Day 221 – Olive Oil Trails

Welcome to Greece

 

Covered in mud from riding Bulgarian backroads, we enter Greece 40km north of Lake Kerkini. The quiet lake is full of pelicans and flamingos, with fisherman dotting the coastline. We set up camp on the flood plains, in a small birch grove.  A pair of stray dogs come to meet us, and stay the night by our tent.

Sharing our camp with stray dogs becomes routine as we cycle in the Halkidiki region. People are curious and friendly, inviting us for coffee (accompanied by tsipouro or Greek raki) to learn more about what we’re doing here. What are we doing here? While planning the route through Greece, we asked ourselves what would bring us inspiration while traveling through not-so-Hellenic modern Greece? The answer was the incredible, edible olive harvest!

We decide to take a long route to ride to Nea Tenedos, where we will meet a local premium olive-oil producer, Dimitrios Psathas, at his groves. He has agreed to teach us the ins and outs of producing award-winning olive oil. After four days of cycling, and four flat tires (1 for Quentin, 3 for Ashley), we rode up the driveway to his home overlooking the village.

An Honest Day’s Work

In the morning, we set to work shadowing Dimitrios. November is harvest time for olives, and we set to work helping him harvest Kalamata olives. First we lay nets around the base of the tree and look expectantly towards our host. What next? With a calm smile he explains to us the proper way to hand-pick olives,

 

“And you just, wiggle your fingers and pull them off. Like milking a sheep.”

The work is quiet, except for the tap tap of the olives falling softly to the ground. As Dimitrios glides from branch to branch, we precariously tiptoe on the net, to avoid crushing the olives beneath our feet. As we harvest, we chat. As the day progresses, Dimitrios’ plan to reinvigorate the Greek olive oil industry is revealed. The words of Nobel Prize winner Odysseus Elytis ring true for Dimitrios,

 

“If you deconstruct Greece, you will see in the end see an olive tree, a grapevine and a boat remain. That is, with as much, you reconstruct her.”

Hours later, as the sun sets, we load the crates of olives onto the bed of the tractor. Counting the stacks with Dimitrios, we estimate how many kilos we plucked from the trees. Enough to cover our olive oil consumption for the next 1.5 years. We reflect on the tasks of the day:  laying the skirts of netting around the trees, plucking the olives from the branches, pouring them into crates and then loading them onto the tractor. The work is not difficult, but it is tiring. The sun begins to drop heavy on the horizon, and we say to ourselves,

 

“This is an honest day’s work.”

To the Table

A dozen kilometers away from the groves, the community mill sits unassuming on the roadside. Community mill sounds too traditional for what this is: a modern olive pressing facility. Olives come off the tractor, are cleaned, grounded into paste, milled, and the oil is extracted in about an hour.

Later we taste the oil on Dimitrios’s porch. Sputtering from the peppery notes of his early harvest oil, we realize we sucked it to the back of our throats a bit too enthusiastically. A sip of water and we try again, this time fully appreciating the full-bodied odors of fresh grass, green tomatoes and wild herbs. The peppery bite at the end adds to the balance of the oil.

Our palates itching to see how the oil tastes in food, the next morning we reload the bikes and begin cycling to Thessaloniki. It takes us two days; we couldn’t resist a detour to camp on the beach.

The second largest city in Greece, it seemed like we rode through Thessaloniki’s suburbs for hours until we came upon the city center. In the old Jewish neighborhood of Ladadika we made a beeline for two delicatessens where Dimitrio’s oil, Klea, is stocked. Once we’d visited with the shop owners, we could address the real reason we were here: to visit Panellinion Restaurant, a local joint using exclusively Klea oil in all its recipes. Within minutes of sitting down, our table on the terrace was full of dishes selected to bring out the flavor in the oil: stuffed grape leaves, puréed fava beans, classic Greek salad, grilled smoked mackeral among the dishes. The photos speak for themselves: we had a feast.