The back of the truck was full of burlap sacks of olives. It was time to go to the mill.
After participating in the hand-picking of olives in Costa Navarino, it was now time to witness the next step of the process. As the workers moved their green netting to the next tree to start the picking process all over again, I jumped into the truck for a short ride to the olive mill. The roads of Messinia wound through more olive groves, over streams, and past tall cypress trees while climbing hills. When we arrived at the mill, there was no time for small talk: the faster the process begins, the better the olive oil.
The truck backed up into the mouth of the mill. One by one, bags of electric green olives were poured down into a metal bin and scooped up by a conveyor belt. With the excitement of a child I followed the olives and watched as they went through the process of being pressed, churned, and after releasing an incredible aroma, the first drops of olive oil emerged. I couldn’t get over how scientific the whole process was — temperature controlled by a serious looking set of gadgets that I didn’t dare go near.
Aside from the excitement of watching our day’s work turned into the first batch of olive oil of the season, this trip to the mill was special for another reason. Not only did we have the chance to witness how olive oil is made, but we got to meet the family responsible for making it. A cheerful, blonde little girl ran around my feet as I tried to capture each moment of the process. Just off the main equipment room was a kitchen where the girl’s blonde and beautiful mother was preparing a snack. She had a fire crackling in a deep stone fireplace and was getting ready to toast fresh bread right on the fire.
Before it was time to sample the olive oil, I first had a couple other things to try. During a handful of days in Greece, I sampled the traditional Greek dish of spanakopita — a savory phyllo pie stuffed with spinach and wild greens — many times, but none compared to what came out of this woman’s kitchen. After taking my first delicious bite, I looked up at her standing at the sink, with the incredible Messinian countryside spread outside her window. On this day I was glad to have skipped breakfast as I tucked into a second golden piece.
Soon it was time for the olive oil tasting. First I spooned some onto a toasted slice of thick cut bread, taking my time to slowly chew and taste. Next olive oil tasting jars appeared. After some olive oil was poured in the jar and the lid placed on top, I warmed the olive oil in the palm of my hand before inhaling its fragrance and putting it to my lips for a taste. It was hard to believe that just hours before this had been olives on a tree, perfectly ripe and waiting to be picked by hand.
The whole experience gave me a new appreciation for humble olive oil. There are many hands involved in the process and a great deal of time and care is spent ensuring its quality. This simple product is partly responsible for the legendary healthy nature of the Greeks, and they use it liberally in their cooking.
Once the last piece of bread was devoured and the last pieces of spanakopita wrapped in tin foil to take home, it was time to leave the mill. Driving back to Costa Navarino I saw many farmers attending to their own olive trees, just as their ancestors have done for centuries.