The land we own is steep, the terraced side of a valley overlooking the sea. Olive trees grow on the terraces and we have about two hundred of them. We begin harvesting the olives in January and the whole process takes us some weeks, depending on the crop. Linda and I do it ourselves so it’s not quick.
There are two kinds of trees on our land: one producing eating olives (We have about eight) while the rest produce olive oil. We harvest the eating olives by hand in November, using a ladder and a bucket, picking as many as we need for ourselves and then inviting friends over to help themselves to the rest.
Eating olives are bigger than the other sort and quite inedibly bitter when you first pick them, so they have first to be soaked in water for up to a fortnight. The water is changed regularly until the bitterness is gone. Then comes the hocus-pocus with salt and vinegar -everybody seems to have a different way of doing it- after which they can be stored in olive oil or salt water. People put in fancy stuff like garlic and herbs sometimes.
Harvesting the olives which go to the press to produce oil is a bigger job and takes us maybe a month. We take off the olive bearing boughs with a saw and feed them over a sort of vibrator, a machine about the size of an old fashioned ice cream cart, which we wheel from tree to tree. Big nets or sheets are spread under the trees to catch stray olives which fly about like shrapnel.
At the end of the day you find olives in your shoes, your pockets and even in your underwear.
We take the sacks of olives down to the press a couple of kilometres away on the coast together with empty barrels and return a few days later with the oil. You get about ten kilos of oil from a fifty kilo sack of olives. It’s good stuff too, everybody says so. We don’t use fertiliser, or what the Greeks call farmako and its cold pressed. Each year we get anything between three hundred and eight hundred litres, most of which we decant into two and a half litre cans and ship to the UK. We sell the oil for twenty pounds a can, which I understand is quite reasonable.
We still harvest our own crop, until this year that is, when things changed a bit. The annual pattern for the past nine years has been that we pick our own olives, decant our own oil into cans, make up a pallet and ship it to England for sale to friends and family.
This arrangement wasn’t ideal, partly because we don’t know from year to year, what the yield would be- it has tended to go down because we haven’t used fertiliser, nor indeed have we taken any particular care of the trees- so we couldn’t guarantee to supply a given quantity of oil. Generally, people in the UK have wanted more than we were able to supply. That’s one thing.
We finally solved that problem by taking our oil to a press in another village run by the Milionis brothers. Thimios and Ilias are students of the game and take a keen interest in the quality of their oil, so what we do now is to put our own oil into the common vat and send as much as we need to the UK directly from the factory. They take care of the shipping and bottling/canning.
And then something else happened. Over the years I have done various odd jobs for the Abramis family on their house in the village: put in some timber ceilings to cover the raw concrete, built a kind of lean-to kitchen and other bits and pieces. Each time I have done some job for them, I have refused payment and each time Niko has said, one day I’ll bring you some help with your olives. (The subtext here is that Niko thinks I’m a piss poor farmer, and he’s right.)
Well, finally, several years later, he was as good as his word, and he appeared after the harvest with Giorgo from the kafineion, to prune the trees. Giorgo is a fast and capable guy and he worked for some days, and Niko paid him. The work of pruning was still unfinished at the end of the agreed days, so I offered to pay Giorgo to continue. At 35 euros a day, who could complain? Business is bad at Giorgo’s kafineon in the village, and he needs the work, I say to myself, smugly.
We had other paid help from Alexandros, Ismini’s grandson, who recently left university, and has yet to find a permanent job. He needs the work, I say smugly.So, without quite meaning to, we’ve drifted into employing people to help with the work on the land. I find it suits me quite well, after nine years of hard-line insistence that we do the work ourselves.
Giorgia, Niko’s daughter, whom I describe in the article as a chilly presence, gradually became much friendlier towards us. We like her very much. In the evenings she does needlepoint pictures. We have one hanging in the wooden house, which she gave us as a gift.