For many people, olive oil is synonymous with Greece. It’s one of the places in the world that are tied inextricably with this tiny seeded fruit.
By Savannah Fortis
Walking through the old hills of Plaka one finds themselves entangled in olive trees. They decorate the landscape beneath the great statue of the goddess Athena in Pedion tou Areos Park in central Athens.
It’s a stereotype that olives are timeless symbols of the Greeks, but that nevertheless holds true. Greece is the world’s third top producer of olive oil, behind only Italy and Spain.
Every year from November to mid-January, families head out into the groves to cash in on their natural bounty of “green gold.”
Last year’s harvest in Greece produced 275,000 tons of olive oil
During the previous year’s harvest Greece produced 275,000 tons of olive oil. The country’s top producing region, Kalamata, lies in the southwestern part of the Peloponnesian peninsula.
In Kyparissia, a town in one of the westernmost parts of this region, 20-year-old Vasilis Liagkos took to the field with his family, just as they have for generations.
“We are the fourth generation that engages with olive harvesting. I remember myself being involved in the procedure since when I was a kid. Back then my grandpa was in charge of the harvesting. Every year, olive harvesting is a reference point, because that is the time when you know if a whole year’s work will pay off.”
The grueling and tedious work of weeks of standing under the olive trees is often far removed when pouring a delightful “glug” of the green gold into a pan to sauté up a meal or topping off a horiatiki salad.
Because of the physical difficulty of harvesting, most harvesters have transitioned from striking trees with long wooden sticks, as has been done in generations past, to electric machines which graze their way through the branches.
“The last decade, harvesting methods have become more up to date because of the use of new machines. Some years ago, my grandfather used to shake the olives from the tree with just a big piece of wood, no machines involved,” Liagkos says.
“New machines have given us the ability to avoid severe injuries to the trees as well as the olives, which is very important for good quality olive oil. In our area, some olive trees have been in these olive groves for so long that the knowledge of people who have taken care of them over the years passed from generation to generation.”
Annual olive harvest connects Greeks to their past
However, this past year’s harvest was not as bountiful as years prior; many in the region attribute the disruption in the harvest to changes in the climate. “This year was a year with bad yield,” Liagkos explains, “for the reason that the olive trees had been very productive for the last 4 years. Also, bad weather during harvest time threw a good amount of olives to the ground, another thing that contributed to an even lower yield.”
Nonetheless, yet again, year after year local Greek families load tractors with burlap sacks, lay out dozens of tarps, and spend weeks beneath the branches to be showered in olives.
While this is a source of income for the Liagkos family and many others, this annual labor is one of connection to the land, their past, and their people.
Liagkos says “Apart from the economic importance for our family, harvesting is not only a connection with our past, but also a reassurance that the olive oil that reaches our friends’ plates is the best!”