[ilds] A taste as old as cold water

Charles Sligh Charles-Sligh at utc.edu
Wed Aug 12 09:31:26 PDT 2009

> *Property in Corfu: bottling the essence of a fruitful land
> After three years in Corfu, Keith Miller discovers the joy of 
> producing olive oil.
> By Keith Miller
> Published: 3:59PM BST 12 Aug 2009*
> Most people come to Corfu for the abundance of sun, the sparkling sea 
> and some of the most hospitable people on the planet. Yet, what 
> dominates and binds the people living here are the olive trees. Next 
> time you pour olive oil over that fresh Greek salad, stop a moment to 
> look up. You can't miss them. The olive trees. They are everywhere. In 
> fact there are millions of them… three million by some estimates. That 
> comes to about 20 olive trees for every man, woman and child living on 
> the island.
> "Dominant in a landscape full of richer greens, the olive is, for the 
> peasants, both a good servant and a hard master," wrote the poet and 
> writer Lawrence Durrell who lived in Corfu and, like many of us, was 
> inspired by the vast groves of olive trees.
> When I bought Villa Milos with two acres of land in the north-east of 
> the island I also took ownership of more than 100 olive trees. Three 
> years later I am bottling my own oil.
> The harvest, which starts in autumn, is an enchanting time on the island.
> The pace is slower, yet the sea still sparkles from the light of a 
> lowering sun. As you drive around the island you can't miss those 
> black nets wrapped around gnarled olive-tree trunks. In autumn they 
> are rolled out to collect the fruit as it falls. It seems everyone 
> participates. So I join in.
> Guided along by Yiannis Lampros, the owner of the new garden centre 
> near Avlaki, we started the process of harvesting the olives by hand. 
> Over the next four days we accumulated 246 kilos of fruit. We could 
> have taken 1000 kilos or more, but this is Greece, where being 
> practical is more important than being productive. There was enough 
> oil in those green, purple and black olives to provide both of us with 
> a year's worth of oil.
> The olive mill at Sines operates six months of the year. Since 1926 
> the mill has been run as a co-operative with more than 100 local 
> farmers sharing the cost of keeping it operational. This is not 
> high-tech. Electric motors turn thick rubber pulleys that power the 
> machinery. Imagine the surprise when this unknown Anglo with no 
> experience carted 40kg sacks full of olives to the weigh station. The 
> elderly Greek widow dressed all in black gave me a welcoming nod, but 
> never took her eyes off this stranger.
> It took about two hours for the olives to be turned to oil. The best 
> oil is achieved by a simple hydraulic press or centrifuge spinning at 
> 3,000rpm.
> Petras, the manager, dressed in blue overalls and sporting a patchy 
> dark beard, looked serious as he explained each step of the process. 
> Sorting, washing, crushing and spinning… I followed along as best I 
> could, but he could have been processing moon rocks for all I knew 
> about pressing olives.
> To make it simple someone explained: "It operates on the same 
> principle as squeezing fresh orange juice."
> As your batch of olives moves through the process of reducing the 
> olive to oil, a miniature blackboard with your name in chalk is hung 
> on the machine by wire. As the Milos olives move to the wash, so does 
> the blackboard. A dozen farmers stand around gossiping, appearing 
> uninterested, but they are attentive to where their olives are at all 
> times.
> They are also keeping an eye on mine. The Milos batch is getting a 
> special pressing since they are 100 per cent organic. Petras has 
> washed out all the tubes, grinders and conveyer belts so no residue of 
> the previous batch can taint the organic oil.
> More Corfiets turn up with more olives. The place takes on the 
> atmosphere of a town-hall meeting– only no-one can hear anything for 
> the noise of olives being crushed to pulp. They eye each other's 
> production as intently as if a marriageable daughter was on offer. I 
> was getting nervous. Around the funnel where the finished product 
> pours out into a 25-litre bin, the crowds look on. Sniffing the air 
> for purity, eyeing the colour for imperfections and finally breaking 
> off a chuck of the local homemade bread to dip and taste.
> Nobody asks for permission to dip into your oil. This is a 
> co-operative, all for one and one for all, except your reputation is 
> on the line. No Corfiet would be so rude as to spit out oil onto the 
> stained concrete floor, but word of an inferior oil spreads quickly.
> Finally, the oil from Milos is pouring out of the metal tube a light 
> green with shades of yellow. One old farmer, bread in hand, takes a 
> dip and eyes me like a poker pro sensing a bluff. Slowly, a smile 
> spreads across his weathered face, and he announces, "kala" – good!
> Petras was so pleased I didn't get entangled in his machines that he 
> offered to test the oil for purity. The oil from the groves at Milos 
> came in at 0.8 free acidity, meaning the quality was extra virgin.
> The taste is sublime – a mix of fresh cut grass and young fruit. It 
> may not have the peppery flavour of many Italian oils, but somehow the 
> knowledge that the oil you produced came from trees that shade your 
> garden is a taste without equal.
> Durrell, who lived part of his life in the seaside village of Kalami, 
> once wrote of the olive: "A taste older than meat, older than wine. A 
> taste as old as cold water." And, I could add, just as fresh.
> * For more information see www.villamilos.co.uk

Charles L. Sligh
Assistant Professor
Department of English
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
charles-sligh at utc.edu

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