‘The tree bears more fruit when it feels threatened’ I was told, while watching a burlap sack fill with 100 pounds of electric green olives.
‘That’s why we prune the trees so severely, to encourage more fruit.’
It was a sunny October day in the southwest Peloponnese and the first day of the local harvest. I had traveled here to participate in one of Greece’s most traditional annual rituals: the hand-picking of olives. In Costa Navarino alone there are 6,000 olive trees that need to be picked by hand, and I was about to witness how it was done.
There are no crazy tree-shaking machines here – just a few strong men with a rake-like tool and a big green net for catching the olives before they hit the ground. One man grabbed hold of the gnarled trunk, climbing towards the top, pruning off entire branches. The workers on the ground snatched these up off the ground, and started whacking them to release olives onto the net below. Each swing sent hard olives flying in and all directions, and was accompanied by an unmistakable ‘thwack’ sound.
‘Want to give it a try?’ I was handed a long rake and pointed to a section of the tree. It was filled with fruit, yet as I combed through the leaves I couldn’t seem to make it rain olives. The experienced worker demonstrated the motion again, suggesting I put a little more strength behind each pull. After just five minutes the muscles in my shoulder started to tighten – long before the limb was free of all its fruit.
As I tried to make a dent in my assigned branch, I listened to stories about the history of harvesting olives. Traditionally during the weeks of harvest, a cloth bassinet was constructed and hung between branches of an olive tree. While the rest of the family picked olives at their peak moment, the baby remained safely suspended in the shade of the tree.
Right as I was getting the hang of the rake tool, it was time for the next step in the process.
The net surrounding the tree – that keeps the olives from touching the ground, maintaining their purity – is picked up to gather all the olives in one area. Workers then surrounded the mound of fruit, rifling through and tossing bad olives aside. When only bright green ones remained, a burlap sack was filled to the brim, and effortlessly thrown over a shoulder to be carried to the truck.
I learned that the best olive oil is made quickly after picking, so while the workers set up their net on the next tree to start the process all over again, I jumped into the truck with a pickup full of burlap sacks of olives.
It was time to go to the mill.