When you drizzle that liquid gold on your salad and enjoy its countless health benefits, do you ever think about the process that goes into getting the olives from the tree into your bottle of olive oil?
We will never look at olive oil the same way. After being part of the olive harvesting process at our Workaway on the Greek island of Chios, we now realize the labor of love that is involved.
While the trees must be maintained throughout the year, the hard work usually begins in October once the olives start ripening. The harvesting period lasts until late December as each tree ripens at a different time.
If one has a large olive grove (or multiple groves as in our hosts’ case), the grower must judge the olives’ ripeness and select the trees which should be harvested at that particular time. If most of the olives on the tree are dark (blue/purple/black), it’s harvest time. If they’re still green, they need to be kissed by the sun for a little bit longer.
PREPARING FOR THE HARVEST
Before the harvest, the land must be cleared so that nets can be laid out. This means cutting off low-lying branches on the olive trees, hacking down bushes and thorns that have grown around the trees, and cutting and cleaning up tall grass around the trees. The goal is simple: get rid of anything on the ground that would interfere with laying down a large net that will catch the olives.
During our first week, Bryan did a lot of that hard work while Simi helped rake and move the debris to large piles that will eventually be burned. She was also lucky enough to be tasked with harvesting and cleaning walnuts and pomegranates!
LET THE OLIVES FALL WHERE THEY MAY
Once the land has been cleared, the nets are laid down. There are large nets of many different sizes that are strategically spread out on the ground to catch the olives.
To get the olives down from the tree, we use a large stick that looks like a rake or a comb.
We comb through the trees to get as much of the olives to fall down as possible. There is also an electric shaking device/comb that can be used to rattle the trees to get even more olives down. Our host typically gets up on the ladder and uses this to reach the tops of the trees.
Once the tree is bare and the olives have landed on the net, it's time to clean!
The nets are then full of not only olives but also branches, sticks, and leaves.
The next task is then to separate these out from the olives. Luckily, it doesn't have to be perfect. The leaves can be separated out in the factory, but we at least need to make sure that the olives aren't full of other stuff that may have fallen down along with them (such as almonds from a nearby tree :-) ).
It took us about four hours of setting up nets, combing trees, and cleaning olives to fill up the two containers shown in the picture above. All from only four or five trees. And there are dozens (if not closer to a hundred) more trees to go!
After the olives have been collected, they will be dropped off at the local factory where they will be pressed into olive oil.
We have yet to learn about that part of the process but hope to visit the local factory before we leave to see this vital next step!
Our host produces his olive oil mainly for his family. The trees typically only ripen every other year so this year's supply has to last for the next two years.
Liquid Gold Fun Facts
While there may be hundreds of species of olives in the world, there are about twenty different types used to make olive oil, according to our host.
All olives start out green. As they ripen, they get darker. The darker the olive, the more oil it produces. According to our host, dark olives produce about 20% olive oil while the green ones produce 10% or less.
This means that to make one liter of olive oil, we have to pick about five kilograms of olives!
The first extraction of olives results in what we call “Extra Virgin” Olive Oil. Any extractions after that first pressing are less pure – hence less expensive.
Ever tasted raw olives? Don't try. As bitter as it gets. The taste of olives you’re familiar with comes after they are cured. There are many methods of doing that – the simplest one being soaking them in water for a few months.