Harakopio: oranges and olives

Trip Start Aug 08, 2011
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Greece  , Peloponnese,
Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Even though the distance between Vassara and our next project in the village of Harakopio was relatively short, the journey took up much of the day. Winding again through breathtaking mountain scenery, and changing buses in Sparti and Kalamata, we eventually arrived at the sleepy village of Harakopio in the early afternoon. Alighting at the main square of this pleasant but relatively nondescript village, we were immediately greeted by our host, Michael, a former architect who had moved with his wife to run a group of holiday villas and olive groves.

Heading out of the village in Michael’s Suzuki 44, we swung around a tight corner of the main road were almost immediately engulfed in swathes of olive trees as far as the eye could see. Riding along bumpy dirt tracks, we passed dozens of groves until we pulled up at the clean white lines and glass of their house, designed by themselves. Our accommodation was a little villa, complete with kitchen and balcony overlooking yet more olive groves sweeping down towards the sea.

We had come partly to help with the villas, but our main task was to work the olive harvest. After a quick change of clothes, we headed downhill to the grove at the foot of the house, where three Albanian workers – Ben, Yanni and Violeta – had already been working for a few days. They were clearly very experienced, and worked incredibly quickly. In contrast to the relatively slow and careful harvesting style in Italy, the Albanians were quick, strong and purposeful. It was explained to us that in order to break even in this region, each worker would have to pick and pack around four sacks of olives, each 40kg in weight, in a full day’s work.

With their speed and experience, it was difficult for us to keep to their pace and understand the process fully at first. Whereas in Italy, pruning took place at other times of the year and olives were ‘clapped’ directly from the tree, here, the most experienced picker lopped off branches for the others to beat with sticks called contoradi. Larger branches were laid on a large, square machine with a rotary mechanism and thin plastic stalks which whipped off the olives at high speed, spewing them out in all directions. An early lesson learned was not to wander in front of the machine, as the olives stung like hundreds of tiny slaps when they hit exposed skin.

The Albanians were clearly amused by our early efforts, especially the care we took in making sure the olives remained on the nets, but despite our lack of a common language, we built up some level of non-verbal rapport. Michael, being fluent in Greek, translated between us all where necessary, and tried to teach us a few key words, including contoradi, and gravolo, meaning ‘rake’. The day was short, but intense, and we all recovered with a beer from a nearby microbrewery in the town of Messini. Although there was little competition to be had from the bland, tasteless lagers in Greece, this was certainly the best beer we had tried here so far.

Watching olive farmers pass by the tracks near the house, it was evident that everyone used sacks, rather than crates, to store their olives and transport them to the mill. Each coarse brown sack was tied carefully and methodically using string which would eventually be cut off as the sacks were tipped into the oil press. Lifting these huge sacks into the car proved difficult, as there was very little purchase to be found on them, except at the very tips of the corners and around the tied opening. 40Kg, in this context, was extremely difficult to shift on your own. The petite but fiery Violeta, however, seemed to sling these sacks around as if they were full of cotton wool.

Without the characteristic pick-up truck driven by the majority of the olive growers in the area, we were forced to make several trips to drop off our harvested olives at the mill in the next-door village. Sacks were piled on crates and given a number that corresponded to their position in the queue. This year, yield was down significantly from last year’s harvest, all across the region. Nevertheless, the mill’s yard was still crammed with sacks, and farmers scratched their wrinkled brows and played with worry beads as they waited impatiently for their turn.

After another day of work, we made the decision to head into the village for supplies. Our route would be along the maze of dirt tracks along which we had driven several times, but our choice of this track or that track was largely arbitrary, knowing that we would eventually end up in the village if we continued more or less straight. Passing many olive groves – some already harvested, others waiting expectantly with heavily drooping branches – we noticed that most were the same size. After independence from the Ottoman Empire, it transpired, olive groves in this area were divided equally between families, and most had remained with their respective families until the present day. Three generations of olive pickers were spotted in these family-size plots, with intrepid grandmothers in carefully-tied headscarves (they were most experienced pruners, it seemed) atop rickety wooden ladders.

On our return from the village, the night was falling rapidly, and we questioned our ability to navigate back in the darkness of the olive groves. Armed with a small head torch, we set off through the near-silent, pitch black groves. Noises or movements in the trees or bushes would make us jump a little, and our speed increased as the night drew darker. Finding our way by identifying barking dogs and the occasional shed or hut, we finally returned.

After only a couple of days of harvesting and one of sanding down shutters and doors for repainting (covering ourselves in bright turquoise dust in the process), we had a day off and decided to walk to the town of Koroni, about five miles from the house. Using a printed Google map leant to us by Michael, we set off early, back through the olive groves that we had walked through in the dark a few nights earlier. The sun was bright, and it was already getting warm by mid-morning. Finding the old track marked on the map was difficult, and we found ourselves resorting to walking along the main road that exited Harakopio on the other side.

After half a mile or so, a car pulled up alongside us, with two forty-something women in the front seats.

“Are you going to Koroni?” asked the driver in near-perfect English.

“Er, yes…” we replied, unsure how to respond to this reverse-hitchhiking offer.

“Jump in!”

The women, it transpired, were living in Athens and building a holiday home in Koroni. They had both worked in theatre for a long time – one as an opera singer, and the other in production – and were good friends. They dropped us off in the centre of Koroni and we waved goodbye, still reeling from their unexpected act of kindness.

Wandering through the narrow, picturesque streets of Koroni, it was clear that it was low season, with the few tourist shops on the streets mostly closed. There was a quiet bustle in the town as people came and went. Spotting a steep road stretching upwards ahead of us, we remembered the advice given to us by the women in the car – that we must visit the monastery at the top of the cliffs – and set off up the hill. Eventually, we stumbled upon a large, semi-ruined archway to our right. A sign (in Greek) said something about ‘Agios Ioannis’, St John, the saint after which the monastery was named.

The path on the other side of the arch became cobbled and uneven, and we walked towards the domed church at the opposite end of the path. Another arch appeared – this time in good condition, and with three domes across the top – and we walked into a beautifully manicured garden. Orange trees heavy with fruit, and large rosemary and lavender bushes edged the gravel paths through this oasis. Two nuns who had previously been sitting in the sun in front of the little gift shop, shot out of their rocking chairs in surprise, and one came towards us. Understanding a few of the Greek words she spoke to us, along with her gestures, indicated that she was offering us some oranges from an adjacent garden.

She waved us through a little doorway in a brick wall, where we were faced with an even bigger and more fruitful orange garden. A couple of butterflies played in the air around our waists as we made our way beneath the boughs of the trees along a narrow path. Carefully taking one orange each, we wandered around the garden for a while before heading back to the main courtyard where the nuns were sitting. They saw us approaching, and insisted we ate a piece of their Turkish delight and some more oranges. I wondered if they would be this attentive and generous during high tourist season, and we had a feeling that they probably would be.

Before we returned to the town, we entered the little chapel at the centre of the monastery complex. Unbeknownst to us, a small sign insisted that women must wear skirts, and one of the nuns came running into the chapel to tie some fabric around Helen’s trousered waist. Stifling nervous giggles, we looked up at the intricate detailing inside the chapel. Having been to many Orthodox churches on our journey, it is hard to be amazed, but the care and emotion clearly laid into these murals was impressive. But as much as we wanted to sit and stare, we had to leave. Buying a little olive bowl, we thanked the nuns and made our way back to the centre of Koroni.

After a short stroll along the seafront, past old fishing boats and huge piled nets on the quayside, we began the walk home. It was a long walk, through tiny hamlets, alongside reddish sandstone cliff faces, and past seemingly endless olive groves. One woman, concerned about the distance we had to walk, offered us a lift, but this time we politely declined her offer and continued on foot.

Returning to the house, we were informed that our oil would be pressed that evening. Arriving at the mill, we were informed that our olives still had a fair wait. Several hours went by, and eventually we were able to press our olives. The workers faced all the sack openings in front of the metal container and cut their strings. The olives made a bright shower of lime green and dark purple as they tumbled into the machine.

Half an hour or so later, after being separated from leaves, cleaned, mashed and then pressed, the oil came pumping out of the spout at the other end of the building. Its bright green, cloudy appearance was just like the Italian oil we had made. Michael took a piece of bread and held it over the spout, coating it in the oil. He took a bite and looked satisfied with the quality. We did the same, and the oil was still a little warm from the pressing process. It was slightly sharper than the Italian oil, but still had that same zesty, powerful taste.

Our last day of picking was the last day of their harvest. We had a final drink with the Albanians, before a punctured tyre slowed the depositing of our last load of sacks. The Albanians were booked for more harvests nearby, but we were preparing to set off. We had barely been there a week but had got under the skin of the harvest in this area. Much like Vassara, Harakopio kept ticking over despite the crisis in the cities, and the poor yield of olives had more to do with the bumper harvest last year than anything human-made. Still, a number of groves were slowly becoming overgrown as locals had sold their land and moved away, often leaving their trees in the hands of outsiders who do not have such a strong connection and commitment to the land. The following morning, we were dropped off at the village square and awaited the bus back to Athens, waving to one of our Albanian pickers from across the street before heading north – back again to Athens.
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