The olive tree is a big part of Mediterranean culture and without a doubt, a symbol of the Mediterranean region. Its origins are lost in the myths and legends across all cultures of the Mediterranean basin. The geography and climate of the Mediterranean basin are ideal for olive trees. Ancient Greeks were the first people to cultivate olive trees. They were the first also to discover the many benefits and uses of its oil.
Lesvos is an island in the North Aegean situated only about 65 nautical miles km Turkish shores. The third biggest Greek Island and the seventh biggest Island in the Mediterranean. The island has an astonishing number of about 11 million olive trees. The Island’s olive groves cover approximately the 28% of its total surface. They amount to 79% of its arable land, although not every single olive grove is cultivated. All these groves together make Lesvos a beautiful, endless, olive tree forest.
Biodiversity of the Olive Grove
The Olive grove is a host to many different kinds of flora and fauna. It sustains an amazing, diverse and rich ecosystem. Its biodiversity is not the same across the Island of course. Human intervention, pesticides and land clearings, are the main factors of biodiversity loss.
There are many different trees and bushes growing amongst the olive trees in the groves. The almond-leaved pear, the Mediterranean Cypress, the pubescent oak. A few of the bushes are: dog rose, strawberry tree, myrtle, rock-rose, wild thyme and tree heather. At times, among those you can also spot climbing plants. Honeysuckle and the fern-leaved Clematis, which is the common name of Clematis cirrhosa. Alongside the tree and bushes, you can also find many different wild flowers. When in bloom the olive grove turns into a beautiful, multicoloured carpet. You can find anemones, daisies, the 15 different types of Orchis and poppies among others.
The Fauna of the olive grove is diverse and includes: mammals, birds, serpents and insects. A couple worth mentioning: the caucasian Squirrel, which is quite unique and the Eurasian Eagle-Owl. In the mountainous olive groves you can also hear the Chukar partridge. From serpents common is the Greek Tortoise and 6 species of snakes, from the 13 you can find in total on the island. The only venomous from those is the Ottoman Viper. This snake is endemic to the northeastern regions of Greece, Turkey and certain Aegean Islands. Other serpents include: the snake-eyed lizard, the Balkan green lizard and the European copper skink.
An olive-centred culture
Olive harvesting is the most onerous task in the Olive Oil production procedure. It seems that in Lesvos they have been harvesting olives since the ancient times. In the Thermi area, archeologists found an ancient Olive Mill. They time its use around 2800 – 2000 bc.
In the more recent years, the people of Lesvos were gathering in the Olive groves to collect the olives. During those times, the spirits were high. Although it was a very long and tiresome task, (break only for lunch) people would find ways to make it pleasurable. They would also organise several festivities upon the end of the harvesting season.
For harvesting, men and women would work together to collect the olives. They would use long sticks to shake the trees. Underneath the trees they had special pieces of cloth and people would collect them by hand. Olive harvesting starts in September. Green olives are collected first. Harvest would continue throughout autumn, as the olives would turn black.
In the old days, the Olive grove was providing so much more to people than just oil. They would collect the best Olives and preserve them in salt and laurel leaves. They were kept in basements or dark places in the house. Olives would be consumed as a side dish all year around. The olive oil was not used only for cooking. It was used also for lighting lamps. The use of those lamps were popular since ancient times and later their use got connected to Christianity. Olive oil is still used until today in small lamps you can find in churches and graveyards.
Olive trees would also give wood. Very valuable in the old days, wood was used in cooking and warming up people’s houses. If they had excess they would sell to make money. Most of the wood would come from pruning the trees in spring. A practice done almost every year to help the tree to give more olives. People would be in the Olive grove all year around. They would do small works to improve its sustainability and potency
Olive Oil products and production
Olive trees are especially resistant to viruses, they live more than 100 years. In Lesvos there are 3 different olive trees. Kolovi which is the most popular, Adramittini, and Lathoelia which is the less common. Greece is the 3rd biggest Olive Oil producer in the world. Spain and Italy come first and second. Lesvos produces 20% of the total production of Greek olive oil. Modern industrial production of Olive oil started in Greece in the 60s. The old industrial olive mills were steam operated and used to employ a lot of people. These days the modernisation of the olive mill has achieved a smooth operation and a large olive oil production. Today there are about 50 operational olive mills on the island.
It is well known that the quality of any given olive oil relies completely on its acidity. The lower the acidity the highest the quality. The Olive oil produced in Lesvos has unique characteristics that make it unique. It’s rich in unsaturated fats which makes it thinner than most olive oils that are thick and dark green in colour. It has also two other unique characteristics that can be spotted easily. A golden hue that comes from carotenoids. The carotenoids are a group of natural pigments that exist in food. They are necessary for the development of the plants. More specifically during the stage of photosynthesis. They have red, orange or yellow colour and are rich in vitamin A. The fruity aftertaste when consumed raw is the second characteristic.
Soap making is a sector directly connected to olive oil. In Lesvos it started in 1880 and it was a flourishing actor as soap making used olive oil as a basic ingredient. In the early days, soap making was taking place inside a designated area of the olive mill. Production would take place during the summer months. They would use olive oil they didn’t manage to sell or couldn’t be sold due to its poor quality. Soap use got broader with the years and soap making became a profitable business in Lesvos. Later, modern soap making using synthetic ingredients took the lead. The last few years, olive oil based soaps gained popularity again. A big part of todays’ production is exported abroad.
Additionally, oil kernel mills are also operating on the island. These mills are industrial units that process olive kernels. The mills produce olive kernel wood (an important energy source) and olive kernel oil. It needs extra refining methods if used in food. It is a lesser quality olive oil with high acidity.
Article written by Sporos Team, April 2021
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