by Heidi Trautmann
In November nature gets its wrinkles smoothed out after the hard summer heat and a first soft green covers the bone hard surface of our gardens. Usually olive growers wait for the first downpours of the year to allow just the extra amount of juices to fatten their olives but this year the rain was sparse and we had to water the trees ourselves, provided that you had water.
Always towards the end of October the harvesting time is being announced and celebrated with the Olive Festival in Zeytinlik, a traditional event where everything which has to do with olives is displayed, folk dances and theatre plays shown, poems and short stories read, and where political and cultural personalities give their blessing to the coming harvesting days.
At the same time the oil factories open their doors and check their machines for the rush to be expected as this year promised a good harvest. Last year the harvest result was very poor after an incredibly hot and dry summer.
Finally, one beautiful November morning, we could no longer wait for a good downpour, we brought out our ladders and buckets and sought out our collecting positions. I had equipped myself with a big plastic bag around my waist like a kangaroo and my neighbour said that I looked very professional.
My husband climbed to the very top of the trees, myself at the lower parts and I took the twigs in both hands and just stripped them off, and in no time my belly bag was filled and I went to empty it into the wheelbarrow. We had at least two days of endless picking hours ahead of us as the whole picking and sorting process must be finished in two to three days, otherwise the acid contents rises which is not good for the quality of the oil, or the olives start to rot.
A very intensive time of the year, but it is the last harvesting in your garden before winter comes except the citrus fruit which are about ripe. While my hands were automatically grasping the richly carrying branches and stripping them into my bag I had all the time to think about the history of the olive tree, some thousands of years old, the oldest and biggest producer of life quality, of its value in honouring the old gods in temples, honouring heroes and sportsmen, of the oil being used for beauty culture or basic food and many more uses. In my Latin classes in school I had heard of my beloved heroes sauntering in olive groves carrying a music instrument and singing a ballad to their women, and, having grown up in Bavaria between oaks and birches, I was always longing to own an olive grove which we have today, small though but with three old and venerable ones and five young and newly grafted ones having grown out of old roots. From these young ones I harvested olives without any marks, nearly the size of a plum, big green and blue ones, they are not black, just to inform you, and I brought them into the house for preserving later which would mean an extra day of work.
The sun was warm on our backs and the freshly arrived bird immigrants were singing their sweet songs above our heads and we started to talk about things we have not had the time for so long. There was a certain creativity in the picking, the harvesting. You work for your food, follow the course of nature, obey its laws and gratefully receive the fruit of what you have planted, and cared for.
Along with this work the problems of your day vanish into insignificance, your mind and soul are concentrated on the fruit and your hands, the basic meaning of life. The small wind upsets the leaves and shows their silver colouring, the old trunks with the runes of time, the bending and unbending, knotting of wooden powers, just like the wrinkles in an old human face.
During the evening hours we sat under the arches of our terrace sorting the olives. There were hardly any worms this year. The evening was cold and we had to get the fur jackets out and a bottle of our own red wine helped us to finish the job before midnight.
In the morning at 6.30 am we proudly took 150 kg of hand-picked olives to the oil factory where two big lorries with tons of big canvas sacks stood waiting in front of the factory already in full swing. The machines are still cool with 40°C being the limit for cold pressing. I was thinking back to the days in the old village mill in Karşiaka where I had to sit for seven hours to wait for my turn. The big stone wheels turned and crushed the olives to pulp which was then laddled into flat wicker baskets mounted on a centre pole like a tree. The press plate came down and pressed the oil through the baskets into the basin below from where it was lead to the filter. And there at the end sat the lucky olive grower and collected the golden jet of green oil into his canisters. Men and women sat on their sacks or crates of olives, enjoyed the process or helped loading, tested the oil with a lump of bread and commented on it, threw some slices of lemon into the pulp and waited patiently.
Today's modern process is less romantic but equally exciting and certainly more hygienic and faster. First the leaves are blown away with a jet of air – there are many olive growers who do not handpick their olives but bring sometimes rotten loads onto the transport belt – then they are washed and the olive cherries jump merrily along until they disappear into big tanks where they are crushed which we can no longer watch like in the old traditional way, and led through modern centrifuges you obtain a very clean oil. Out of our 150 kg we obtained 29 litres of green deliciously smelling oil which we tasted immediately as we came home with fresh salad and crisp bread, the reward of many days of work. While waiting for our turn for five hours I have also learnt the secret of the black olive oil. The olives are cooked before they are brought to the factory and it is a very intensive taste which is not to everyone's liking.
At home I had the big bowl of olives waiting for preserving. It took me some more hours to cut them twice lengthwise. I have soaked them in water which I will renew every day. After that I will prepare them my way and in a couple of weeks I will have a delicacy for us and friends to taste with a glass of wine.
Those who have never tasted the moment of happiness after many days of hard work and see that green gold flow into his canister will never know or cannot appreciate the luxury which lies in the gnarled trunks of the olive trees.