Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Colours of Hania: Olive (Eλιά)

This work was inspired by Kalliope's Spectral studies series.

Wherever you look in the town, the presence of the olive tree cannot be ignored. The olive tree is to Crete what the pumpkin is to America during the autumn season. Olives have, for a long time, been the mainstay in both the agricultural and winter economy of Hania, and a good year in the life of the town is often measured by a good olive harvest. The silvery green leaves of the tree make a beautiful backdrop to the once-ripened purple black olive fruits.

olive trees in a school hania chania village set in olive fields hania chania olive trees in the town hania chania olive trees at maich hania chania olive lined street hania chania
(The omnipresent olive tree: at school, peppering a village, near the town's gymnasium, at my workplace, lining a village street.)

Olive trees crop heavily one year, and lightly the next. This year, there are signs of βεντέμα (vendema), a bumper crop; the branches are laden with fruit, weighed down heavily by the drupes. It's still too early to harvest them for olive oil, but it's a perfect time for collecting green olives for curing, to be eaten once they have sweetened; olives are never eaten straight from the tree. In Crete, they have not turned black yet; this process of maturation takes place over a long period of time. If it doesn't rain soon, this year's olive oil yield will be greatly reduced, at the same time, with compromised quality.

green olives lianes lianes olives lianes olives purple olives
(olives - lianes variety - in a range of hues)
olive lined street hania chania olive tree curing green olives for brine tsakistes olives for the winter
(olive trees lining the streets; olives - tsounates variety - for curing)

The small bead-like variety (λιανές - lianes) are used purely for olive oil, while the larger, fatter ones (τσουνάτες - tsounates) make excellent table olives, besides being used for pressing. Tsounates were the most popular variety in Crete for a long time, but in the modern age where there is a desire to produce and harvest quickly and efficiently, lianes are now more common: they are more resilient, staying on the tree without dropping in adverse weather conditions (as do tsounates), and produce olive oil at greater quantities per kilo. This being said, the value of the old-fashioned tsounates must not be forgotten: they produce a higher quality of olive oil, able to be stored for longer periods of time than the oil produced from lianes. For the uninitiated, Kalamata olives are not produced in Crete; they're a product grown out of the Peloponese, where Kalamata is located. Although a variety of different olive species are grown in Crete, the varieties are generally dominated by lianes and tsounates.

Olive harvesting in Crete is still conducted in the old-fashioned way: by hand. Tsounates are allowed to fall off the tree naturally onto black nets, which are then lifted and the olives poured into sacks and transported to the press. Having a stronger stem, lianes do not drop so easily; the branches are beaten with a stick, so that the olives fall off the tree onto the nets. The very young olives trees (μουρέλα - mourela) are hand-picked to protect the young branches.

mourela olive trees hania chania mourela olive trees hania chania ornamental olive tree maich hania chania ornamental olive tree olive tree intercropping
(Young trees - mourela; ornamental olive trees; mourela intercropped to use up the empty space in the land more efficiently)

olive tree nets olive field hania chania olive tree trunk olive tree trunk olive tree trunk
(Nets; an olive grove; gnarled trunks; the remains of the roots of a tree that has been dug up)

The main technological addition to gathering the crop is the electric beating rod, a long stick with flexible strips of plastic, which is inserted among the branches of a tree. When turned on, the rod rotates, while the strips fly in the air, slapping anything in their way, causing the olives to be severed from their stem. In more developed countries,the trunks of the olive tree are mechanically shaken by heavy machinery. This can only take place when there is ample space between the trees for the machinery to enter. Olive trees are planted too close together in Crete, mainly to get as many trees as possible on a piece of land; space is always lacking on our small fields.

The photos have been taken in various parts of the town, both in the rural and urban zones. Their omnipresence lends the town a sense of innocence in an ever-growing globalised world.

*** *** ***

In Crete, we cure freshly picked olives in salt or brine for future use as table olives; otherwise, the olives are pressed for oil. Freshly picked olives are far too bitter to eat as they are. But there are other places in the world where they use freshly picked olives in their cooking, albeit in their cooked form. Here is a recipe I found from Saretta, who lives in Italy, Amid the Olive Trees, as her blog is called.

fresh autumn produce
(Kalamata olives, along with other fresh fruit and vegetables that I found at the laiki market)

Freshly picked black Nolca olives are washed, dried and fried in olive oil, with a little tomato, salt and basil. In Hania, fresh black olives are not in season yet (the Nolca variety is not grown here), so I bought some Kalamata olives form the street market to try out the same recipe, with ther exception of basil; I used oregano instead. It made an interesting hors d'oeuvre, served with good-quality bread and cheese, to accompany our fasolada. I can imagine this dish being made in ancient times, as it is simple and nutritious.

For the original recipe, check out Saretta's site.

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  1. That's fascinating! I love olives - they're one of my weaknesses :) So it's great to learn about their harvesting.

  2. I'd expand this to say when in Greece, the presence of the olive tree can't be ignored. Olives and olive oil add special flavor to the foods of Greece, as you clearly document in your stories and recipes. Here's hoping for rain!

  3. Maria,
    One of the delicious fried dishes you can find in Peloponnisos is Elies tiganites. Peloponnisians soak raw Kalamatas olives for one night before frying. During or after frying, olives are mixed with onions and seasoned with thyme. They are kept in jars for 3-4 weeks.

  4. I love your photos. The olive orchard looks so peaceful. I can smell it all the way from here:)

  5. I really don't know what my diet would be like without olives.

    I've said it before but I will one day partake in an olive harvest in Greece.

  6. Can you believe that at our local Italian grocers they had olives ready to be cured. I don't know if they were local or imported from Italy. I would still love to head to the island of Kea and volunteer for the olive harvest at Keartisinal someday:D

  7. Oh, I love this post! My grandmother, on my mother's side, was from Filiatra (Peloponnese), and even after she emigrated to the United States, she kept her family's olive trees for a while. Eventually they were given to a cousin who stayed in Greece. We have lost track of what happened to them, though--I've never seen them. But of course I feel some kinship with every olive tree, so synonymous with Greek culture as they are. My husband actually took a great photo of an olive tree during our honeymoon... on Crete! Your photographs are beautiful, and there are many details in your post that are new to me. Thank you for sharing.

  8. I've never seen an olive tree in person, only pictures. To have them growing around you is really special. I grew up eating the olives that my grandma and uncle prepared, and I've never found anything else like them. They were pitted olives, green in color, seasoned with slivers of garlic and fennel, and then really packed super tight into jars. The olives would break apart in the jar they were shoved in so tight. They were really good. Mmmmm ... I want some olives, sliced salami, and fresh bread now! Oh, and some cheese, too.! :-)