Love Those Olives!

Is the Mediterranean diet, so rich in olive oil, really heart-healthy? Can it contribute to longevity? Many people believe so. One thing for sure, you can’t visit Greece without sampling some delicious olives or olive oil.

Greece boasts the largest per capita consumption of olive oil in the world! Greece is the third largest olive-oil producer in the world (behind Italy and Spain) and the country’s olive oil producers are justifiably proud of their contributions.

About 70 percent of Greek oil is extra-virgin. What’s that? Extra-virgin oil has exceptional quality, aroma and taste. The oil is from the first pressing of the olives with no chemicals or hot water added during processing. Acidity can be up to 0.8 percent. For virgin oil (also called select oil), the acidity is up to 2 percent.

I prefer having both of these oils for household use. Oil needed for dressings/sauces or drizzling over fresh vegetables, salads, and cheeses is extra-virgin. For heating/cooking, where the aroma is degraded, a lower grade (and less expensive) olive oil is fine. Of course, we put some olives aside (a bucket or so) to put in salt water – for later eating.

As far as the color, green oil is most likely a product of green olives, harvested before ripening. It is prized by many. Golden-yellow olive oil is generally the product of olives allowed to ripen longer. (Both green and golden-yellow can be extra-virgin oils.)

Tourists usually aren’t around to see it, but olive harvesting time generally takes place between October and January. The greenest olives are harvested in October, the reddish/pink in November, black in December, and wrinkled black (not to be confused with olives that have shriveled due to curing in salt) in January – sometimes February on Crete.

A bitter or sharp taste usually indicates the olives were not ripe when picked. Oil made from ripe olives has a mild and fruity taste. Taste is entirely a matter of preference, of course, and oils made from both unripened and ripened olives have wide appeal.

Our island of Karpathos is like much of Greece in the rainy season. No matter if olive trees are owned or rented, family groups set out equipped with a variety of nets, sacks, buckets and small rakes to harvest olives. (There are electric cutters available, but many groves are located far from any power supply!)

The nets (or tarps) serve as a carpet under the trees to catch the olives raining down. Usually the trees are trimmed as part of the process. Someone always has to volunteer to climb up to get out-of-reach olives or to cut branches.

From the scooped-up olives, sack after sack is eventually filled. Each weighs 30 to 50 kilos. Sacks shouldn’t be kept sitting for more than a few days or there will be a dramatic loss of quality. The olive sacks get loaded on a truck to head to the olive press.

Some presses have plenty of workers, but at other presses you must dump the olives into the chute yourself and even pick out a few of the leaves and small branches that got overlooked. After a process that takes some 20 minutes, the first oil begins to drip out and someone has to be standing at the end station with a container at the ready. Once the containers are filled, the weight is taken and the processing fees paid.

The next customer’s bulging olive sacks are parked at the starting gate and the process begins anew.

You may not be aware, but the fresh oil is not ready for consumption. It must sit a few months before it can grace your salad. Olive oil is precious and should be stored cool and dry (never in the sun or near other heat).

With the sun and sea, Greece (and the rest of the Mediterranean Basin) has the ideal ecosystem for crops of olives. Not all harvested olives are destined for the kitchen. Olives have plenty of other uses – medicinal, cosmetic, lighting and sacred.

After my harvesting experience, I feel a sense of kinship when I pass the neat rows of shimmering olive trees decorating our island’s valleys or along the hillsides or near the coastline. Some trees are young, others old and a bit on the gnarled side – not unlike those of us who tend to them!
Want to learn more?

For an explanation of the six grades of olive oil, go to: Greek Olive Oil
For information on the Mediterranean diet and health, see: Mediterranean diet
The history of olive production: History of Oilve Production

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