I’ve been a big fan of olive oil since the first time I was in Greece in 1967, when I discovered that it was a significant part of the Greek diet. Prior to that, my only awareness of olive oil was that it came in tiny bottles which you bought at the chemist, and kept in the medicine cupboard at home. I seem to recollect it was used (slightly warmed) for trickling into wax-blocked ears, or something like that. I had no idea that you could eat it. But those early days in Corfu made me realise what wonderful stuff it was. Very often, I would make a meal out of fresh bread dipped in olive oil, with maybe a sprinkle of salt and a few drops of freshly squeezed lemon. And it was delicious.
Olive oil has been produced in the Mediterranean since 6000 BC. I always wonder (and this applies to many foods, not just olive oil) who first had the idea to get oil out of olives. Because it’s not a naturally obvious thing to do. Olives, when picked, are inedible. Hard and bitter. But some bright spark somewhere down the line decided to marinade them in salted water for a couple of months (now why on earth would you do that?), and discovered that after having been marinaded they became eminently edible, albeit for many an acquired taste. And someone else, a couple of millennia further down the line, for some bizarre reason thought “I know, I’ll get a sack of olives, crush them up, seeds an’ all, and then stick the resulting paste in a press, squeeze ’em hard, and see what happens…” .
And what happened, of course, was olive oil. As well as being a delicious culinary ingredient, it also had other uses (lamp oil, medicine, soap etc), so became a valuable commodity, and as such worth cultivating. And since the Mediterranean climate provides ideal conditions for the olive tree, just about every country in Southern Europe and North Africa, Turkey, and the Levant, to a greater or lesser degree, grows olives as a commercial crop.
The biggest producer of olive oil by a country mile is Spain, producing six times as much oil as second-placed Italy. Greece comes in at number three, followed by Tunisia and Morocco.
However, there are a lot of dodgy dealings going on with the olive oil trade, such as the fact that Italy exports considerably more oil than it actually produces (?), and I remember when I lived in the far south of Greece in the 1990s, during harvest there would be small (one or two thousand ton or thereabouts I’d guess) tankers tied up in the harbour loading lower grade oil for export to Spain. Not to mention unscrupulous merchants who mix rapeseed and other cheaper vegetable oils with it and sell it as ‘Extra Virgin’ olive oil. And it seems to be universal. The most publicity has been about dodgy oil from Italy and Spain, but there have been a couple of recent articles in the local news here about ‘olive oil’ factories (in reality small warehouses) getting busted making ‘Extra Virgin Olive Oil’ from rapeseed oil, colourings and flavourings. Small-scale, two-man operations, but there’s money to be made in dodgy oil, so one has to be careful when buying. As far as I know, none of the big Greek brands have been implicated in the ‘Not-Quite-Extra-Virgin’ oil scandal; mostly they’ve been Italian and Spanish.
The Greeks, although coming in at number three in terms of production, are way ahead of the rest when it comes to consumption.
When you sit down to eat in Greece, there is always a bottle of olive oil on the table, and it is applied liberally to (among other things) salads and Horta (Χόρτα) a dish of boiled greens very popular here, and often whimsically translated into English on menus as ‘wild weeds’. It’s delicious, and is always served with lashings of olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon.
A few years ago, the EU, in its wisdom, decided that refillable jugs and bowls of olive oil would be banned (they do love banning stuff, don’t they?), and that henceforth all olive oil must be presented in either non-refillable bottles or those little plastic sachets like ketchup and mustard come in at fast-food joints. Naturally, there was an immediate outcry, both from the restaurant trade (particularly in Greece) and the public. Many Greek restaurant owners have land with olives, and serve their own oil in the restaurant. This would no longer be possible under the proposed regulations unless the owner went to considerable expense to have his oil packaged in the approved manner. Fortunately, the sheer volume of protest at this proposal persuaded the EU to drop the idea.
I use a lot of olive oil. I use it for everything – cooking, salads and as a skin moistening oil. My wife uses it on her hair to keep it lustrous. And to my mind, Greek oil is the best. It can vary from region to region, depending on the type of olive, the terroir, the climate, and how the trees are looked after and the harvest collected.
Corfu is famous for its olive trees. Many of them are more than six hundred years old, and are magnificent to behold – huge gnarled edifices that have made Corfu what it is. The Venetians, when in occupation from the mid 14th century to the late 18th century, paid the Corfiots to plant olives, which the islanders did with enthusiasm. As a result, the land built up a rich topsoil, held in place by the many root systems, which has made Corfu the greenest of green islands. [In contrast to most other Greek islands, where the inhabitants chopped down all the trees to build boats. With no roots to bind the earth, the topsoil was washed away, resulting in most islands being reduced to arid, rocky outcrops with little vegetation.] In fact it is so luxuriant that it has its own microclimate, producing lots of rain throughout the year and thus maintaining its verdant characteristics. However, when it comes to olive oil, the stuff Corfu produces is, I’m afraid to say, crap. The trees are too big for good olives, and because of their size, harvesting is a very hit and miss affair, with most people opting to put nets down under the trees and just allowing the olives to fall naturally. Every week or so, they will gather the olives that have fallen and put them into sacks to take to the olive press. This means that many of the olives gathered will wait a week or more before pressing, which is not good, as once off the tree, olives degrade fairly rapidly. In other more commercially minded olive growing areas, the trees are pruned every year to keep them at a manageable size (which also has the effect of producing better fruit), and when it’s time to harvest, they will spread the nets under the tree, and use a mechanical harvester, which strips all the fruit off the tree in one session. This is then bagged up and taken to the olive press, ideally within 24 hours of being harvested. The rapid tree-to-press timeline produces good, fresh smelling and tasting oil.
As I already said, I use a lot of olive oil, and even here in Greece, it’s expensive. In the supermarket, you’re looking at between €5 and €8 per litre (it tends to be cheaper when you buy the 4 or 5 litre tins rather than 1 litre bottles). However, if you can find a producer, he will usually sell it for closer to the wholesale price, so a week or two ago I asked my landlady (of the workshop I rent) if she knew anyone in the area who sold olive oil. “Ah yes”, she replied, “my brother has olives”. So arrangements were made. I bought one of the large 17 litre tins known as ‘tenekes’ (τενεκές) that are traditionally used for olive oil here, and gave it to her, along with the money, so that next time she saw her brother (he visited weekly) she could get me a tin. These normally are sold by producers for €70, which works out to €4.12 per litre, but because my landlady likes me, I paid €50, which comes out at €2.94 per litre – a considerable saving on the supermarket cost.
The oil is unfiltered, as many of the producers prefer it that way, saying it tastes better. And it would seem that cloudy olive oil is becoming quite trendy these days, and commanding a premium price.
Personally, I’m not really bothered one way or the other – it’s not something I’ve ever thought about. But cloudy or not, this oil is delicious. Hints of fresh-cut grass and a spicy, peppery flavour. Probably the best oil I’ve tasted. Less than a month ago, the olives were still on the tree, and that freshness comes through, too.
This tin should see us through until next year’s harvest, even taking into account the liberal way in which I splash it around!
Yet another reason to be living in Greece…