Stories of people & places, festivities & traditions from my travels around the world
Picking Olives on the Peloponnese, Greece
by Lucy Hornberger
Taking part in the olive harvest was a real highlight of our out-of-season travels in Greece. The Greek olive picking season runs from November to early February, depending on the variety of olive and the local climate and altitude. It was a stroke of luck that our travels in Laconia on the Peloponnese coincided with the area's mid-January harvest.
Olive groves are idyllic places, especially early in the year when they are carpeted with fresh green grass and dotted with wild flowers. I definitely understand why visitors fall for the romantic idea of buying a cottage and olive grove and retiring to Greece! There are several ways to harvest olives, ranging from the purely manual to the entirely mechanised. We used the most basic way: hand held olive combs, which resemble miniature garden rakes. This method is claimed to be 'better' by the farmers who use it as it causes less damage to both olives and trees.
Manual harvesting coincides with pruning, so the first step is to send a man with a chainsaw up the tree to lop off many of the olive-bearing branches. These fall onto large sheets that have been laid out below the tree. Once the pruning is complete the combing begins - both of the branches remaining on the tree (necessitating climbing into the tree and/or using combs on long poles) and those on the floor, for which the small hand trowel-sized combs are used.
At first it seems like very hard work. Many of the cut branches are heavy, bushy and tricky to manoeuvre. But after just a short time some of us start to really get into it. It's almost meditative, standing there in the spring sunshine combing and combing. A rhythm develops: pick a branch, comb, turn, comb, turn, comb, double check there are no olives left... Next branch. Once you've got the knack (quickly acquired) these simple hand combs are remarkably effective, stripping the olives but leaving almost all the leaves.
Meanwhile the children are up in the trees, combing and chatting and trying to impress each other with how far they can reach and how high they can climb. The olives build up on the sheet and we have to be careful not to step on too many of them. Surprisingly they are not all ripely black, but we're assured that this isn't a problem. They are destined for olive oil and variation in ripeness won't much affect the final product.
By an adjacent tree, to speed things up, a bit of mechanisation is going on in the form of a box containing a rotating drum fitted with stiff plastic strips. When an olive branch is held over the drum the plastic strips swiftly and violently strip off the olives. It's certainly quicker, but adds a lot of leaves and twigs to the harvest and it is noisy and rather alarming to use. Another electric tool is being used on some of the higher, uncut branches - a sort of electric pitchfork with rotating, undulating tines. It doesn't look pleasant to use and the one volunteer who has a go only lasts a minute or two.
In a few hours on a warm sunny afternoon we dilettante olive pickers harvest one tree and make a start on a second. Meanwhile the owner's extended family have been working methodically with the olive stripping drum and electric pitchfork and have completed more than a dozen trees. At the end of the day there are 22 sacks of olives to go to the olive oil pressing factory (read about our visit to the factory here
). This is a satisfying result for us, but for the owners it's just a start - there are several hundred more trees to complete in the coming days.
If you happen to be in Laconia (south of Sparta) in winter and are interested in picking olives, contact Evangelos at firstname.lastname@example.org
Combing the pruned olive branches
The shady olive grove
Ripe olives on the tree
The basic tool of manual harvesting - the olive comb
Olive harvest in full swing
Particularly dark, ripe olives
Yellow Oxalis flowers in the olive grove
Combing an olive branch
Pruning the olive tree with a chainsaw. To the left is the mechanised olive stripper
Harvesting with an electric pitch fork-like tool
Stripping olives mechanically
Part of the completed harvest
At the end of the day
Article & photos posted February 12th 2016
Text and photos copyright © 2016 Lucy Hornberger. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use prohibited.