Extending the Olive Branch: My week in the Greek Olive Groves
Growing up most of us were always told that parents don’t have a favorite child. Everyone is loved equally and although you have different relationships with each child, your parents, for the most part, try not to show preferential treatment. Guess what, they have a secret they aren’t telling you, and it’s that they in fact have a favorite. That’s how I feel about the Greek Isles. Every island I’ve visited I loved, all for different reasons until I met Kythira. Don’t tell any of the other islands, but she’s my favorite.
Kythira is the Greek island that dreams are made of. Small villages dotting the coast, lush green landscapes with hiking trails leading to abandoned and historic treasures, beaches to rival the more touristy Grecian Isles. All of this was icing on the cake since I arrived here for one thing… the olives. Because my schedule became a little erratic and I added a last minute trip to Meteora & Thessaloniki my travel day to Kythira was a long one. I hopped a bus from Thessaloniki to the airport, then a flight to Athens and then yet another flight to Kythira.
Once we landed, the grounds crew dragged the metal stairs across the tarmac and towards the plane door. We descended and walked into the airport, with just one gate and one baggage claim. I waited for Big Red (my huge suitcase) to come barreling around on the serpentine belted carousel and then looked around for Albert from my guesthouse who was supposed to pick me up.
“I really don’t know who I’m looking for,” I muttered to myself as I scanned the ‘crowd’ looking for someone who looked like they were looking for someone too. I should reveal that there were less than a dozen passengers on my small prop plane and so the welcoming committee consisted of about 5 people but it seemed like everyone was paired up with their rides so I made my way to the front door and decided to wait by the curb thinking Albert may be late.
“Are you American?” a tall, soft-spoken women asked as I was wheeling my rouge behemoth towards the door.
“Albert, I found her,” she called to the gentleman she was with. “We thought you were Greek.”
We loaded up the car and headed for the guesthouse, Xenonas Fos Ke Choros & I was giddy with excitement for what was to come. I was staying for the week and we would be going out picking olives in the groves, collecting, pruning and then at the end of the week pressing them and seeing the fruits of our labor come full circle. We had a quick tour of the property and I knew it was going to be a peaceful week. There were no other buildings in sight and to get to the one restaurant in our small village at dinner you could take a flashlight and walk through the donkey path to the main road. I was in rural, countryside heaven.
The guesthouse was an oasis. Beautifully decorated, clean and comfortable, I had been staying in a lot of hostels this trip so it was the first I’d set eyes a queen sized bed in a LONG time and I slept that night on a cloud.
A few days of manual labor is just enough to make it fun without it starting to feel like real work. We laid netting on the floor of the olive grove around the trees and then like Mother Nature’s hair dresser we combed the branches with a small rake-like tool that reminded me of a little sand toy. There are mechanized tools that also do the same job, probably quicker, but this is a fun way to get a sense for how hard generations before us worked for their olive oil.
The scenery surrounding the olive groves sure beats the view from a cubicle. The first day we walked down the path a breeze rustled through the trees, the air was fresh and the scent of thyme and sage met my nose. When we took a break for lunch I found myself investigating, taking in the sea views or poking around a neighboring garden.
Once one tree is combed and pruned you turn your attention to those little gems on the nets, gathering the olives in a massive pile and picking out any large leaves, sticks or debris. The cleaner the batch the better the taste. The olives can vary in maturity and the combination can effect the taste and characteristic of the oil. Hoovering over the mound of olives, picking out twigs you can be sure to find a little spider or two jumping over the olives, scurrying towards the ground.
To show off what hard workers we are, we decided to time lapse our progress one afternoon:
We made jokes all week about our group being the best olive pickers and with my competitive nature I was hopeful that we would gather up one of the largest collections they’ve had. With the sun shining, the warm weather made it fun to be out in nature, climbing trees and the days went quickly, time goes by when you are busy in grove.
At the end of the week we gathered our coffee bags full of all the olives we had collected and took them over to the press where we got to see first hand how olive oil is made and taste the finished product hot off the presses.
The bags are poured out and run through a multiple machine process to press fresh, green oil. Taking your olives to the press is a social event. There are other olive growers waiting for their oils, talking with neighbors, enjoying a beer after work. It was fun feeling like a local, hanging out waiting for our oil to be finished. Everyone was so friendly and helpful in showing us what each machine does in the process to press the oil.
It was entertaining to see how these little olives get cleaned, shaken, sorted, spun, pressed and poured and we had crunchy bread on hand for a taste right as the oil went into the cans. I was so surprised to see the vibrant color and it tasted fresh, transporting you right back to the olive trees.
Across the street we had a wonderful view of the sunset, a beautiful backdrop for the evening. Some of the best sunrise and sunsets that I’ve seen have been on this trip to Greece.
At the end of the week we had the opportunity to have a local restaurant owner come and give a cooking class so we could leave the island with a delicious meal and have a traditional Greek recipe to take home with us.
The week I spent on Kythira was rewarding, relaxing and confirmed for me all the things I love about experiential travel. I left the island with a deeper connection than if I had just arrived as a tourist, and made new friends and lasting memories. Many thanks to Albert & Anita for being such gracious hosts!