Our LAST Mediterranean Harvest trip was to the small mountain village of Kritsa on the island of Crete, Greece. Our three days there were full of highlights – from stunning vistas of steep mountain cliffs that dropped into unbelievably blue seas, to silver blue olive groves carpeted with clover set against red cliffs, to simple chapels in primary colors perched in the most unlikely places. We found the people of Krista to be open to visitors, self reliant, and full of joy for life. Our dear host, Agyros, owner of our hotel of the same name, and her son Styrjon, could not have been more concerned for our well-being and more successful in maximizing our time – understanding our olive focused agenda but still managing to get us to explore the nearby archeological site of the Lato – birthplace of Nearchus, Alexander the Great’s military advisor*, and do some hiking on a high plateau dotted with free ranging sheep and goats.
We spent the morning with these two Cretans “working” with them to harvest about 40 of their 500 trees (we harvested 3 trees to their 43). The harvesting equipment consisted exclusively of electric powered “smart rakes” that had flexible fingers for combing the tree with minimal tree damage. The olives dropped into strong nets that we spread out on the ground. After about 40 minutes of “hard work”, we were invited to share in a farm picnic (apples, walnuts and a fermented grape liqueur, raki), before being sent on our way. The olives would be collected in mesh bags and put through a strainer that allowed the olives through but held onto leaves and branches. At the end of the day, the olive sacks would be loaded onto a flatbed truck for their trip to the olive press.
We had decided to visit Kritsa after meeting Aris Kefalogiannis in NYC in 2013 at the NYC International Olive Oil Competition. Not-for-Profit Kritsa Olive Cooperative has partnered with Gaea Corporation and the partnership has garnered world wide attention for both the flavor and quality of its oil, the fact that iron chef Kit Cora has chosen Gaea to supply all her EVOO needs, and the fact that this olive press is one of the first in the world to be carbon neutral. Sadly, Aris had to be out of the country when we visited, but his partner and director of the cooperative, Nikos Zahariadis, busy as he was at this peak harvest time, found time to show us around with the press operating at full steam with two hoppers, six malaxers, five centrifuges, and a combined storage stream. Those of you who want to know more about the Olives of Crete, check out our World Olive Odyssey, whose link we will provide you with ASAP.
Later, Nikos took us out to dinner at Faros Restaurant in the harbor town of Agios Nikolaos (St. Nicolas – how appropriate) started with a mezze selection of spinach-like green, grilled potatoes and calamari – all liberally doused with this world class bright green olive oil. Two large fish were brought to our table, first uncooked so we could appreciate their freshness, and then moments later right off a grill and garnished with an olive oil and lemon to the side. Of course, ice-cold ouzo helped us appreciate our meal. Dessert was an orange filo confection called a “portocalopita” that drove us into some kind of food coma that could only be rescued by liberal shots of a local liqueur made from grapes. While we dined, Aris – director of Gaea called to add his welcome and his apologies for not being able to be present. We were humbled by the hospitality of everyone we met on this, our last sabbatical olive visit in the Northern Hemisphere.
The good food, deep sleep, and fresh air was enough to jolt all three of us out of the low grade flu-ish feelings we had been having in the weeks previous. By Friday, all of us were feeling better.
Upon leaving Kritsa, we took a pilgrimage to a spot in the hills near the old city of Kavousi, Greece. Our goal was the oldest cultivated olive tree and the oldest living example of tree grafting in the world, a tree thought to be over 3,000 years old, This tree is a national monument, and has even given up some of its branches to crown Olympic winners in the recent Olympic Games hosted in Greece. Access was well marked but the road was a bit treacherous up an unpaved windy hillside. We soon found the majestic queen overlooking the Aegean, resting quietly with several others that seemed as ancient handmaidens circled around her. At 3,000 years old, she was still laden with new plump olives. With a height of 7 meters, a trunk perimeter of 22 meters (measured at 0.8 m from ground), and a 35 meter perimeter crown she was awesome. Her bark was magnificent – an epic story of the last 3,000 years, with small boulders embedded in her trunk up to a height of 2 meters, gnarls and whorls that told stories of past winds and droughts, and a beautifully symmetric crown. It is impossible to describe the feelings one gets from being in the presence of a living thing that is so ancient, especially in a setting in which you hear nothing but the distant sounds of bells on grazing livestock and the whistle of the wind. One hundred fifty generations of humans have lived since the first human who grafted a cultivated olive cutting onto her wild olive root stock. Our audience with the queen lasted an hour. We left with a new layer of understanding the devotion of the Mediterraneans to their olive trees – or is it the humans who belong the the trees?
Our next stop was Iraklion (Heraklion) capital of Crete and importantly for us, close to the archeological remains of the Palace of Knossos and two museums, the Archeology Museum and the History Museum, that we hoped would help us put all of this agricultural history into perspective with the human history. By the 7th millennium BC, Neolithic era, this area was inhabited as determined by stone axes and awls found nearby. By the 4th millennium BC, the Minoans ruled the island, and the city of Knossos had grown to be a city of 10,000 people, boasting a palace of 20,000 m2 (about 5 acres). It isn’t hard to be awed by the scale of the Palace – the grandeur of the design – the sophistication of the culture – the beauty of the stone and earthen pottery – the devotion to their religion, and most of all, the joy captured in their frescoes of everyday life and the music, dance, and athletic bull-leaping games – and not kings and wars and battle-scenes.
To be honest, we know it will take some time to process all this history, culture, and olive knowledge. For the time being, this experience that has given us depth and breadth to our understanding of Olive Culture in the Mediterranean.
Bravo! Kritsa and Crete! We are grateful for all you have taught us.
As always, you can see better resolution and more photos by checking Rich’s Dropbox album for Crete at this link