Homer said in the 8th century BCE that olive oil was liquid gold. The olive tree reached Greece sometime in the 28th century BCE, introduced by the Phoenicians.1 A staple in Mediterranean cuisine, olive oil has been used for religious rituals , medecines, as fuel in oil lamps, as well as to make soap. Spartans and other ancient Greeks rubbed themselves with olive oil when exercising in the gymnasia.2 Aristotle also described the use of olive oil as a contraceptive. Mixed with either oil of cedar, ointment of lead, or ointment of frankincense, this mixture can be applied to the cervix to prevent pregnancy.3 The olive tree was so important to the ancients Greeks that they awarded an olive wreath to the winners of the Olympic games, symbolizing peace.4
I just came back from visiting my husband’s family in Greece and, as it was October, many of the conversations revolved around when each household would harvest their olives. Obviously, not everyone in Greece has olive trees, but it is common on the islands and in rural areas for each household to have olive trees. The olives are harvested to extract olive oil for family consumption. From the conversations that I listened to, it was important to harvest the olives just before they fell off the trees. This would ensure that the olives were at their greatest weight. They should also be harvested before they are fully ripe, when they start to change colour to a purple colour, but are not yet fully black. The olive oil will be extracted from the olives at the local mill and it is important to time one’s appointment so that the olives do not sit too long after harvesting and sour.
Family olive harvesting has not changed much over the years. Olives are usually harvested by hand, with a rake that dislodges them gently so that they fall onto a tarp or a net at the bottom of the tree. All stray olives are gathered up and leaves and sticks are sifted out as much as possible.
Olive harvesting on Tinos, 1919 5
An example of the nets used to harvest olives
Olive oil was formerly extracted using millstones. The olives were emptied into a stone basin and ground into a mash. The millstone was harnessed to a donkey. The mash was then scooped out and poured into baskets that allowed the olive oil to drain out into vats. 7
Old stone olive mill8
I had the opportunity to visit a modern mill this olive season and, while mechanized, the process is identical. The purpose is to squeeze the oil from the olives to extract “liquid gold.” Initially the olives are weighed. The first machine separates the olives from any leaves and sticks and washes them. They are then sent to a barrel that crushes the olives and extracts the oil. As the oil is extracted, the machine counts the number of liters as the oil pours into a separate basin. Once this process is finished, the oil is poured into individual containers so that the client can take these containers home. At the mill that I visited, the olive pulp or mash is put into a compost pile.
Liquid gold 9
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olive_oil, accessed 31 October 2022.
- Wikipedia, Olive Wreath, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olive_wreath, 1 November 2022
- Baud-Bovy, Daniel et Frédéric Boissonnas, Des Cyclades en Crète au gré du vent, Geneva, Boissonnas & Co, 1919.
- Greece is travel, culture, gastronomy and more, Crete, Olive Oil: The Past, Present and Bright Future of Crete’s Lifeblood, https://www.greece-is.com/olive-oil-the-past-present-and-bright-future-of-cretes-lifeblood/, 3 November 2022
- Traveling Classroom Foundation, Making Olive Oil, http://travelingclassroom.org/?p=1379, 3 November 2022
- Green Golden Gold, https://www.greengoldengold.de/en, accessed 3 November 2022