I submitted this article to the Navigator Around the World in 80 pages competition in December and come January, Hurrah! It’s made the shortlist and will appear in print in 2016.
“I hope you don’t have soft hands,” is the first thing Spiros says to me when he picks us up at Athens airport. I’ve flown over from England with Jason, Spiros’ son, to add a third man to their father-son olive harvesting team. After a long drive west, we arrive at Spiros’ hilltop house in Psari nestled in the Messenian foothills.
At dawn the olive-banked mountains are a hazy lilac. We get straight to work, squeezing into Spiros’ old Mercedes with our harvesting gear. We lay floor covers over the frost while Spiros, in his seventies, nimbly climbs up the tree with a chainsaw and surveys the branches. He shares his knowledge with Jason. Groves are handed down and divided; it’s not uncommon to have a single tree owned by multiple family members.
Jason and I smack olives from the felled branches with the tridents. Its physical, repetitive work but it’s satisfying when a thwack produces a volley of olive bullets into the plastic covering. The olives are like Mini-eggs; pastel purples, yellows and pinks. A tree complete, Jason and I pile the wood, and then drag the olive-laden sheets to the next tree. By lunchtime we’ve only done eight trees and already our hands are blistered.
Although rural, it’s not quiet. The trees produce every two years, and from November to January, the harvesting is feverish; chainsaws buzz near and far and the presses run day and night. At day’s end we collect the olives onto one or two groundsheets and sack them up by the armful and by five we’re bouncing back up the mountain by the Merc’s headlights.
At home Jason and I collect firewood and fill bottles from Spiros’ homebrew wine cask. We ready the stone hearth and enjoy an ice-cold beer each to quench our day’s thirst while the fire takes. Grubby and cut we snack on olives and feta drizzled in oil, lemon and oregano. As evening deepens, we three sit in our pyjamas, mostly silent, supping wine and stare like lost cavemen at the fire
The harvest takes seven days and yields seventy hessian sacks for our efforts, 545 litres all told (eighty bathtubs). We visit the olive press and meet the owner Panos who greets us with gifts of dried figs and shots of tsipouro.
At the end of the press is a trickling stream of fluorescent liquid gold. We siphon off a few bottles and I sample it: it’s nutty, aromatic, rich and wonderful.
Jason and I leave tried but happy. When Spiros shakes my hand at the airport, I can’t help but notice it’s a little rougher and hardier than before.