Harvesting the Olives
Here is a video that my friend Markos made at the beginning of my 2017 olive harvest. It gives a good insight into my harvesting activities every season, and it captures a bit of the spirit of my village, Kamilari, in the autumn, which is the time of the harvest.
For smartphone or tablet users, click here to see the video from my blog page (also if you are on laptop or desktop and want to read the full story of that day's harvest!)
Timing is everything!
Healthy olives grow in size on the olive trees during the summer time and the autumn and change colour, gradually turning from green to black. If they are not harvested, they will eventually fall down the tree by themselves and a fermentation process will start, which is why olives that have been picked up from the ground are considered unsuitable for consumption.
All across the Mediterranean basin, the olive harvest typically takes place between mid-October and January, depending on the variety of the olives and the location of the olive groves.
You must choose the right time to harvest. If you harvest too early when your olives are not mature enough, you won’t get much oil out of them because they are still small and because their texture is quite hard, which makes the extraction of the oil more difficult.
If you harvest when the olives are too ripe, you will get the maximum yield, but your olive oil will be of a lesser quality, will lose its properties more quickly and eventually, will have a shorter conservation time.
Since the olives of a tree do not all grow ripe at the same time, it is tricky to find the best time to harvest a whole olive grove. The date of the first harvest varies depending on the weather conditions during the year, but I traditionally start on or around the 8th November, which is my father's name day. Every year, I make a special, unfiltered, early-harvest olive oil, which we call "Angouroleo" in Crete.
You can click on the following link to find out about the specific characteristics and health benefits of unfiltered, early harvest extra virgin olive oil (or "Agoureleo").
During the last weeks leading to the harvest, I check my trees to control the maturity level of my olives. This is indicated by the colour and texture of the fruit. The greener and firmer the olives, the less ripe they are.
The right time must be picked for the harvest: not too early and not too late.
Also, the weather must be favourable as it is not possible to harvest if it is raining.
I harvest my olives manually, with the help of a handheld electric harvester.
The other tools or accessories I need are olive nets, a rake and jute sacks.
I first spread the nets at the bottom of my olive trees and then I can start picking the olives which will fall from the tree down onto the nets.
It is a hard and long job, so I get assisted by a team to make sure it is carried out effectively and in a timely manner. Indeed, I take the olives to the mill straight after they have been harvested and the olive oil is also extracted within hours, which reduces any risk of damage to the olives and ensures their freshness and beneficial nutrients are best preserved, hence resulting in the highest possible olive oil quality.
I also try to avoid taking leaves or bits of branches together with the olives and only pick the fruit.
It is possible that whilst most of the olives on a given tree are perfect, some may be damaged, or too mature, in which case I leave them out.
It is sometimes difficult to achieve, but I carry out another selection as I collect the olives from the nets to put them into the sacks.
This is then another opportunity to discard all the imperfect fruit as well as excess leaves and branches.
Packing, Transporting and Unloading
The key here is to remember that olives are a fruit and must be taken care of as such. I carefully collect them from the nets, again separating the fruit from the branches and leaves in as much as possible and I carefully put them in the jute sacks that I prepared for that purpose.
Jute sacks are ideal as the fabric still allows the olives to “breathe”. It is better to use many sacks with a low capacity rather than fewer sacks containing more olives, as in the latter case, the olives at the bottom of the sacks run a bigger risk to be crushed, which could trigger the fermentation process.
I then load all the full sacks onto my pickup truck and head straight to the olive press where the olive oil will be extracted.
Whichever of my olive grove is never further away than a 10-minute drive to the press.
As soon as I arrive at the press, I unload the sacks at the olive press, and they never stay there for more than a few hours before the oil is extracted.
I normally manage to coordinate my schedule with the press team, so my olive sacks are immediately unloaded from my car and straight into the press.
The Extraction Process
First of all, a conveyor belt takes the olives to the first operation, which consists in discarding any left leaves.
The olives are then automatically carried further to a bath where they are thoroughly washed and cleared of any impurities like earth residues.
They are then processed to the next vats, where the olive oil is actually made.
I always try to book my slot at the press so the vats are reserved for me.
In these vats, the olives are ground and malaxed into a paste for quite a while, until the oil is extracted.
Only mechanical means are used at the press and the olive oil is extracted at low temperature.
If you have never seen it before, freshly-extracted extra virgin olive oil will look surprisingly green.
This is mainly due to the high amount of chlorophyll that is contained in the olives at the beginning of the harvest season.
This green colour will gradually fade away and be replaced by a golden yellow with time.
After the extraction, the olive oil is stored in stainless steel tanks for a few weeks, until the natural sediments have settled and it is ready for filtering.
I uploaded a video summarising this page. You can watch it by clicking on this link