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Olive trees are commonly found around the Mediterranean, the word itself derived from the Roman word ‘oliva’, in turn derived from Mycenaean Greek έλαία. Olive trees (and olive oil) are one of the plants most commonly referred to in literature,  going back to the Odyssey, the Iliad, the Bible and the Quran. Over the years, the olive has been the symbol of peace, pureness, fertility, wisdom and glory.

athina When Athens was little more than a little village atop an impenetrable rock two of the Immortals, Athina and Poseidon, held a contest to see who the village would be named after. Poseidon struck the rock with his trident and a spring appeared. The inhabitants were greatly impressed, until they tasted the salty water. Athina planted an olive stone and the instantaneous tree (well, she was a goddess) sprung forth olives. Athina was declared the winner and the village named in her honour.

In ancient Greece the olive tree was considered sacred (and almost is today) and victors in the Panhellenic Games (e.g. Olympic games) were awarded an olive branch rather than a medal.

Olive trees grow best in a Mediterranean climate and suit poor soil better than rich soil. Growing to a maximum height of around 15 metres (49 feet), they can live for 2,000 years or more and older trees have broad, gnarled trunks up to 10 metres in circumference.

The olive crop is harvested in autumn and winter, mostly by hand rather than by machine due to land contours and largely small-scale family production . Some olives are left to fall, with nets spread on the ground in advance, but mostly olives are raked off with a ‘comb’. At harvest time the trees are also pruned to help maintain health and promote growth.

In addition to the olive fruit and olive oil, olive leafs are used as a herbal medicine and olive wood is considered a ‘good’ wood and certainly the branches cut during the harvest keep many houses warm over winter.

Olives for consumption are traditionally nicked and soaked in brine for several days, olives for oil (another word derived from ‘olive’) are taken to the mill, e.g. at Agios Nikolaos, Sami, etc, where traditionally the mill keeps a percentage of the oil as payment (and then sells on).

The olive, and olive oil, are considered an essential ingredient in the healthy Mediterranean diet; the monosaturate fatty acid does not have the same cholesterol-raising effect of saturated fats and olive oil is a good source of antioxidants.

Although there are thousands of varieties of olive a few stand out. Most well known is the Kalamata olive, which is highly productive, excellent quality, widely grown across Greece, has Protected Designation of Origin status and used primarily (in Greece) for the table. The Amfissa olive is also widely grown, for the table and oil, is highly productive, excellent quality and also has PDO status. Less well known but quite widely grown on Kefalonia is the Koroneiki olive, a smaller olive producing a high yield of exceptional quality oil.

The three standard grades of olive oil are:

Extra virgin: the olives must be cold pressed with no additives, acidity must be less than 1%.

Virgin: also from the first cold pressing, acidity can be up to 3.3% but usually is around 2%, may not taste quite so delightful as extra virgin oil.

Pure: produced after refining, it has very little vitamin E and is usually mixed with a small amount of virgin oil. Greeks wouldn’t use it for salad dressing as it’s best suited for cooking.

Commercial refineries may also produce pomace oil and lite olive oil.

Pomace oil: the oil produced after the residue of the first pressing has been re-pressed or spun in a centrifuge. This
has very little vitamin E and is  mixed with a small amount of virgin oil and is suitable for cooking.

Lite olive oil: the lowest grade,
has very little vitamin E and, despite what some may assume, is no lower in fat or calorie content. Suitable for cooking.

Based around the theme of the olive tree, a unifying element for the Mediterranean area and symbol of peace, friendship and wellbeing, the Olive Tree Route is a "bridge" between the olive oil producing countries: from Messina to Greece and the Mediterranean area. Numerous events are organised with the aim to promote the intercultural dialogue among peoples and the history and culture surrounding this precious tree.


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