Olive-Picking: Not All Fun and Games
A hands-on account of the most don’t-miss experience in the Greek countryside.
It’s not every day that someone turns to you and says “Shall we go to the countryside this weekend and pick the olives from our olive trees to make our own olive oil?” Could there possibly be a more dolce vita sentence? So when my husband asked me this during my first autumn in Greece, how could I resist?
I approached my first olive harvest with all the enthusiasm and excitement of a doughy-bodied city-dweller who has no idea about how much hard work goes into harvesting olives. Like many Greeks, my husband’s family owns a little cottage in the countryside which the family rotates between its members for city breaks or longer holidays. I had been there a few times already, and imagined the weekend ahead.
We’d roll up our sleeves and spend the day merrily gathering olives daintily from the dozen or so trees, one olive at a time, until we were done. Then someone would produce a little chequered tablecloth which we’d spread on the sun-dappled ground under the olive trees and snack on humble country fare like tomatoes, cheese and lemonade. And our cheeks would be flushed rosy pink from the satisfaction of a good day’s work as we poured out our prize – fresh, green olive oil – onto thick chunks of crusty bread. It was so picture perfect I could have cried just imagining it.
The reality, of course, was very different. The dozen or so trees turned out to be just under 40, and harvesting all of them in one day was not the Italian cinemaesque daydream I thought it would be. First, we unrolled enormous black nets under the trees to catch the falling olives. Then, we each got a little plastic rake and got to it. You drag the rakes over the leaves and separate out the olives from the tree, which then fall onto the nets laid out on the floor. You do this again and again until there are no more olives left. It’s a great way to get your aggression out.
By the time the sun began to set, we were done. We loaded up our friend’s pickup truck and drove our sack fulls of olives to a nearby olive press to have the oil extracted for us. These little olive presses can be found all over the Greek countryside. Here, the olives are washed and the leaves shaken out on conveyor belts before being pressed for oil. They still use large stone mills to grind the olives, though these are now electronically operated rather than donkey-powered. Each mill has its own system of payment – some take cash, others accept a portion of your olive oil harvest as payment.
It was warm inside the mill, and I was grateful to be out of the cold countryside. I was a mess after a full day’s olive harvest. Not having thought of taking gardening gloves, my hands were scratched and sore from whenever an olive branch took its revenge on me. I had dressed in old clothes on the advice of my husband, and since I didn’t want to cramp my style with a hat or scarf, my curly hair was generously festooned with twigs, leaves and cobwebs. The harvest had brought me face to face with how unfit I was – I ached all over, I still had the bitter taste of an olive on my tongue having gamely ignored advice that olives straight from the tree are totally inedible. Trust me when I tell you, listen to the Greeks.
The mill owner came over with a cup of Greek coffee for me, which I happily took into my chapped hands. He tried to chat with me, but my Greek back then was very patchy. Realizing I was an immigrant, he chatted to my husband, who suddenly burst out laughing. It turned out that the mill owner wanted to know how much my husband had paid me for a day’s labor as a cash-in-hand immigrant olive picker.
“She’s my wife!” he replied. Oh well. None of this mattered though, when around 20 minutes later I was waved over to see the literal fruits of my labor.
Through a funnel at the end of the production line, our very own olive oil began to trickle out, slowly at first and then more rapidly. The mill owner brought me a piece of bread and dipped it under the stream of highly aromatic, bright green olive oil. When I popped it into my mouth, I had a sensation I’ll never forget. It was a fruity, perfumed, slightly spicy and flavor-packed Agourelaio, still warm from going through the mill. It was the freshest olive oil of the harvest and was one of the most dazzling things I had ever tasted in my whole life. It made everything worth it.
Now, when I get an invitation to pick olives in the countryside, I don’t hesitate to say yes, because I know that the reward waiting for me at the end of the work is worth every second.
5 PLACES TO PICK YOUR OWN OLIVES
Want to have your own olive-picking adventure? If you want to take part in this most quintessentially Greek countryside activities during your stay in Greece, but with the added benefits of a cozy place to stay, delicious home-cooked food (maybe even a chequered tablecloth under the sun-dappled olive trees) and knowledgeable guides to explain all about the humble olive, here are five places around Greece where you can live the experience.
HANDPICKED GREECE, CRETE
The people at Handpicked Greece have been running their olive harvest breaks for a year and a half now. In a sprawling olive grove in Chania, Crete, guests are invited to experience the age-old tradition of olive harvesting, as well as cheese making, wine seminars, cooking workshops and soap making classes depending on what you are interested in.
The olive-picking package is listed as running for seven days, but they are flexible and willing to create longer or shorter experiences as needed. Guests have the chance to join the olive harvest from November through to February. Prices are around 1,300 euros per person and include accommodation in a luxury villa, meals, transfers, all workshops and activities, cheese, wine and honey tasting, equipment and more. Book through their site. • Tel. (+30) 28250.837.46
From October to December, guests at the Westin Resort, Costa Navarino can learn about the rich gastronomic and farming culture of Messinia by joining the olive harvest as part of the Messinian Authenticity Program. Taking part in the harvest offers insight into an age-old tradition that simply cannot be gained from a book. And apart from the valuable learning experience, a good time is guaranteed.
They use the traditional method, in which nets are laid around trees to catch the falling olives. Long sticks are then used to strike the branches and knock off any stubborn olives. Guests are invited to ask questions and learn about the olive harvesting process.
Taking part in the olive harvest, which takes place in October and November, incurs no extra charge. The experience concludes with a visit to the olive mill and an olive oil tasting session where local experts help you discern the differences between the various types of the region’s renowned extra virgin olive oil.
Olive oil tasting sessions cost 25 euros per person and are held throughout the resort’s operating season. A traditional meal is provided as part of the experience. • Tel. (+30) 27230.909.14
ATHENSSTYLE, ATHENS AND KALAMATA
This hostel in Athens comes with an exciting added extra for anyone who is staying in the city but still wants to go on an olive harvest. They have joint accommodation operating in Kalamata, and offer several packages which take visitors on olive harvests.
Their three-day olive picking experience involved three full days of olive picking in the olive groves of Kalamata with a local guide, ending with tasting the olive oil which is pressed from your harvest. It costs 300 euros per person and includes accommodation in a shared four-bed room (upgrade to a private double room depending on availability at an extra 50 euros/room/night) and breakfast, transport to the grove, olive picking and a final barbecue. Transport to Kalamata is not included.
The one-week Athens and Peloponnesian experience includes a welcome to Athens with a range of events for your first three days in the city. On day four, you depart for Kalamata. The 900-euro experience lasts seven days and includes two nights’ accommodation in Athens, four nights in Kalamata in a shared 4-bed room and breakfast, transport to and from Athens, Athens walking tour and Ancient Corinth visit, olive picking with a guide, olive tasting and barbecue. Entrance fees to monuments are not included.
Guests can also take advantage of spending three days in Athens where they will receive a free night’s stay at AthenStyle for every three nights booked if they are participating in the Olive Tree Experience. • Tel. (+30) 210.322.5010
EUMELIA FARM, LACONIA
Eumelia is located in the Peloponnese, in the prefecture of Laconia near the village of Gouves. At this agrotourism-orientated organic farm, guests can experience a variety of activities, including olive harvesting in November and December.
There is no additional cost for guests at the farm to join the olive harvest. When guests book with the guesthouse, they receive an email with details of the activities they can experience during their stay. These include wine tasting, olive oil tasting, trips to the farm to explain its philosophy, cooking lessons, yoga retreats, natural soap making olive oil, honey tasting, herb gathering. If you love animals, you’re welcome to take part in the daily care and feeding of the farm’s animals too.
The program is relaxed and it’s up to the guests to decide how they want to take part. For anyone wanting to take home some of the oil, if they are around on the day when the olives go to the press, they can go along and try the olive oil as soon as it’s pressed along with local bread and cheese. A bottle of this oil is given to guests as a present. If you miss a visit to the olive press, the farm’s shop sells olive oil from the previous year’s harvest. Book online. • Tel. (+30) 6947151400 (Marilena Karadima)
XENONAS FOS KE HOROS, KYTHIRA
In 2008, Anita Snippe and Albert Blok moved from the Netherlands to the island of Kythira and, a year later, they began operating the Xenonas Fos ke Horos guesthouse where guests can join in the olive harvest during November.
Their olive-picking holidays get a lot of interest from a wide range of visitors, from solo travelers to groups, with many people coming back again the next year. The program they offer is relaxed, and so it leaves guests with time to experience the countryside surrounding the 100-year old olive grove.
At the end of the visit, guests are taken to the olive press where they can watch the olive oil being produced and, depending on the harvest, get to take a bottle of the fresh oil. Groups range from 4-8 people per group and the olive picking holiday can be booked for one or two weeks.
Prices start at 465 euros per person per week, and include seven nights in the luxury guesthouse, 3-4 olive picking days, a visit to the olive press, breakfast, lunch in the grove during picking days, dinner at the guesthouse during picking days, a Greek cooking workshop followed by dinner, airport transfers, and transport to and from the olive grove. Anita and Albert are also on hand to give you advice on planning and arranging your visit. • Tel. (+30) 27360.315.74
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