Let’s start the first ever blog post with a pop quiz, shall we? If you could pick one tree that makes you think of Greece, what would it be?
All these trees grow in Greece, but I’m guessing you picked C. Why do I assume you did? Because you read the title of this post, mainly (haha) but also because olives and olive oil are the godmothers of Greek fare, right? What is a horiatiki salata without olives, or olive oil for that matter? Greek cuisine even has a whole category of dishes named lathera (the oily ones) which require lashings of olive oil to be added. These include gemista, arakas and fasolakia – all cheap, healthy, vegetarian dishes and staples in our home. It’s no surprise our family goes through about two 25-litre cans of Kalamata olive oil a year!
Olives, the olive branch and the olive tree are symbolic in many cultures and religions, from ancient Egypt to Christianity to the Arab world. In ancient Greece, newborn babies were presented with an olive branch, brides wore a crown of olive leaves, and olive wreaths were given to the dead. It was illegal to cause damage to an olive tree in ancient Greece – a crime that was actually punishable by death at one point! The olive tree was also sacred to Athena and had a special place in the myth of the founding of Athens, the city I live in.
Poseidon, the god of the sea, and Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war, both wanted to preside over the newly-founded city. Neither of these deities were known for backing down, and they were both known for their tempers. However, they decided to settle the matter with a contest. They would each give the city a gift. Whoever gave the best gift would be the winner.
Up on the Acropolis, Poseidon cracked open the rock with his trident, and a spring of seawater appeared. Athena brought forth an olive tree from the rock. They were both good gifts, but Poseidon had made one mistake: he had forgotten that mortals couldn’t drink salt water. His gift was useless, and Athena won the contest.
An olive tree, planted in memory of Athena’s gift, still grows on the Acropolis today. You can see it behind the Erechtheion, a temple on the north side of the complex that was dedicated both to Athena and Poseidon.
We have a much less well-known and much less-visited olive tree in our garden. Someone planted it about seven years ago, I think, when my middle daughter was a baby (which explains why I have no recollection of it!) That olive tree grew slow and steady and, this spring, it got its first buds.
Have you ever seen olive blossoms? They are so delicate – white with yellow centres, and so tiny. I was so excited to see them because blossoms mean O-L-I-V-E-S! But soon I noticed something like cotton wool all over the twigs of the tree. Frantically, I sent pictures to my friend (who is from Kalamata and grew up among the olive trees). What’s wrong? What should I do? I wanted to know.
It turns out that this is vamvakadas, or woolly aphid, and it’s a common problem for olive trees. A bad case can damage a tree’s ability to produce fruit, and it seemed like we had a bad case. I followed my friend’s advice – water mixed with green soap and a dash of alcohol in a spray bottle – and it worked a treat. But the blossoms seemed irreparably damaged, and quite a lot of the tree’s leaves dropped. We gave up hopes of an olive harvest this year.
But our olive tree is tough. Looking up in late September, I was thrilled to see green olives turning purple. Not a lot of them, to be honest, but enough to send me back upstairs grinning. A few weeks later, on a wet and windy morning, we harvested them. I balanced the old step ladder from the basement on the uneven, muddy ground and my little helper carefully picked all the ones she could reach. I picked the rest while she held the box, exclaiming enthusiastically that there were ‘so many olives!’ When, in truth, all we had managed to gather fitted into a medium-sized plastic tupperware.
But that doesn’t matter. I’m not looking to break into the commercial olive business here…! I’m just enjoying the process of doing something that has been done in this country for thousands of years. There are many stages to belonging to a place, but for me, most of them seem to involve getting my hands in the soil of the land – and food!