Greece is not only antique monuments and cuisine, it is its people
Even though it was only our third visit to Greece, this country makes you feel as if you come back home, well, maybe not exactly home, but at least your favourite holiday destination. However, this time we came here not for a holiday (as you may know, the end of December is not the best season) but for olive collection. The season of olive collection starts in November and lasts till March, so December is the busy month.
As I have mentioned the olive collection, I should also tell about olive collection in Greece, oil squeezing, how to recognize high quality oil and how to taste it... I promise you will find out about all this, just be patient.
No product of high quality, no matter how good and tasty it might me, will ever disclose its best qualities if there isn't a proper mood. Believe me, Greece is full of this 'proper' mood. The ones have already been there will perfectly understand what I mean, the ones who haven't will fall in love with this country as soon as they see the olive tree grooves in the valleys, or as they taste some wonderful greek dishes or, most importantly, when they meet local people.
Getting to know the locals is one of the best ways to learn more about the whole Greek culture, to taste the most delicious dishes, to learn the local dances and bring a piece of Greece home. If you get lost in Greece, or in between its islands or mountain villages don't miss the opportunity to visit the local people. The hospitality and welcoming character of Greeks is definitely not a myth of travel agencies. The local people will never miss the chance to invite you to their place, they will never refuse to help you and will definitely be more than happy to feed you. And the moment you accept their invitation you will feel as if you were their family member – you will sit at the same table, you will drink from the same bottle and when you leave, the host will be generous with the home made titbits: marinated olives, the best honey and of course Raki (Tsikoudia) the national breathtaking drink.
People are the ones who create culture, dance and cuisine. And the biggest mistake you can make is to miss the opportunity to know this country together with its people. The local people was the reason why I fell in love with Greece three years ago. Getting into the whirlpool of olive collection was an incredible experience, and I must be grateful for that to the people who accompanied me in this journey: the representatives of Chamber of Commerce of Messinia region, who at the same time are also the organizers of cultural movement 'Olive Tree Route'; also George Mouteveli – the owner of three times 'older' than me olive groove, the managers of oil press mill and other simply wonderful people.
Olive's way from the olive tree to our table
Olive oil before appearing on our table has to make three huge steps. We had an opportunity to make these steps together, i.e. we collected olives, we squeezed oil in the mill and we poured it into the bottles in the factory.
Olive oil had found its place in my kitchen more than three years ago, today there's no other oil left on the shelf except for the olive. However, even if I'm a big fan of olive oil, it's quite expensive. Even if the question of much higher price of olive oil compared to other similar dietary value oils was forgotten after I had experienced some very positive effects, however I was still wondering from time to time – why? Only during my olive collection trip in Greece all my questions were finally answered. It seems that this is one of those few places on Earth where modern technologies and machinery hasn't been usurped yet.
Collection. At the end of November the owners come to the olive tree grooves.They visit every single tree, every single branch. The only equipment used is a long and a short wooden stick
to hit down the olives form the branches, a sieve used to separate olives form leaves and sometimes a mechanical olive collection machine. That's it. In this period this is as much a job as yours and mine, i.e. you start the olive collection early in the morning and finish in the evening, having only a short break at lunch. In this season the whole family and some help are working in the olive grooves. It seems that olive collection is not that difficult, however, the essence of this process has remained the same for thousands of years – it's manual work. In order to squeeze high quality oil, it's important to have undamaged olives which is only possible if you collect them manually. If I could compare the workload with something similar in Lithuania, I would say it could be compared with potato collection in the autumn.
An interesting thing is that the olives used for oil are different from the ones used for marinating. If you consider the famous Kalamata olives they are tiny, smaller than he nail of the little finger.
A part of olives are directly hit down on the net laid on the ground using the longest sticks, the remaining part is hit down from the cut branches using the shorter sticks.When you first see the cutting of the branches you might feel a bit shocked. They cut not the small branches but strong and big branches full of olives.As the owner of the groove said: 'Cutting the olive branches is not a job for anyone to do. Every year the olive branches are cut by the same person who knows every single tree'.
Olives are 'raked' in one place, separated from the little branches and leaves, then taken in to the buckets they go to the manual sieve where they are cleaned for being ready to go to the mill. One tree is 'done', there are still one thousand waiting.
From one olive tree you can get an average of 100 kg of olives. From 100 kg of olives you get about 10 l of 'liquid gold'.
Squeezing. The work of the farmer is finished, the olives are brought to the mills and then olive oil goes to the factory where it is poured into the bottles. At the same time when the olives are collected, the clock starts counting the minutes. The olives must be brought to the mill as soon as possible. Every additional minute increases acidity of oil which changes not only taste but also dietary features. The most valuable oil is the one that is squeezed in no more than 24 hours, and the best are the ones that are squeezed in no more than 4 hours.
When the olives are brought to the mill they are once again cleaned, so that there are no leaves and branches left. There are two ways of cleaning them, one is by blowing off the leaves (dry method) and the other one by washing them.
Now the most interesting part starts – the olives go to the special millstones.This is not a metaphor, these are the real millstones some of them counting hundreds of years of existence.
This process is the so called cold extraction, in this way the millstones grind olives and do not thermally affect them. You get olive paste which goes to the pressing machine and there you get misa and pomace which seems like dry halva. This is secondary raw material that is used for pressing pomace oil. Misa goes to centrifuge where oil is separated from water and you finally see the first drops of oil. Green, thick, turbid and having an unforgettable aroma – once you smell it, you unconsciously compare all the other oils with it.
The last step before getting on the table is a journey to the bottling factory. We accompanied oil to Messinia Kalamata's region AGRO.VI.M.S.A. company, whose oil 'Iliada' is also sold in Lithuania. As the technologist of the company said:'you have to taste this year wine and last year olive oil, as the oil freshly squeezed has a strong,hot taste which is unusaul to our tasting buds'. Frankly speaking, nor me, nor my travel mates have ever tasted anything better than freshly squeezed olive oil. You have to try it yourself...
Choose oil as wine
Wine or beer sommelier are the ones who are responsible for a harmonious food and drink matching and disclosure of the tastes. The same goes with olive oil. The taste of olive oils depends on many factors. If an olive tree grows next to the citrus trees you will definitely feel it in the aroma and taste of the olive oil. The taste of oil will vary according to the time of olive collection, the number of sunny days, kind of olives, press method and many other factors. That's why oil tasting shouldn't be surprising, on the contrary – it helps to find your own taste and to evaluate quality.
If you want to analyze all the taste and aroma features and quality of olive oil, pour a table spoon of oil into a small cup or glass. The colour of oil can vary from green to straw yellow, but the professionals say that the colour has no influence to the taste. Close the glass with your palm and swirl a bit, and warm it with your hands. Get the glass closer to your nose and breathe in deeply the aroma. Then the most fun part starts – than you have to suck oil and a bit of air (similarly what you do when you are tasting coffee) and let it on the roof of your mouth. Moisten every single corner of your mouth with oil and then swallow it.
When you already know the dominating tastes and aromas it's easy to match it with food. Light oil will go well with fish, seafood, white meat, bitter vegetables. Moderate intensity is good for pasta, fish, risotto, salad. Intense taste oil matches vegetables, legumes, soups, toasted white bread, grilled meat.
Reading the labels
When you are choosing the oil, you should be as careful and attentive as buying wine and you have to be able to read the labels.
Extra Virgin olive oil – is the highest quality olive oil, the acidity of which is no higher than 0.8 g/100 g.
Virgin olive oil – first press olive oil the acidity of which is no higher than 2 g/100g.
Refined olive oil – it is produced by cleaning the olive oil. The acidity is no higher than 0.3 g/100g.
Olive oil, pure olive oil – a mixture of refined olive oil and first press olive oil. The acidity is no higher than 1 g/100g.
Crude olive pomace oil – not refined olive pomace oil produced using solvents and physical methods.
Pomace oil – it is a mixture of refined olive pomace oil and first press oil. The acidity is no higher than 1g/100g.
While reading the label pay attention to where it was produced. The best oil is produced, pressed and bottled in the same place. The producing country should be mentioned on the label. This is guaranteed by PDO (Protected Destination of Origin)logo.
It's even better if there is also a sort of olives identified. In this way you know that the oil is not a mixture of different sorts of olives.
The symbol of peace of mind, fertility and peace
In Greece there is still a saying that olive oil meets the newborn baby and accompanies the dead ones to the other world. Without the fruits of this tree greek cannot imagine neither their daily life nor rituals. Food, source of light, wood, medicine, cosmetics – all this is produced by one tree, so it's not surprising that olive tree plays such a role in Greece as well as in the whole Mediterranean region.
Greeks as the rest of the world should be grateful for olive tree to the Gods of Olympus. According to the legend Athene has given two gifs to the habitants of Greece. The first gift was wisdom, but as you cannot survive having only wisdom, she gave also an olive tree.
Olive trees started to be cultivated 3800-2100 year BC Messinia region (where we were collecting olives)is considered to be one of the oldest olive tree cultivation regions. Olive trees, olives and olive oil have been existing in a very close union with Greek people. This trio is considered to be the gift of Gods and nature, is the most most important element in the cycle of life (birth, wedding, funeral) as well as in the Mediterranean diet.
All processes related to olive trees such as olive harvest, press of olive oil, production of olive tree wood are closely connected in one chain that influences the life of communities. These processes create, characterize and enhance the relations between people.
Today there are 150 million of olive trees, 2800 olive oil factories, 500 000 families are involved in cultivation and olive oil production.
For ages olive oil has been an essential part of Greek cuisine that ensured a healthy and tasty diet.widely known as Mediterranean diet. Actually, the word 'diet' originated from the greek word 'diaita' which means a lifestyle and regime.
Speaking about healthy diet, one of the most important reasons why olive oil is so healthy is the presence of linolenic acid, the lack of which causes many illnesses and disorders, such as slow development, metabolism problems and skin aging. In high quality extra virgin oil there are many antioxidants – polyphenols. Mono-saturated fats which save the good cholesterol and decrease the bad one in the body makes 60-80% of olive oil. Scientific research has shown that olive oil regulates blood pressure, decreases the risk og heart disease and blood thickening. These fats helps digestion therefore prevents the gall stones, helps people suffering from bad digestion, intestinal problems and liver problems.
Olive oil helps to assimilate vitamins A, D, E and K, speeds up the healing of injuries, regulates metabolism. In addition, olive oil helps facial and body skin, hair, nails and slows down aging processes. It is said that only mother's milk is easier digested than olive oil.
So try it, taste it, break the stereotypes and find your own olive oil and your own lifestyle.
For further information: www.olivetreeroute.gr
Positive taste and aroma:
Fruity – citrus, banana, apples, fig.
Aroma – herbs, green leaves, tomatoes.
Taste – bitter, artichoke, hot, almond.
Negative taste and aroma:
Aroma: wine (fermentation), mold, rancidity (oxidation),hay (dry grass, leaves), cucumber, earth, press, worms.