There is something very reassuring to me about the presence of the olive tree. Come summertime in Cyprus, it is a savior to an otherwise bleak terraine. Cyrpus is dusty, dry and hot in the summer. (Or humid and damp depending if you are by the water, but always hot.) When you look into the distance and see the mighty olive trees that have stood for hundreds of years, there is something warm and reassuring about their presence. For the last two years I have gone with my family to pick the olives, and then press the same into olive oil. The process is hard work. It involves a few early morning trips, rakes, tarps, packed lunches. But it is always well worth the effort. In a 3 part series of articles we will look at how to go about making your own olive oil. In the first part, we will look at “how to pick your own olives”. In the second, we will look at “how to press your own olives”. In the third part, “olive oil explained” we will look at the different types of olive oil, what factors can affect the quality of olive oil, and why some years yield more olives than others. And there will also be an easy-to-make bread recipe in there along the way.
Part 1: Picking Olives
The things you will need:
Large Canvas Bags or Plastic Crates
Step Ladder and/or Ladder (depending on how large the tree is)
Lots of Snack Food
As it turns out, you do need some “olive oil picking” gear. You can go up to a tree and pick olives and place them in a bag. This method works. But you may be standing next to an olive tree for quite some time. So, to make it easier, you should purchase some “olive rakes” which you can actually purchase pretty easily in Cyprus from your corner store. Olive rakes are literally rakes specially made so that one can rake olives off of an olive tree branch. There are apparently “mechanical” olive rakes that shake the branch causing the olives to fall to the ground. These are faster, but I have not used one so cannot say whether it is worth investing in one. I know for our fields and trees, we sometimes gather up to 500kg of olives a year and with 4 people working it usually takes about 5 full days to collect all of the olives. No mechanical rakes are used – just the plastic rakes.
The reason that you may need pruning scissors is to cut any small plants or brush growing underneath the olive trees so that the tarps that you will lay underneath the branches sit flat. You also don’t want to walk on a canvas and suddenly trip as a result of one of these plants sticking up.
Below the trees, you will need to lay large tarps to catch the olives that literally fall from the branches as you rake them. These are a necessity when picking olives. The last thing you want to be doing is searching on your hands and knees for all the olives you have raked off the branches. The tarps are also useful because once you have finished raking an olive tree, you can easily gather the olives together in a group and shovel them into your carrier bag or crate.
Step Ladder or Ladder
Some olive trees are hundreds of years old and very large. For these you will need to take with you step ladders or ladders to reach those olives on the higher branches. Of course, they also sell longer rakes which can help you reach the higher branches without having to climb onto a step ladder or ladder, but even still there can be some that are hard to reach.
Large Canvas Bags or Plastic Crates
Once the olives have been raked off the tree, they need to be place in heavy-duty bags or crates. These are the crates or heavy-duty bags you will use to cart the olives to the olive press or “eliotrivio”. Before they are taken to be pressed, you will need to sort the olives as there will also be a lot of branch debris in with the actual olives. Most olive presses will have machines that will do this for you, but it is best to do it before you take the olives to the olive press, to ensure that as much of the debris as possible is taken away.
Lots of Snack Food
Usually, people pick olives from the early morning until lunch, or even until the early afternoon. It is tiresome work, and often times you are in a field or a plot in the middle of nowhere. Which means it is important to bring your own water and food. Usually we pack a classic Cypriot lunch – lountza, tomato and halloumi in pita bread for these days…wrapped in tin foil. I am not sure what it is, but my memory of Cyprus sandwiches always involves them being wrapped in tin foil.
The next step is to separate the olives from the branch debris. A good trick is to use an electric fan. As you tip the olives into crates in front of the blowing fan, the fan will blow the branch debris and dust away from the heavier olives as they fall into a separate crate. And, of course, don’t forget to have your Cyprus coffee at some stage during this whole process.So that’s about it for “how to pick olives”. Pretty straightforward to describe, but lots of work in reality. At the moment it is my aunt’s generation who takes care of this difficult task. I often wonder what my generation will do. We enjoy the olive oil. I enjoyed it while I was working in London, and even in Canada. But will we go to the fields like our parents and dedicate days to picking these olives when it is our turn? It would be such a shame to let this tradition go, considering that some of our trees are hundreds of years old. I am sure we will find our own path with time. Until then, at least we know how to do it – in theory. Next week we will look at the process of actually pressing the olives – where to go, how long it takes, what to do with the olive oil once it has been pressed…