored, and stored in water to shed their bitterness. The water is refreshed twice a day for ten days, until a neutral taste is achieved. Afterwards, the olives are either pickled in brine, or marinated in lemon or vinegar and eventually preserved in olive oil, to become enjoyable in their own right.
Either as fruit or as oil, olives are the common denominator of Crete’s economy and well-being. It was therefore no wonder that the landlords, their playboy son Grigoris, their older son Stamatis, the surprisingly proficient Catalan girl-friend Arete, and the two hired hands were so absorbed by their olive chores.
Olives, when ripe, can either fall off the branch to the ground, or stubbornly stick to the branch until prodded. The harvest includes both the fallen and the stubborn. Dark-green mesh-cloth is spread under the trees to prevent fallen olive from rotting in contact with the soil. The cloth also provides a surface onto which the prodded ones can fall.
In the old days the prodding was done with olive branches. Now it is done with slender, motorized threshers that churn the olives off the branches. It’s still a muscle-wrenching business but at least it’s speedier and much more effective. Once the olives are off the branches and on the mesh, the leaves and little twigs are picked out by hand, and the olives are gathered into burlap sacks to be transported to the olive oil co-operative. There they are pressed into oil by machine, another welcome improvement over the manual presses of the past.
Olive picking, known locally as “pame yia ellies” might be hard work but it has elements of fun and celebration. Drinks, including the all-occassion raki, flow throughout the day, and the highlight is the essential lunch break. On this day, to mark the presence of Algis and myself, a charcoal barbecue was set up, to roast a humongous spitted turkey.
I was fairly sure that this was the same turkey I had watched Niko handling the other day, and which had once tried to peck my eyes out. I hardly minded being assigned the task of tending to its roasting. Suffering from stoithi did not excuse me from cooking chores, if anything it recommended me for them.
I sat by the barbecue, enjoying its warmth, turning the big bird on its spit, and breathing in its comfort-food smells, as the skin charred and the meat dripped fat rhythmically onto the spitting charcoal.
The day was mostly done around three p.m., just as the wintry sun started to partially hide behind puffy clouds, and the turkey was cooked through, its meat threatening to fall off the bones. The olive pickers, including the exhausted Algis, who had exercised muscles he didn’t know he possessed, gathered around me and my barbecue like moths to a flame.
Erato and Arete, as the women of the group, set out a copious picnic on a makeshift table, with pre-baked dandelion pies, home-made goat cheese, steamed vegetables doused with olive oil and lemon, and crusty bread to accompany my expertly roasted turkey.
Niko would’ve preferred if the women had taken over all the food-serving chores, but tolerated my turkey-carving since it had been I who had roasted it. Many bottles of wine were fetched from secret satchels, and I was even allowed to sip mine and enjoy it, since this was a working lunch and not anyone’s name day party.
The meal ended with a dessert of tiny clementines freshly picked by Erato from trees at the edge of the olive grove. They were a special treat, as they were among the very few that had escaped the frost of the big snow storm.
The women got busy wrapping up the lunch leftovers, while the younger men returned to their olive work before darkness set in. Niko stayed with me to finish the wine with the last of the cheese.
“This way of life is nearing its end,” he mused. “I’m not unduly sad, because I’ll never give up my olives, and I’ll continue to do what I’ve always done, and what my parents had done. But, there are lots of others who are selling their heritage to outsiders, to Europeans, for those precious Eurodollars, so that more hotels can be built. It’s as if there is no end to the people who want to come here in August, and limit to the sacrifice of our traditions to accommodate their vacation plans.” He took a chunk of cheese in his hand and smelled it. “I had a taste of a goat cheese from France. Arete brought it back from one of her trips home. To impress me. Well, it didn’t impress me at all. Not at all. It smelled of nothing. Then I found out that the goats who gave the milk for that cheese live on a farm, and eat feed out of a box. My goats live on the hill and graze on herbs. Once they build their hotels on all our hills, then our goats will have to eat from the same boxes, and our cheese will also smell of nothing.” He smiled and dropped the cheese into his mouth. He shut his eyes and savoured the many perfumes of the herbs his goats had grazed.
I helped myself to some cheese and ate it quickly. In this rapidly changing world it’s imperative to act with alacrity. For all I knew some European’s bulldozers could sweep down, nip the last of the heirloom cheese out of my hand, and proceed to put up a flimsy hotel right where I was sitting.
Excerpt from: Crete On The Half Shell Paperback: 268 pages Harper Perennial Canada (Feb 19 2004)
Reprinted with permission.
Photos: ALGIS KEMEZYS