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The Greek romance affair with the olive December 15, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Culture History Mythology, Food Greece, Greece Mainland.

Where the olive oil is used to nourish, to soothe, to light, to cure…

Homer called the oil “liquid gold” in the Odyssey; and it was under the shade of the olive tree that philosophers like Plato and Aristotle debated the meaning of life. But crossing over from Homer or Aristotle’s era to modern Greece, a visitor to this land is bound to be overwhelmed by the kind of love, passion, reverence and awe that the Greeks have for the olive tree… it’s almost a romance.

When Greeks say “I ate bread and olives with him”, it denotes an act of friendship; just as to extend the olive branch is to make peace with someone. In this country, around the olive are built legends and history, myths and poetry… and drama of course.

Before taking us on a conducted tour of Olympia and the sanctuary where the Olympic Games originally began around 776 BC, with a great flourish our guide Constantine breaks off a small branch from one of the hundreds of olive trees there, and expertly weaves it into a kind of olive “crown” that was placed on the heads of the winners in the Games. His narrative is evocative enough and brings to the mind’s eye the hundreds of male athletes, dressed in white tunics and sandals, participating in the event that was held every four years. This sanctuary contains the ruins of the temple of Zeus, which had housed a huge statue of Zeus made of ivory and gold and was named one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The origin
Legend has it that over 3,500 years ago when Zeus
announced that the most important Greek city, now called Athens, would be given to the god or goddess who offered the most useful gift to the people, Poseidon gifted them a sea horse but Athena brought out an olive tree by striking the ground with her spear. Zeus named the city after Athena, the goddess who is often depicted with an olive branch, a symbol of peace and plenty. The Olympic winner was crowned with an olive branch to pass on its vitality to him.

Brigitta P. Papastavrou, President and CEO of Agrotouristiki, who specialises in organising tours to rural Greece, says proudly, “In Greece we say, every Greek owns at least one olive tree.” Quite possible for a population of only 11 million to share over 150 million olive trees! Even today a common blessing for married couples is: “May you always have bread and wine and olive oil in your house.”

The unique quality of this tree is that it grows even in mountainous rocky soil and can withstand scorching summers as well as harsh winters. In the Peloponnesse region that we visited, one could see thick groves of olive trees, some of them 2,000 years old, and with two trunks on one tree! Even though the landscape may appear dry and stark in the summer, the soil is deceptively rich in the kind of minerals required by the olive tree to flourish.

November-December is the harvest time in Greece and as you drive around the picturesque countryside, you find entire families engaged in picking the olive fruit. So attached are the Greeks to their olive groves that this is perhaps the only country in the world where civil servants are given special leave to pick olives during the harvesting. But as this entails a major portion of the expenditure, a recent innovation, particularly among owners of large olive groves, is to engage mechanical methods of picking the olive fruit.

But this can be done only for the variety that will be sent to the oil mills for crushing and conversion into olive oil.

Harvesting of table oils is another matter altogether and almost an art. Table olives have to be picked by hand as even a tiny scratch on the skin can mar the fruit, which will have to undergo a long sojourn in brine solution in huge containers buried in the earth to maintain the required temperature and guard it from the vagaries of the climate. In an olive grove we visited in Amfissia, near Delphi, the owner explained to us how he would have to harvest the crop of table olives in three cycles because olives ripened in different stages and had to be picked only when the colour turned the right hue of purple-black. This makes the picking process even more expensive.

The olive trees of Greece have been destroyed many times during its long history. During invasions the olive trees were targeted and attacked by the enemy, in a bid to starve the citizens. After the Greek War of Independence in 1821, and the World Wars I and II, whole groves had to be replanted all over the country. But an endearing characteristic of the olive tree is that almost as if by magic it can often spring back to life by itself, and such trees are almost worshipped by the Greek and treasured as monuments of nature.

According to the backgrounder provided by the International Olive Oil Council, which had organised the tour to popularise Greek olive oil in markets beyond its borders, one such tree is the 800-year-old “mother” olive tree in Kalamata, the black Kalamon or Kalamata olives grown here are considered the topmost in the table olive category, with a perimeter of 8 metres and bearing fruits without pits. Such trees “are treasured like the sacred Maria trees of classical Greek times, protected not so much by law but by the reverence and love of the people themselves.”

It is with sadness that you read how during World War II, when so many people were starving to death in Greek cities, people would trade property and fortunes for a few jars of olive oil to ward off starvation. “Olive oil companies destroyed their machinery in order to avoid having to cooperate with the occupation forces,” says the booklet.

Over 3,500 long years the olive tree and all it bears is not only revered, but used for important and routine occasions… from the christening of the child, lighting a lamp, for cooking, smearing on the body as a cosmetic, during marriages and even funerals… “to nourish, to soothe, to light, to cure”.

Extra virgin olive oil
The third-largest olive oil producing country in the world,
annual production about 430,000 tonnes, Greece has the highest per capita consumption at 23 kg per person per year. Producers here tell you with pride that it is the largest producer of extra virgin olive oil, and year after year over 80 per cent of its crop is classified as top quality extra virgin olive oil.

Our tour was an education in all things olive; and extra virgin oil was part of it. “This is a term used to describe olive oil obtained directly from the first pressing of the olive, exactly the way it is the moment it comes out of the olive press, that has a natural, strong taste, dark green colour and a very low level of acidity,” says a booklet on olive oil brought out by the Ministry of Economy and Finance. It adds that despite the highest per capita consumption Greece has enough olive oil to export to other markets, and other olive oil producing countries in the Mediterranean import Greek olive oil and mix it with their product to enhance the taste and aroma. Hence a frequent comment you’ll hear in Greece goes like this: “Even if you have never bought a Greek brand, it is possible that you too have benefited from the exceptional nutritive value of Greek olive oil.”

Olive oil in Greek religion
Ancient Greeks considered the olive tree sacred and revered it,
but the early Christian era recognised it too; olive oil is mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments and the most sacred ritual of the Greek Orthodox Church, baptism, cannot be performed without olive oil; the infant is rubbed with olive oil from head to toe and dipped thrice in water. The non-baptised are referred to as “aladoti” or the “unoiled, unanointed”.

Quite often the Greek use the generic word oil to denote olive oil. “To oil your intestines” simply means to eat something nourishing. Interestingly, the Greek even consider olive oil as an aphrodisiac. An old folk saying goes thus: “Eat oil and come tonight, eat butter and sleep tight”!

Olive tree in poetry

“Wash him in the stream of the river,
Anoint him with immortal oil,
Put on him the divine tunic… ”
— Homer, Iliad

“I have carved the beloved name
In the shade of the grandmother olive tree.
In the roar of the lifelong sea.”
— Odysseus Elytis, Sun the First

“I hadn’t imagined grief and death would be life that;
I left and went back to sea.
That night, on the deck of the St. Nicholas,
I dreamt of a very old olive tree weeping.”
— George Seferis, Adolescent.

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