From determining wealth to how Athens got its name, olive trees have always played an important part in Greek culture. With over 4 million olive trees, Corfu is no exemption and although Corfiots have often been teased about their unique approach to harvesting their olives we find out that there are good reasons.
It is estimated that there are over 4 million olive trees on Corfu both wild and cultivated. Some of which were planted over 4 hundred years ago. During the Venetian occupation in the 18th century, a substantial amount of money was offered for planting olive saplings both here on Corfu and nearby Paxos by the Venetians. This proved to be a successful incentive as oil production rose from 2,000 barrels in the 16th century to 70,000 barrels at the end of the 18th century. Most of the oil was shipped to Venice and it is said that Corfiot oil kept the lamps burning in all the Republic’s cities.
Corfu is a very green island with long, hot summers and mild, wet winters. It makes an ideal climate for growing olive trees. They were also used as a measure of success and wealth, an estate owners worth was estimated by the number of olive trees he owned. To cultivate these olives groves, estate owners built a large number of country mansions with auxiliary buildings, storerooms and housing for their tenants. Some of these buildings still stand and have become part of the Corfiot landscape.
Corfiot olive trees differ from most Greek olive trees in that they are large, tall trees and usually left to grow upwards rather than small and wide. They also have wide trunks and can twist and turn into strange shapes. This makes harvesting the olives directly from the tree quite a time consuming and laborious task and has lead to the two harvests on Corfu.
The first harvest happens in November and the olives are handpicked from the trees and often produces high-quality extra virgin olive oil. This method requires that the olive oil is left to settle for a few months before it is used.
The second harvest is continuous from November through to April and happens naturally. On Corfu, growers lay black nets down underneath the trees and wait until the olives fall naturally or helped on their way by the wind and rain. The growers then gather the olives from the nets once a month. This harvest produces a lower grade olive oil. During the summer months, you can often see the black nets wrapped around the trunks of the olive trees waiting to be laid down again in the winter.
Once the olives have been collected they are then taken to be pressed. Traditionally this would have been done on large stone presses and remains of this original presses can still be found in some villages around Corfu. Nowadays, the olives are taken to a local processing plant to be pressed by mechanical stainless steel grindstones. The paste is separated from the oil by spinning the paste around at high speed (centrifugation). This is known as a cold press as no heat or chemicals are used and allows the oil to maintain its original flavour.
Another important side product of olive oil is soap and is said to help people suffering from eczema and psoriasis.
The olive tree also features in Greek mythology. The goddess Athena and Poseidon, the god of the sea, both wanted control of Attica. It was decided that the one that gave the city the finest gift would be its patron. The contest took place on the Acropolis where Poseidon struck the ground with his trident to create a spring, and Athena planted an olive tree. The water in Poseidon’s spring was salty, therefore of no value, whereas Athena’s olive tree provided the people with food, oil and wood. She was declared the winner and the city was renamed Athens.
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