OLIVE OIL: the Stuff of our Lives

There used to be a Greek word that characterized spineless young men, particularly the spoiled sons of wealthy families: voutyropaida—butter-boys. Butter-boys are the antithesis of the clever street-wise young men who typify Greek youth. In the past the young were not pampered with expensive butter but fed exclusively on olive oil, like we all were in Greece.


Calming and Aphrodisiac

A stubborn and rebellious wife, who refused to yield her body to her husband’s carnal desires, was rubbed with olive oil for seven days. On the eighth day — as legend would have it — she became sweet tempered and loving, ready to let her husband make love to her. (If only Petruchio, in the “Taming of the Shrew”, had known of this simple cure…). This is the most exotic of the sixty or so folk remedies in which olive oil plays the leading role. Such remedies, along with other customs related to olives and olive oil, have their roots in antiquity, and are still practiced in rural Greece. To this day, no Greek man would dare relieve himself under an olive tree, fearing supernatural consequences .


According to ancient myths, the cultivation of the olive tree was entrusted to virgins and chaste men. But it is both blessing as well as Eve’s curse — would the chaste young remain pure of body and mind with all this olive oil in their care? According to yet another legend, olive oil is an aphrodisiac: “Eat olive oil before you come tonight,” says one of the countless Greek folk phrases of seduction…

Our Olive Grove

Our piece of land in Kea, slightly larger than an acre, came with twenty or so aged almond trees, and fifty young olive trees planted by the previous owner. We have a sample of all different kinds of olives : tiny round ones, almond-like Kalamata, juicy Pelion-like, and some extra large ones. These olive trees were our first priority when we moved here, nine years ago. After a serious drought and years of neglect, the trees barely survived the hardship of local construction; in short, the trees were in a lamentable condition. We hired an expert to prune them properly, and then we dug trenches around their trunks and fed them manure. In the winter of 2001, as we watched them thrive, bursting with new leaves and bunches of buds that soon became flowers, we had high expectations.


We even drew up lists of friends whom we would invite in the fall for weekends of olive harvesting. But we spoke too soon; the olive flies got to the fruits first, leaving us with only a few black and green olives, painstakingly picked from baskets overflowing with pierced and rotten fruit. Although our first crop couldn’t be pressed to produce oil, and indeed most of it ended up in the compost, we took solace in knowing that the olive flesh would fertilize our parched, sandy soil, and would help the next generation of olives to blossom.

Table Olives

The years since, unfortunately, have not seen much improvement. We haven’t yet managed to ward-off the air-borne predators, despite various traps, as we refuse to consider pesticides. Costas is adamant against watering the trees at the end of the summer, as we have been advised to do by professional olive growers. He feels strongly that we cannot waste the limited amount of water our island has on olives that we can hardly consume. As there is no olive press on Kea, islanders gather their olives for weeks before loading their crates and sacs onto trucks and ferries, to get the fruits to olive presses on the mainland.


Needless to say, the whole operation is costly, and the resulting, quite expensive oil, is of very poor quality: half the olives are already rotten by the time they reach the press, having been off the trees far too long. So far our efforts to convince the locals to contribute the small amount of Euros needed for a simple olive press have been unsuccessful. Even such indisputably useful, simple collaborative effort seems impossible; apparently we Greeks have no team spirit.


We are left with plenty of table olives of all sizes and colors for curing, but no ‘liquid-gold’ of our own production. Our neighbors and various friends drop by to pick the fruits while Popie, our female dog, loves to nibble on the fallen, moldy olives that dot the ground around the trees…

Greek versus Italian

We are all now accustomed to appellations like EVOO, and the couture, ‘boutique olive oils’ that generate great enthusiasm. We forget that only recently the now industry-standard classifications, like ‘virgin’ and ‘extra virgin,’ came onto the scene. Before then, we used to call the best olive oil ‘agourelaio’. The word literally means ‘oil from unripe olives’, but it was also used for the superior quality olive oil produced ‘from the first pressing’. The old presses separated the different sequences of pressings, and the oils of the second and third pressings were inevitably inferior in quality to that of the initial extraction. Today that most presses are centrifugal, and there is no ‘first’ pressing, we generally call ‘agoureleo’ the freshly pressed fruity olive oil.


We grew up eating our domestic olive oil and consequently our taste for it is quite different from that of the newly converted. Whenever I take part in international olive oil tastings — as just last month, during the wonderful Mediterranean Flavor Odyssey, the 2008 World of Flavors Conference, at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, California. I feel very frustrated, because I know that American and Northern European ‘experts’ rarely appreciate the Greek olive oils. They are convinced that the bold and aggressive Tuscan oils are superior. They look for an assertive oil that separates itself from the standard fare of the palate, “more like a dip” as my friend Yorgos Dimitriadis, a fourth generation olive oil producer from Crete, points out, adding that “new consumers relate easier to a strong taste that shouts rather than to a sophisticated taste that needs patience and knowledge to uncover and to enjoy.” Still, I could not understand how his week-old olive oil from Crete was so much milder than the freshly pressed Tuscan varieties. Yorgos explained that in Tuscany and in Liguria, the growers usually harvest in October, regardless of the ripeness of the olives, because winter at their latitudes sets in early, and they can’t risk loosing their crop to snow. “The aggressiveness of their olive oil is a side effect of their harvesting practices, while a secondary contribution to the bitterness is due to the main Tuscan varieties —Frantoio, Moraiolo, Letccino,” he said. Dimitriadis thinks that “Greek olive oil producers should learn a lot from the Italians who managed to reverse a gustatory liability into an acute trend, marketing their oil in such a way so that the international market acquired a taste for it.” He considers the aggressivity of Tuscan oil a disadvantage, because for us even the freshly pressed agourelaio must blend with and combine the many different elements of a dish. In our culture we don’t appreciate an assertive olive oil that overpowers all other flavors .

Home Curing, and recipes with Olives

Curing olives is quite simple, especially when the work is shared by family or friends, as is the tradition. I vividly remember helping my grandfather make Elies Tsakistes (cracked green olives). I must have been about 9 years old, when with my younger sister, a flat stone in hand, we banged the firm, green, unripe fruits, picked from the large olive tree outside our bedroom window. Now I mainly make Thrumbes (dry salted black olives), as we leave most of our olives to ripen on the trees. I store these wrinkled black olives in the freezer because I don’t want to make them salty, and they tend to mold even in the refrigerator.


To make a simple appetizer, which I serve with freshly baked bread, I fry a handful of throumbes with onions, adding crushed red peppers and rosemary at the end. Olives boost the flavor of many dishes, especially the traditional ladera, the vegetarian stews of seasonal vegetables — green beans, zucchini or squash, okra or artichokes—that are cooked in tomato sauce or with lemon juice and a fair amount of ladi (olive oil). Potatoes with onions and olives is my favorite. In Eliopita rollo an unusual crust, made with orange juice and olive oil, encloses the mint-scented olive and onion filling. Cut into bite-size pieces it is ideal for cocktails, and a delicious, healthy snack for adults and kids. I always pit my olives (see how), because commercial pitted olives tend to be even more salty than the already salty common olives.


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