Olive Oil: The Gold of Corfu and Greece

The olive tree is a sign of fertility, peace, wealth, wisdom, success, and good fortune. This tree, a fan of the sea and the Mediterranean sun, can thrive in dry, rocky soil and is able to withstand extreme weather and wind. In Greece, it is common to plant an olive tree when a baby is born. The child and the olive tree will grow together, the tree will produce its first crop of olives when the child is six years old. There are olive trees that are more than a thousand years old, even though the average life span of an olive tree is between 300 and 600 years.

On Crete, you’ll find the oldest olive tree that is still actively bearing fruit. Tree-ring dating puts its age at least at 2000 years. However, its proponents put it between 3000 and 4000 years old. Recent research by German scientists from the Dresden University of Technology has placed the age of a massive olive tree on the island of Corfu, where it is known as the “Evdokia”, anywhere between 1086 to 1200 years. The Evdokia olive tree is among the ten largest and oldest living trees in Europe.

The olive tree may trace its origins back to the Eastern Mediterranean around 7,000 years ago. Its emergence is said to have begun in Syria. Foraging for wild olives in Greece dates to the Neolithic, but it was likely on the island of Crete that the tree was first domesticated for use in agriculture. Historical and archaeological evidence shows that olives were widely grown and traded on Crete throughout the Minoan period (3000–1000 BC). As the ancient Greeks established colonies, they introduced olive groves. The Romans helped spread the olive tree throughout their empire due to the oil it produces. There was a lot of progress made in the transmission of information about olives during this time, and new methods of olive extraction were devised.

One of the best-known olive tree myths involves the city of Athens, Greece. The gods Athena and Poseidon both wanted to rule the land of Attica. The city’s patron would be the person who would provide the city with the best gift. On the Acropolis, where the competition took place, Poseidon shattered the earth with his trident, forming a spring, while Athena planted an olive tree. Unlike Athena’s olive tree, which provided the people with food, oil, and timber, Poseidon’s spring water was too salty to be useful. She won, and the name of the city was changed to Athens.

Today, Greece is the world’s third-largest producer of edible olives and olive oil, with 99% of all olive oil coming from the Mediterranean region. There are 120 million olive trees around the country, and 450,000 people make a living, or contributing to their family’s income, through olive oil production. Around 122,000 tons of olives for consumption and 350,000 tons of olive oil are produced annually in Greece. Greece has the highest per capita usage of olive oil in the world, at more than 15 kg per year. Olive oil is an integral part of Greek cooking and is used in almost every dish.

Around 4 million olive trees, both wild and cultivated, are said to exist on the island of Corfu. The olive tree was a minor crop in ancient and medieval Corfu. During that time, it was the island’s vine-growing reputation that extended well beyond its borders.
After Suleiman the Magnificent destroyed Corfu in 1537, uprooting most of the Corfiot vineyards in the process, the Venetians ordered and funded the planting of olive trees, increasing the island’s olive agriculture. The Senate supported the people of Corfu by offering them 42 sequins for every 100 olive saplings they planted during the middle of the 17th century.
This incentive worked, as oil output increased from 2,000 barrels in the 16th century to 70,000 barrels at the end of the 18th century. Most of the oil was sent to Venice, and legend has it that it was Corfiot oil that kept the lamps lit across the towns of the Republic.

Corfu was the primary source of olive oil for the Most Serene Republic during the 18th century. Therefore, the island’s decision to cultivate only olives was in Venice’s interests, and it was allowed to export olive oil only to Venice.
The primary industry was crucial to the economy of the island of Corfu for the majority of the twentieth century. Much of Corfu’s population and the island’s commercial capital were put toward olive farming.
Around 4 million olive trees, some of which are more than 400 years old, now fill the island of Corfu. Sixty percent of the already cultivable area is devoted to olive groves. Corfu typically produces about 15,000 tons of olive oil annually.
Most households in Corfu have some olive trees. A family’s prosperity in the 17th century was measured in part by their tree stock.

One of the earliest Greek olive varieties is the Corfiot olive, commonly known as Olea europaea or Lianolia. It’s a cold-hardy small fruit that holds up well in the winter. It can flourish in poor soils at towering heights and has massive trunks.
In contrast to their smaller and wider mainland counterparts, Corfiot olive trees may reach heights of over six meters and are typically pruned to encourage vertical growth rather than horizontal spread. Moreover, they can bend and twist their massive trunks in a broad variety of ways.
Why exactly Corfiot farmers started growing olive trees at such a large extend is a mystery. Some of the factors that contributed to such dense plantings and rapid tree growth include the Venetians’ per-tree subsidy.
This makes picking olives straight off the tree a time-consuming and labor-intensive process, which is why Corfu has two harvests each year.

In the month of October, olives are hand-picked from the trees and used to make extra virgin olive oil. The natural second harvest runs from November through April. When it comes to harvesting olives in Corfu, farmers wait for the olives to fall from the trees or are helped along by the wind and rain before collecting them in black nets. Once a month, the farmers come and collect the olives from the nets. This crop yields olive oil of lesser quality. Throughout the summer months, you will likely see the black nets wrapped around the olive tree trunks before they are unwrapped and spread out again in the winter. After being picked, the olives are loaded into big bags and taken to a press.

There was a lot more work involved in the production of olive oil in ancient times. For the purpose of oil extraction, a donkey, a set of mats, and an antique stone mill were employed. In several of the towns around Corfu, you may still find the massive stone presses that were used to produce olive oil centuries ago. Back then it was common to build the olive presses inside fortified buildings.
The olives and their pits were traditionally ground into a pulp using a huge, cylindrical millstone positioned on an upper milling stone. Then a donkey would pull a wooden beam linked to the higher millstone in order to spin it, continuing this process for several hours. A large quantity of olive paste (sometimes called “cake”) is transferred from buckets to mats, and the mats are placed into the press until the press is full.
When the layers are compacted, the press forces the water and oil through the cracks and onto the bottom tray. Oil and vegetable water (also known as amurca) are combined in the extracted liquid, which eventually drains into a pit. The oil floats to the top after settling and is then decanted off. As the oil is filtered, it becomes much clearer. The oil residue that is left over used to be utilized for igniting fires in lamps.

Olives were traditionally hand-picked throughout the harvest. Some olive presses still employ the stone-grinding process, but the mills’ movement is now driven by electricity instead of manual labor. Picked olives are immediately transferred to a processing plant in plastic crates on a truck, where they undergo a cleaning procedure.
Before the olives proceed to the grinding phase of the processing line, they are washed in order to get rid of any dirt that may have accumulated on them throughout the transportation process. A fan removes the leaves and lighter debris, while water flushes away the dirt and any remaining branches, leaves, twigs, or other waste.

 Again, great care is taken to ensure the finest possible outcome by thoroughly washing the olives with water to eliminate pesticides. Once the olives have been cleaned, they are ground up for the extraction process, at which point the olive oil is separated from the olive pomace.

Machines that use stainless steel hammers, blades, or disks to crush and grind the olives are gradually replacing traditional methods of making olive paste from whole olives and their pits. To free the oil from their vacuoles, the flesh cells must be torn apart, which is what happens when grinding them. To achieve this, cutting-edge crushers are used that don’t increase the temperature during grinding and provide a range of crushing options for the olives so that a consistent product can be produced regardless of the harvest type.

The olive paste is ground and then placed in a malaxer, which is essentially a stainless-steel trough with a corkscrew-shaped mixer rotating at the bottom. Because of the machine’s gentle stirring motion, the olive paste is well mixed, and the oil droplets can merge into bigger, more manageable droplets. This procedure usually takes between 20 and 40 minutes and is performed at a temperature of around 27 degrees.

The olive paste is ground and then placed in a malaxer, which is essentially a stainless-steel trough with a corkscrew-shaped mixer rotating at the bottom. Because of the machine’s gentle stirring motion, the olive paste is well mixed, and the oil droplets can merge into bigger, more manageable droplets. This procedure usually takes between 20 and 40 minutes and is performed at a temperature of around 27 degrees.
To extract the olive oil from the olive paste, it is first passed through a horizontal centrifuge (a decanter) to separate the water and solids. Once the water and debris have been removed, the oil is centrifuged again at a higher speed. Olive oil can be refined by filtering or racking after processing. To remove any last traces of water and sediment before pumping the clean oil into a new tank, the oil is “racked” through several big stainless-steel drums or tanks.

One liter of olive oil requires around 7 kg of olives. To make 39 liters of olive oil, you need around 15 sacks of olives. The paste, pomace oil, and kernel wood that remain after the olive oil is extracted can be utilized as animal feed, organic fertilizer, or as a solid biofuel to generate electricity.

In the past, olive oil was utilized in a wide variety of contexts, from religious ceremonies to medical treatments to fuel for oil lamps. It has been used on hair and skin for thousands of years to keep them soft. Olive oil soap is another useful byproduct that is gentle for delicate skin but still effective enough to help skin keep its suppleness and hydration. Olive wood’s superior quality means that common household items that are made out of it will survive for generations. In addition to their use in making olive oil, olives are a tasty snack on their own or as an ingredient in salads and bread. Olives are called “blessed fruit” for good reason.

Photos: Corfu Perspectives Guided Tours

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