Once the olive harvest starts in December, the sleepy landscape takes on a new life: knots of people moving about on distant terraces, the raw sound of chainsaws. Beneath the trees, capacious olive nets begin to appear, like fragments of patchwork and the sound of voices carries clearly across the valley. White smoke rises from the bonfires of branches.
We agree to work with Nikos Abramis and his family on their olives- they own upward of a thousand trees- as a kind of brief apprenticeship, before starting on our own trees- a piffling two hundred. Working with Niko’s team will also, as we think, bring us closer to a sense of the Greek outlook.
Niko himself is the mastoras, the patriarch, dismissive and peremptory with his grown-up children, with Dina in particular, his dumpy, unmarried daughter, who works throughout in a thick coat and woolly hat, whatever the weather.
Giorgia, his married daughter, a slightly pinched presence, works energetically while her ten year old son sits on a sack of olives and makes no fuss. Kosta, Niko’s son, who is some kind of bailiff for the law court in Kalamata, comes back at weekends to work.
Kostas is an amiable person, unlike Giorgia, who treats us with chilly reserve. Herbert, the Austrian, is also part of the team, though his relations with Niko are volatile. Herbert works in a permanent state of bemused irritation with what he takes to be Greek stupidity, while Niko seems puzzled by Herbert’s noisy bouts of frustration. None of the Abramis family drive, nor do they own a motor vehicle, so Herbert’s Mercedes truck is a great asset.
A problem with his head, Niko confides to me as he sips his plastic cup of viscous coffee. He says the same about you, I say in my faulty Greek and Kostas laughs.
Linda and I finally begin work on our own trees, and pleasant enough work it is in this splendid landscape. When we have picked about a dozen 50 kilo sacks of olives, which takes us maybe three or four days, we ferry them down in the pickup to the factory on the coast where they are pressed. Each sack yields about ten litres of oil.
The harvest is a very mutual business: everyone has olive trees, even if it’s only half a dozen in the garden, and the yard of the factory is noisy with voices as we wait in the queue of battered, overloaded vehicles to cross the weighbridge and unload our sacks.
The oil itself, when we finally sample it, is a revelation. It is green, for a start, quite a strong green, and cloudy for the first week or two, until it settles. The taste is surprisingly fruity with a sort of peppery bite. It is excellent. We pour some into a saucer, add a little salt and dip our bread.