Olive Harvesting for Beginners.
By Rory Cooper
Back in England, whenever people quizzed us about what we wanted to do while travelling, our first answer was always the same ‘we want to help out on an olive harvest in Greece’. I’ve no idea where the idea came from or who had it first but it’s one of the only things Juliet and I have ever agreed on so wholeheartedly, so we definitely had to do it. It was probably that we knew we’d be setting off at around the time that the olive harvests started in Greece and so we thought it would be easy to find a host who’d feed us and give us somewhere to stay in return for picking a few olives.
Our host Patrick told us the date that the harvest would start and volunteers started to turn up just in time for the big event, some were travellers such as ourselves, some were friends , others friends of friends, until the house was seemingly teeming with people and the day grew closer. Everywhere you looked across the panoramic view of the Greek countryside white columns of smoke from the olive branch fires billowed into the sky, signifying that in that particular grove harvesting was already in full swing.
The olive harvest in Greece runs from November until February and everyone has their own reasons for why they harvest at that time and why that time is a better time than anyone else’s. It’s all down to the flavour of oil apparently: the earlier you start the harvest means that the olives are smaller, greener and produce smoother flavoured oil, but there’s less oil because of the size of the olives, the older olives give much more oil but have a more bitter taste, everyone’s got an opinion and they all think they’re right, there have probably been wars about what makes for the best flavour of oil so it’s best to keep out of it.
The day arrived and our team of harvesters assembled ready for action, at as close to the crack of dawn as it was possible for a bunch of slightly effete, mostly middle-class office workers to manage without access to a Starbucks. Of course two of our number did know what they were doing, Patrick and Heidi – the couple whose house we were staying in and whose olive grove we were about to decimate had been harvesting olives since they moved to Greece a few years before.
I’d heard bits and bobs about the process before, having been in an olive region of Greece in the middle of harvest time, there was precious little talk about anything else: instructions and tips came from all sides by expert olive farmers and enthusiastic amateurs alike, most of which were wildly different and flatly contradictory of each other. All this nonformation began to make me wonder if any scientific study of the olive farming process had been made at any time in humankind’s three thousand plus years of cultivating them for oil, or if all the collected knowledge was just educated guesses and wild speculation by the people who talked the loudest.
Fortunately the basic techniques of olive harvesting are the same all around the region, spread two large nets, one either side of the tree to catch the olives, hit the branches with a beater so that the olives go in the net, gather up the errant branches, and put the olives in a sack. Easy, you could train chimps to do it; hell chimps are clever you could teach something stupider to do it, like P.E. teachers or racists.
So we set off, spread the nets and let loose. It’s a curious thing about the British that they’ll give absolutely anything a go, to the best of their ability and with absolutely no half measures. After an initial session of instructions in which Patrick showed us how to knock the olives off with a beater, beaters are long metal poles with a large plastic fork on the end, designed to hit the branches without damaging the trees.
Everyone raced for the beaters and gave a few tentative swipes before gaining confidence and going batshit crazy. People who mere days before were doing paperwork and gossiping about minor celebrities around the photocopier let rip on branches with astounding ferocity, battering olives into each other like miniature shotgun blasts with no one uttering a word of complaint. It was like watching a remake of Braveheart set in a shopping centre. When all the olives we could easily dislodge were gone the group descended on the trees like a pack of locusts, picking every last olive from the branches until the tree was clean.
Being a mostly English group we would break every day for ‘Elevenses’, a quick fifteen minute cup of tea and a few slices of cake and some biscuits gave us the sugar rush we needed to last the couple of hours until lunch time. Our Englishness set us apart in various ways from the Greeks and the Albanians that the Greeks employed. We were definitely much slower, we heard tales of Albanian crews of four doing a hundred trees a day, whereas our team of about nine could manage about twenty-five on a good day. I imagined the Albanian workers as huge barrel-chested titans, capable of removing every olive from a tree with one swing of an improbably large beater, then dragging the nets away to the next tree with a single sweep of their massive forearms and doing it all again a few more times before sorting and bagging the olives filling ten sacks In less than a minute. In reality they were mostly just paunchy Eastern-European manual labourers who’d had more practice than us, they also didn’t really give a shit if they did a good job or not. Sometimes when we saw their trees there were so many olives left behind you’d have thought they’d been doing it blindfolded.
It wasn’t all bad for the Brits though, our trees were much cleaner, and we hardly even left an olive thanks to nine pairs of eyes scouring every tree, the Great British work ethic and some good old fashioned obsessive tendencies. We also enjoyed it more than they did, looking around at the group most people had a smile on their face, there were constant conversations about how much better it was to work outdoors, how beautiful Greece was, and how quickly the time flies when you’re mercilessly attacking a tree with a metal pole.
A couple of days into the harvest we received some new additions to our equipment in a pair of ‘ticklers’ complete with a generator with which to power them. Despite sounding like something Ann Summer’s would sell at the back of the shop, Ticklers are actually motorised olive harvesting tools consisting of a long metal shaft with a handle on the bottom, and a rotating head of plastic protuberances designed to knock olives from branches with greater efficiency. After seeing them in action the name seemed woefully inadequate, the name Tickler evokes the image of a gentle oscillating motion causing a soft cascade of olives to fall from the trees, rather than the haphazard blasting of painful, green pellets in every direction that we actually got. Because they were so loud and looked so powerful no-one wanted to take up the mantel of tickler initially, they looked like fun but they were heavy and hard to control and there always seemed to be the distinct possibility that you could slip and flail someone’s face off.
Always willing to take up the challenge Juliet decided that she would have a go and became as she called it ‘the tickle master’ which sounds like a gritty reboot of everyone’s favourite Mr Men character. After a while of watching her pelt olives at everyone without any casualties I felt confident enough to have a go with the other one. It was heavier than I thought it would be, it was also harder to manoeuvre and control, and it kept getting caught up in the branches and making a noise like an asthmatic hamster running for a bus, nonetheless I soon got the hang of it and Juliet and I became a team. We were working together and we were doing what we’d set out to do, we were helping out on an olive harvest in Greece.