After a long flight, the scenery becomes increasingly familiar, almost like coming home. After an inland journey the vehicle crests the peak of the mountain, and stretching out ahead is one of the most scenic and romantic sights you can imagine. About a half dozen villages are nestled below, but it is the beginning of the orchard that really attracts the eye. If you are a member of the Liokareas family, this is when your mind kicks into high gear and everything behind that particular moment fades away in anticipation of home.
This is the time of year that is both exciting and exhausting. For the next two months, almost every day is going to be full of hard work, long days, and one of the most rewarding experiences of the year – the production of some of the finest extra virgin olive oil in the world.
Though the company in the US is only about 3 years old, this has been the Liokareas family business for more than 200 years. Thousands and thousands of olive trees of various ages span across the horizon, almost as if the world is covered in olives. From the middle of the hundreds of acres, you can imagine the world is nothing more than olive trees with the hint of the smell of salt water from the Mediterranean.
This family orchard is in the heartland of the world’s best olive growing region, Kalamata, Greece. It is here that the family has celebrated the arrival of each new generation and welcomed them into the fold and the family business. Much of Greece has changed since the olive orchard began, but even through World War II and the Greek Civil War, the orchard has remained, a reminder that some things are constant amid chaos. For more than 200 years, church begins its preparation for the Feast day of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (November 21st), the family is already watching the olives for signs that they are ready for harvesting. Sometimes, the harvest is already well underway before the Feast Day begins.
There are roads winding through the gorgeous acres of olive trees, providing a path to harvesting and transporting the olives once they are ready. Every year, more trees are added to keep the orchard thriving. Some of the trees are more than 100 years old, and the newest ones (roughly 25 of them) were planted just this past year. The combination of older and newer trees keeps the orchard alive and producing some of the best olives for sale and pressing into premium extra virgin olive oil.
A Long, Rewarding Day
The olive harvest is like very few other harvests in the world. To make the best extra virgin olive oil, the olives must be processed all the way through to completion in a single day. As soon as an olive begins to turn yellow, the oxidation process has started, meaning the olive is now ripe and ready for harvesting. With hundreds of acres to cover, it is fortunate that the trees do not all ripen at the same time. Each member of the family knows where to begin watching for signs of ripening – it’s like a sixth sense that helps us know when different areas are ready. The elevation and amount of precipitation each area of the orchard gets plays a role in how early the olives will ripen. Once the yellow olives begin to appear, it is time to start the harvest.
The day begins by heading out into the orchard as soon as the sun peeks over the horizon. Large nets, and empty burlap sacks that can carry 50 kilos (more than 110 lbs) of olives each are carried into the field to the trees that are ready to be relieved of their load. The large nets are carefully placed around the trees, so that as many trees can be efficiently harvested at one time. Once the nets are down, we begin to remove the olives from the tree, either by hand, or with the use of small tools that comb the olives from the branches. All of the olives drop onto the tarps, and then all the tarps are consolidated onto one tarp. The olives are then sifted, removing any small leaves or twigs, and the burlap sacks are filled to the brim. The olives are harvested at the perfect time, and are a green/yellow color – green means that it is too early, purple means that it is too late. Once a bag is full, the harvester throws the more than 100 lbs over a shoulder and carries it to the vehicle/tractor waiting for the day’s harvest. The process is repeated until the sun sinks below the horizon. It is a very long day, but one that is both intriguing and rewarding.
Looking around, it is obvious who is new to the harvest, and who is an old hand. Most of the family members who are out in the field are between 20 and 60 years old, but occasionally you will see some in their late teenage years participating in the Liokareas family business, struggling to carry their large load of olives up the road to the vehicle. Others are in the 80s, showing almost no sign that they are slowing as they lift the bag almost as if it were empty and saunter to the vehicle.
Some days, the harvesting must be skipped, such as on rainy days. Every member of the family knows that you cannot collect the olives when it is raining. Sundays are religious days, and many attend church. Following the service, other orchard needs are tended to, such as trimming trees that have already been harvested and planting new olive trees. There are two holidays that fall between the start and the end of the harvest season; the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Nov 21st) and the Celebration of Saint Nicholas. (Dec 6th)
On every other day of the week when there is no precipitation, the family is out in the olive orchard. There is no set date for when the harvest is completed, just as there is no official start date. When the olives are ready, that is the time to harvest. When all of the ripened olives are collected, that is the end of the harvest. Some years, the harvest spills over into January.
The Olive Pressing
Once the harvesters are done, the olives are driven to the building where they will be pressed. The building is about 100 ft wide and 25 ft long with several large machines that catch the eye. The olives are not allowed to sit over night – once they are harvested, they must be pressed quickly to get the highest quality extra virgin olive oil. The building is cool; there is no heat applied during any part of the pressing process because, as the family knows, that will affect the quality of the oil. No, these olives are always cold pressed, and the results are proof that no amount of technology can replace a well-honed method for producing extra virgin olive oil.
The olives are poured out of the sacks and onto the conveyor belt. They pass through an air station where all of the twigs and leaves are removed, and only the olives move forward into the washing station. Once they are cleaned up, the olives move into a crusher that will chop them up into a very mushy paste that releases the fragrant smell of olives into the building. The paste is churned in a stainless-steel malaxation tank for 30-40 minutes. It is further refined and filtered, creating three distinct products – and the oil is then stored in a different stainless steel tank in an adjacent building.
Once enough extra virgin olive oil is stored in the tank, it is moved into large drums for shipment to the US. The EVOO will then be moved back into stainless steel tanks so that it remains virginal for longer; everyone in the Liokareas family knows that you don’t bottle olive oil until it is time for delivery.
The olive harvest is easily one of the most tiring aspects of producing exceptional extra virgin olive oil, but it is also one of the most rewarding. Standing at the end of the pressing process and getting a small taste of the final product is more than enough to erase much of the weariness because it reminds you just what it is all for – some of the best EVOO available on the market.
Though the process is the same, no two years are exactly the same. There is always an element of uncertainty to keep you guessing, to make each year memorable. Tough as the process may be, it is something that the entire family looks forward to every year because it is more than just a business; it is truly a family business. Family members who have moved away return, and for two months it is like very little has changed. It brings everyone together for two holidays and some hard work, building bonds and memories that few other families could possibly understand. They come from all walks of life to contribute, too. Those who sit behind a desk the rest of the year enter the fields or the press, and you almost wouldn’t recognize them. They lift the 110 lb bags just as easily as the family members who spend the whole year tending to the trees.
For everything there is to love about the harvest, it is the chance to be together that really strikes a chord; it is something that is easy to love about the whole tiring, yet rewarding process. Every year, cresting the peak of a mountain, all of the memories of all the previous years of harvesting come flooding back, and there is no other place to be than right here in Greece. There is nothing else anyone in the family would rather do than spend time together producing exceptional EVOO. As the family’s product moves further out into the world, customers learn just why this time is so special. It is because the love the family feels for their business is obvious in the quality and exquisite taste of their extra virgin olive oil.
So when you open a bottle of Liokareas Extra Virgin Olive Oil, stop and think of the Liokareas family working the harvest to deliver you the best product we can deliver.