ralo 2020 Summer Newsletter (Fall Harvest Report)


July 6th, 2020 ralo SUMMER NEWSLETTER

FALL 2019 HARVEST REPORT

This is the “backstory” of last Fall's olive harvest in Greece.

It is also a detailed portrait of a place and a way of life, both personal and in a wider mythical sense, from which ralo olive oil originated.

HOW TIMES HAVE CHANGED

It seems rather surreal to be writing about travel given how much our world has changed in the interim.

We took for granted the ability to travel whenever we could afford it and wherever we wanted to go.

Now, it seems a thoroughly indulgent and risky, if not reckless, luxury.

Too recent for nostalgia to set in…and yet…

As always, you can ignore the newsletter, look at just the photos or read a little, most or even all of it.

As always, it’s as you wish.

 


 

FLASHBACK TO FALL 2018 HARVEST: “THE WORST EVER”

The fall 2018 harvest was disastrous.

Less than 5% of the olive oil produced was of “extra-virgin” quality (versus 80%+ in “normal” years).

Many groves were left unpicked.

Growers could not afford, or survive, another such harvest in 2019.

Every year is a lottery.

Not until the fresh-pressed oil is in the tanks can growers feel at ease.

 

SPRING 2019: “THERE ARE OLIVES THIS YEAR!”

The spring 2019 news was positive from the outset.

Lots of blossoms. Lots of olives.

 

Decent rains, but not too much moisture.

Good fruit production.

A summer with lots of sun, but not too dry.

 

No olive fruit fly, no fungus.

Excellent fruit quality.

Promise of excellent quality oil.

  

PUTTING THE “EARLY” IN “EARLY HARVEST”

As you know we buy only early harvest oils.

Greener olives produce healthier oils with lower acidity than those pressed from riper, darker olives.

Normally, even the “early harvesters” don’t start until late October or early November.

This year, it was mid-October or earlier.

None wanted some freak weather event to pull the harvesting nets out from under their feet, leaving them empty-handed for a second straight year.

By early November there was more exquisite quality fresh oil in growers’ tanks than they had all last year, with most of the harvest remaining.

Every fresh oil I tasted no matter where I went was fantastic, with many growers and regions reporting all-time low levels of acidity.

What a relief, after last year’s “down-to-the-wire” uncertainty as to whether there would be any good oil at all.

 

NOVEMBER RAINS

   

It’s a good thing they started early as November turned into an unusually rainy month.

In the five weeks from early November to early December it rained, on average, two of every three days for at least part of the day.

Though the rain did not damage the crop, harvesting crews struggled to sustain any momentum except for a few days at a time.

Muddy groves are unwalkable and unworkable. Muddy nets get stuck and are difficult to move.

Climbing wet olive trees often leads to unwilling yet thudding obedience to the laws of gravity. Only later does one understand why Paul Simon’s “Slip, Slidin’ Away”, suddenly came to mind as if to cue the fall...

So, it was “stop-and-go” to the end. No schedules, just as the weather allowed.

Rain frequently interrupted or delayed the work but there were enough good days and hours in the partial days to get the job done.

Ultimately, the harvest was completed and it was amazing.

It was a welcome pleasure to meet with each grower.

With pride they watched me taste their oils. With genuine anticipation they waited to see my reaction.

 

Those who have received this year’s fresh olive oils already know our 2020 olive oils (from the fall 2019 harvest) are of extraordinary quality.

In the two decades ralo has been in existence, this is the best “vintage” of all.

Stronger flavour generally, with more intense fruit, grass, bitter and herbal notes, and more aggressive pepperiness.

And the lowest acidity across the board that “broke all records”.

The exact opposite of the previous year’s harvest.

Sometimes, everything goes right and very little goes wrong.

Fate can also be kind.


THE TYPICAL OLIVE HARVEST TRIP

  

 

Normally, harvest trips involve driving, lots of driving.

My time is divided mostly between Athens and my ancestral mountain village in southwest Peloponisos, a three-hour drive each way.

Using the village as home base I make several visits to olive growers, presses, and testing labs. I also check out promising new products or suppliers, visiting friends along the route.

Fueled by strategic caffeine intake, I zig-zag my rental car up the mountain to the village well past midnight.

Only a solitary fox cavalierly crossing the road or a spooked wild rabbit in the headlights keep tabs on passersby.

Once, as fatigue set in and the power of caffeine waned, in night fog as thick as bleached wool, a baby wild boar scurried across the road mere feet from my bumper. Talk about, a “holy shit” religious awakening.

Finally, I would park in the driveway of our village house. Though exhausted and longing for sleep, if a clear night, I would gaze up in awe and wonder at a sky ablaze with stars.

By 7am the next morning I would be off in another direction.

Last-minute shuffling of appointments or rain delays often played havoc with my carefully-planned schedules and routes.

This meant longer days and longer drives, or worse, having to stay overnight or return later for something that could have been done initially.

If asked where I was going to be “tomorrow” I would honestly answer ‘Even I don’t know’. 

Whenever possible I explored places of historical, cultural or culinary interest, often paying return visits from year to year.

But not this past harvest. 

[ok, I did manage to take a daytrip - but just a daytrip - to a cliffside monastery in central Peloponisos, only a 2 hour drive from Kalamata or almost 3 hours from Athens]

 

 



FALL 2019: A VERY DIFFERENT ralo TRIP

Except for the first and last 36 hours, which were spent in Athens, my trip was spent almost exclusively in my village.

The excellent harvest and the early start meant that our ralo needs were assured almost from the outset and the rains made it impossible to make reliable plans for “field” visits.

Besides, our family groves were loaded with olives to be harvested. This became the central priority and focus.

 

So, I had to stay close to home for almost the entire trip.

How apt, looking back with 2020 hindsight.

 

SYSIPHUS ARE WE… 

After our family left the village in 1968 our fields and two olive groves on the banks of a river were tended to for a time by relatives and other villagers, who planted or harvested for their own account.

But the poverty- and hope-fueled exodus continued, ultimately reducing the village population from about 400 to less than 30 year-round residents.

It was not long until once-cultivated lands began showing the toll of missing hands, with unchecked growth erasing decades of perennial toil.

Tall grasses and even taller weeds found fertile footholds.

Savage thorns and brambles sprang up and spread maniacally along the ground and climbed into the trees, forming serpentine, merciless ramparts of tangles that seemed to say “This is my domain. DO NOT ENTER!”

After their retirement in the mid-1980’s our parents cleared and revived our olive groves but this had to be repeated in earnest by a brother who returned to the village for a few years at a time over the next two decades.

Every year there was work to be done. It took only a bit of rain and sun to send things “back to the beginning”.

In the last five years when there was an olive crop worth harvesting, I cleared one of the groves just around the trees so as to be able to spread the harvesting nets.

The other grove, having suffered extensive tree damage by winter ice and frosts, was not worth the clearing.

By June 2018 both groves had become so overgrown again that I hired a bulldozer to clear them down to the rustic red soil, leaving only the olive trees.

When I arrived this past November, the usual suspects had returned with a vengeance.

A dense, thorny green web woven by a clan of giant spiders stood between me and the olive trees.

And so, another major clearing was needed. 

Sysiphus is I.

 


THE SETTING: MOUNTAINS, A GORGE, A MYTHICAL RIVER

On a mountain about 60 km, mostly north and a bit west of Kalamata, our ancestral village sits at 800 metres above sea level, facing north.

In a remote corner of Messenia, it borders with Arcadia and Elia prefectures.

 

We the siblings still own the small stone house built by our grandfather and great grandfather, in one room of which our father, his siblings, and all of us were born.

The mountainside drops northwards into a deep gorge, along which runs the Neda River.

It is invariably described as “the only river in Greece with a female name” (true, if we ignore the one other river with a female name ... but it sure sounds more special if we say it’s the ‘only’ one…).

On the Neda’s banks, left and right, is a patchwork of small olive groves owned by residents of the village.

Both of our groves are on the right, or north bank of the river.

In the “old days”, before automobiles, a narrow meandering footpath led down from the village, a downhill trek of several kilometers taking the good part of an hour by foot, a bit less by horse, mule or donkey.

It’s the same distance but longer, much longer, on the way up, especially after a hard day’s work.

 
View from river groves to the village, day then night...

As if that was not demanding enough, several decades ago one woman late into her pregnancy made the trip on foot twice in one day.

Returning home mid-day to cook the night’s meal, she descended for several more hours of work before ascending in darkness just in time for her baby’s arrival.

The next day, again by river’s edge, a newborn nursed in the shade.

There is now a paved road all the way to the river, the asphalt ending just this side of the old concrete bridge.

The river is now a good fifteen feet below the bridge.

Some tell of a time when the water swelled over the bridge and of unlucky goats being carried away by the raging current.

These are sheep on the bridge, and that's just a rain puddle
These are goats, keeping to the high ground, just in case.

 

THE OTHER SIDE

From village to river it’s a 15-20 minute drive, in low gear with foot over the brake pedal on the way down, and clutch-riding jerky gear changes back up.

Beyond the bridge, a one-lane dirt track continues for several kilometres until it reaches the first village on the north side, where the asphalt resumes.

To the north of the river another mountain rises.

Near the very top of that mountain is a small white speck.

The white speck is a tent.

Under the tent is an ancient temple.


 

AN ANCIENT TEMPLE FOR CONTEMPORARY TIMES

It’s the Temple of Epikourean Apollo, also known as the Temple at Bassae.

In the fifth century B.C.E., during the long and bitter Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta a terrible plague ravaged Greece. It claimed no less a figure than Pericles of Athens, as if the death of the illustrious mean more.

The citizens of ancient Figalia (mentioned by Homer in the Iliad), and situated along the Neda River gorge, had been afflicted by this same plague and suffered tremendous losses of life.

They already had temples close to their city, including a temple dedicated to Athena, goddess of wisdom.

Sometimes, wisdom alone is not enough...

 

After prayers to all other gods for deliverance, the plague lifted only after pleas to Apollo.

In gratitude, the Figalians hired Iktinos the most famous architect of the time, best known for his masterpiece, the Parthenon in Athens. He built a temple fit to honour “Apollo the Helper”.

Whenever I shared that information in the past, it seemed a peripheral footnote. Not so in a time of pandemic.

This is the only ancient Greek temple which makes use of all three types of ancient columns (Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian), and perhaps marks the first appearance of the Corinthian order.

The spectacular friezes adorning the temple, “removed” to the British Museum depict battle scenes with Centaurs, Amazons and Lapiths:

Photos from the Cornell University Digital Collection

Centaurs

Amazons


Apollo & Artemis

On one of my many pilgrimages, on a cool and blustery afternoon I climbed the narrow footpath to the peak looming above and a bit west of the Bassae temple.

On that peak lies an earlier sacred precinct dedicated to the goddesses Aphrodite and Artemis.

One of the Bassae friezes depicts Apollo and Artemis, perhaps the architect's way of connecting the two sites, Aphrodite obviously having fallen out of favour.

This upper site was already in ruins two thousand years ago and was considered “ancient” then.

All structures are long gone, leaving an empty clearing ringed by a grassy rise all around.

Shielded from the wind, a time-dissolving harmony and quiet stillness suffuse all.

Something sacred endures here.

 

VILLAGE SUNRISE

Emerging from the house onto the front patio one’s glance is naturally drawn to the north.

At sunrise, if the timing is just right, a contrast rises so sharply from gorge to mountaintop that it cuts short the breath.

The first rays of morning, like a perfectly aimed spotlight pierce through the blankets of mist and shadow to illuminate the ridge of peaks in a swath to the temple.

Those ancients knew how to choose their spots…


LAYER UPON LAYER OF MYTH & HISTORY

In the half century since we left Greece we have come to learn much about the history and folklore of the area.

We are repeatedly surprised, humbled and awe-filled by the richness of this place and its past. Layer upon layer of myth, historical events, traditions and narratives weave a magnificently textured tapestry.

A common thread is that of the remote place as origin, sanctuary, natural paradise, and refuge for the pursued, the persecuted, the untameable and the free. In short, those who value personal liberty above all else.

In every direction, there is a myth connected with whatever the eyes see and with much that is visible no longer.

  

AN INDOMITABLE SPIRIT

Looking down from the village to the northeast, one can see a low peak jutting westwards into the centre of the gorge amidst the taller mountains bracketing it on three sides.

That low peak is named Mount Eira.

It looks quiet and unremarkable, with a small stone chapel on its west edge. Flocks of sheep can be seen grazing lazily on its flanks, without a worry in the world (except around Easter time).

Through the millennia and from centuries before the Bassae temple even existed, echoes are heard of a Messenian fortress stronghold and of a fascinating hero named Aristomenes.

He defiantly resisted and terrorized the imperialist Spartans for decades, despite numerous battles, betrayals, captures, miraculous escapes and returns after being given up for dead by both his enemies and his friends.

He showed unmatched daring by stealing into the city of Sparta at night and hanging a shield on the main temple of Athena with the inscription “A gift from Aristomenes to the Goddess…”.

The goddess may have been pleased but the Spartans, not so much.

He remained steadfastly independent, rejecting “peace” offers sparing his life and allowing him to rule in ease and security as “Sparta’s Man” while his fellow Messenians paid tribute to both master and slavemaster.

Trading liberty for for the security of mere life, lacking dignity and freedom, was not within his vocabulary, no matter what profits and comforts awaited.

Following more than a decade-long siege by the Spartans, the fortress was betrayed and fell (a salacious tale of adultery and dereliction of guard duty in a driving rainstorm).

Its overtaken defenders were exiled by the Spartans, some settling as far away as Sicily.

It is not certain what became of Aristomenes, but his legend survives and his example is worth the retelling.

How different would be this world if his exception had been the rule throughout history.

 
...remnants of the fortress walls on Mt Eira can still be seen

WHERE GODS ARE BORN

Just when one thinks they have reached “the beginning” of the historical narrative other fragments speak of a time before history, a time of myth, and further back to the advent of time itself.

It is the actual setting where specific mythical events reportedly took place, not simply where the gods were worshipped or commemorated. In a manner of speaking, the gods and goddesses "were there".

One telling places the birth of Zeus in this gorge.

There is still a river Lymax, named for the waters in which his mother Rhea was cleansed of afterbirth. The Lymax flows south down a narrow ravine lined with golden-leafed plane trees before it joins the Neda river.

The Neda takes its name from one of the three nymphs given charge of caring for the infant Zeus, and keeping him hidden.

This was to prevent his father Kronos (meaning “time”) from devouring him, as he had done with all his previous children to foil a prophecy that he would be dethroned by his offspring just as he had dethroned his own father Ouranos (meaning “sky”).

Rhea was able to pass off a cleverly-wrapped boulder as the newborn to be swallowed.

Kronos suspected nothing.

Not quite sure what this says about either “divine” culinary talent or how discerning are the palates of kings of gods and men…

 

WHERE THE FIRST OLYMPIC GAMES WERE HELD

On the east edge of the Neda Gorge, behind some lower peaks, rises Mount Lykaion.

Here is situated one of the earliest-known sanctuaries dedicated to Zeus and where a form of the Olympic games were held centuries before they became associated with Olympia.  

According to one ancient writer, it is the site of the oldest city in the world.

 

WHERE GODDESSES GRIEVE

Tradition has it that the goddess Demeter, “black with grief” retired to a cave after fruitlessly searching the earth for her daughter Persephone (aka Kore) who had disappeared while picking wildflowers in a meadow.

All sources agree that this cave is somewhere in the Neda River gorge, giving distances from still known locations.

Eventually, Demeter learned that Persephone had been abducted by Hades, king of the underworld.

AN ENTRANCE TO THE UNDERWORLD

In a cleft beside the Neda River a gentle brook flows down to where the waters of brook and river meet.

Giant plane trees line the brook and cast a dark-as-midnight shade at mid-day.

Anglicized to the familiar “Styx”, it shares the name of the famous river forming the boundary between earth and the underworld, where binding oaths were sworn by the gods when they “really meant it”.

It was in another river Styx that the baby Achilles was dipped by his mother to make him invulnerable and immortal (except for the heel by which she held him for the dipping).

Detectives hired by Demeter might have traced the abduction route but now a blue tourist sign marks the way.

Icy-cold water, emerging from springs higher up the mountain, flows down in gentle chutes carved in the rock over time, dropping in tiny waterfalls to lend its coolness to the Neda below.

As kids we built dams of stone near the fork where brook and river meet, swimming all the hot summer day away, immersed in joy and play.

On occasion, our mirth and blood froze cold, as river eels slinked by…

 

A MERMAID GODDESS…

There are references to a mermaid goddess, half woman and half fish, named Eurynome.

Her temple is said to have been on difficult ground surrounded by cypress trees just above the junction where the Lymax flows into the Neda River.

In what surely must be the low-water mark for religious observance demands, her cult allowed the temple to be opened only on one specific day each year for special celebrations before it was locked up again until the following year, it being a serious transgression to open it otherwise.

Perplexing indeed that this cult practice was not more popular and widely adopted.

(1)…WHO CARED FOR AN OUTCAST GOD…

Eurynome was one of two goddesses who received the infant god Hephaistus after Hera cast him down from heaven (in one tradition, because she was ashamed and disgusted at having given birth to a crippled, imperfect child).

In a subterranean cave the lame god was nursed and served an apprenticeship of nine years, learning and perfecting skills and arts that dazzled even the gods.

It was Hephaistus who forged the famous shield of Achilles, with imagery depicting the whole of human existence and knowledge, described in Book 18 of Homer’s Iliad.

(2)… WHO CREATED THE WORLD & DANCED ON WAVES…

By some accounts, Eurynome was a creator goddess.

Dancing on the waves she created her husband Ophion in the shape of a snake.

Taking the form of a dove she lay an egg upon the waters.

Ophion entwined himself around the egg until it hatched.

From it came forth the world and all of creation.

(3)…WHO HAD A VICIOUS TEMPER…

Eurynome and Ophion then ruled on Olympus for a time until Ophion arrogantly began taking credit for creating the world all by himself, without help (perhaps the etymological origin of the word “jerk-***”).

Unimpressed, Eurynome steps on Ophion’s head, kicks out his teeth and banishes him to the underworld. (Other traditions say that they were overthrown by Kronos and Rhea, but the kick-in-the-teeth thread is too entertaining to ignore).

(4) WHO WAS A GIVER OF GRACES

Eurynome is credited as having given birth to the Three Graces, goddesses of beauty, joy, mirth, dance and song whose glances were said to “flow with love that unnerve the limbs”. (Not all limbs presumably, else the fortress of Mount Eira might never have fallen...)

There are still rumours of carved and sculpted stones from her temple within grove terrace retaining walls and of column fragments lying abandoned in thickets.

 

REFUGE of PAGANS, REBELS, FUGITIVES, and JUST PLAIN POOR FOLK

In the first centuries after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, those who wished to continue the old pagan traditions found refuge in the Neda River gorge, avoiding forced conversions, or worse.

During the most recent four-century occupation of Greece by the Ottomans ending in 1821, fiercely independent tribes who refused to submit or pay tribute settled in villages built stone by stone near the highest available sources of fresh water.

Many were renegades and outlaws from occupying authorities.

Some fled the lower plains to escape devastating plagues.

They scratched out a subsistence living, planting what they could in the inhospitable rocky ground, hunted wild game, and raised sheep and goats for their material needs.

No matter how hard they worked or how well they planned they were, year after year and evermore, “one bad harvest away from starvation”… and one not-so-serious illness close to eternal rest.

Infant mortality was rife, in one case with only one child making it into adulthood from sixteen live births.  When asked how many children they had, it was common for village mothers to reply "I have nine, six who are still living".

And they would say this with gratitude.

Wonder no more why Greeks greet and bid farewell to each other  with a "Ya soo" ("Health to you") or when drinking and clinking glasses say "Ya mas" ("Health to us"), or when de-jinxing future plans to qualify their statements with a  "Health first, above all"...

Wonder not also why, after the birth of a couple's child or at baptisms, the joyful blessing given by all is "May the child live for you".


 

A PALPABLE ENERGY

Whether or not one accepts the history or gives audience to the old myths there is a natural energy to this region that captivates and mesmerizes.

If there comes a time when the past is forgotten this place will no doubt give rise to new myths and new stories to take their place.

In the lines of the mountains, one can discern the figure of a lithe young woman sleeping gently beneath a blanket of green, her back to the temple. Her form I have perceived – and photographed – but have not yet awakened to her story.

All one has to do is spend time in this place, with mind, senses and eyes open wide to be absorbed by the landscape.

Assimilated, all else dissolves, replaced by a feeling of peace and of just being, outside time.

And in that non-space the land speaks.  May you be blessed to hear what it's saying.

Now, where was I?

 

NOVEMBER 2019: CUTTING BACK THE JUNGLE

Before the harvest could begin, the olive groves had to be cleared. I figured this would take 8-10 full days of work. In the end, it was closer to 14.

Every morning I loaded my rental car with a scythe, shovel, pick, adze, axe, pruning saws and a wheelbarrow. Only manual tools, no power or motorized equipment.

 

Indispensable also are many litres of water, fresh fruit, snacks and meals prepared the night before or bought “take-out” on a jaunt into Kalamata or one of the closer towns.

Thirst comes quickly and often. Snacks maintain the strength. Lunch replenishes it. A short nap in the car is temporary surrender and pure self-indulgence.

 


I did mention sweets, didn't I?

 

Every evening, often after dark, I would re-load my tools and drive back up to the village.

It was a month of invigorating toil, deep contemplation and sensorial communion.

Whether warmed by the sun or cooled by the rain or a light breeze, I was serenaded by the gurgling hum of the Neda River, passing birdsong and from time to time by shouts and laughs of a small group across the river, working in the lee of the sun. 

Occasionally, tirades of the more experienced or unreasonable brought the ire and cane of the gods upon the ears of the "lesser", the unable.  The declarations and threats were not at all respectful to the bodily integrity of the virgin or to a litany of saints.

In an admirable display of fairness and disdain for hierarchy, even the deities on high of whatever faith, pagan or otherwise, were not spared.

Mostly, I was working alone and for weeks at a time was the only person in that section of the gorge.

From time to time, intense fragrances rose up as the scythe sliced through grass and thorns. A closer look revealed flowering wild mint in season and less-than-punctual-but-still-pungent oregano that somehow evaded the previous July pickings.

But, not for long...

Sightings of wild asparagus, well-past its spring tenderness and hardened into a prickly, woody tangle, led to mental notes of where to look in future springs.

Butterflies in a jagged blur of colour, regularly flitted past moving from sun to shade and onward beyond sight.

As the repetitive rhythms of such work took hold, the minutes melted into one continuous flow of day.

The smells of the soil and fresh-cut grass sedated and soothed.

It was gym membership, ashram, hermitage, walkabout and wellness resort, all in one.

 

 

 

A SLOW BURNING FIRE

On a rainy Saturday I drove to Kalamata for the twice-weekly farmers’ market to get some needed food supplies, especially some fresh, whole fish.

Every evening I would light the fireplace for warmth and to rid the house of dampness. I would feed more wood before sleep and in the morning, if the embers still glowed, would renew it.

Several times the thought had crossed my mind of how good it would be to return home from a long day at the river to find the coals just right to grill fish, and to wash it down with an aromatic native white wine called Moschofilero, chilled of course.

I practiced setting the logs in the fireplace a certain distance apart and in a way that would burn slowly enough to keep burning all day and not be completely consumed by evening.

After a few ash pile failures, I managed it perfectly two days in a row. Having picked up a few bottles of the wine on a quick winery stop in Nemea while driving a friend mid-way back to Athens, the only thing missing was the fish.

Hence the drive to Kalamata Farmer’s Market on a rainy Saturday.

I found some super fresh sea bream, and bought two. The fishmonger gutted and cleaned the fish on the spot, and I took it away wrapped in newspaper (what else?).

In the parking lot, a beautiful rainbow arced to the northwest, the direction of my village.

A good grilling omen.

 

On the Monday morning, I washed and dried the fish and placed it in a foil envelope along with the prepared marinade (fresh olive oil, lemon juice & zest, sea salt, pepper, oregano, thyme, a touch of honey and pickled wild capers I had gathered the previous spring).

I renewed the fire, and set the slow burn.

When I returned home after dark, I was elated to see the coals glowing just right. I placed the fish on a small metal tripod in the hearth and went to clean up from the day’s work.

I uncorked the wine and poured myself a glass.

I turned on my favourite radio station which plays classic Greek songs from the past century. Fatigued, I sat in a not-so-cushy wooden chair before the fire, sipped, mused, and waited expectantly.

Comfort food was never so comforting as this.

I am convinced that no fish restaurant anywhere, no matter how highly-rated or how highly-priced, could have matched that meal.

The marinade and the fish could no doubt be prepared, cooked and plated far more expertly than my humble though rustic effort.

But it was the fusion of fatigue, hunger, food, melody, nostalgia and solitude (ok, and most of that bottle of wine) that raised the dish to a peak flavour experience that I will remember always (or at least until I forget it).

By the time I thought to take a picture of the meal, it was long gone...

 

FINALLY, ALAS, THE HARVEST

After more than a full month since I had started the clearing of the groves, I was finally able to start harvesting.

Time was running out as my departure date (already once extended) was approaching fast.

Luckily, the weather held and several consecutive good days were forecast.

I arranged for two labourers from another town, a husband and wife, to come help so all of the trees could be harvested in time.

The first day I worked alone, and on the second day my help arrived. Things picked up substantially, and I came to understand the meaning of the saying “olives need hands”.

Each evening I would take that day’s olives up to the village house. The harvest grew visibly before my eyes.

 

 

 

 

UNEXPECTED INTERLUDE: THE BELL TOLLS FOR US ALL

On the evening of the second day news came that the next day at 1:00 pm there would be a funeral in the village.

The forgiven”, as the dead are referred to, was a woman at the tail end of my parents’ generation. I remembered her. Widowed early she always wore black and lived in the village until well into her seventies, whereupon she moved to Athens.

On one of my first trips back to the village in the late eighties or early nineties, she walked to the east edge of the village and past our house, having heard that “one of the eight kids” of my parents had come.

She was a tiny, delicate woman, with a vibrant sureness in her step. She was probably in her sixties then, already a widow for a decade if not longer. 

Black fabric covered her hair. All-black was the rest.  A glimmer of bittersweet joy escaped the storylines of her life, displayed as lighter-hued grooves across her beautiful, tanned face.

After confirming which of the eight I was, her gaze looked past my eyes to her memories of my parents and their shared youth.  There were tears in her eyes. Her greeting was a poetic lament:

“It's so good to see you my son. Welcome back.  So many have gone. To America, Australia, Germany, Venezuela and all over God's earth. These are relatives, not strangers. They took parts of us with them.
...
There are many who never set foot back here. What became of some only God knows.
...
The village has emptied.
...
There used to be engagements, weddings, births, baptisms, and funerals, the whole cycle of life.  The school had 120 children.  Now there are only funerals. Only a few of us and the stones remain, and even they weep…”

 

On the third day of this harvest and one day past her last, she would be brought back from Athens for the service and burial in the village cemetery.  She was one who would return.


The cemetery. 

Some whose harvest leave from work had been tailored tightly and had to go back, were agonizing their plight.  

No one plans for funerals.

There was no question but that everyone had to attend. In villages such as these, everyone is related.

So, around mid-day the groves emptied as a self-organizing convoy slowly climbed its way back up to the village in time to clean up and get properly dressed.

Inside the stone church with the bell tower, I listened to the chanting alongside faces familiar as of those who not long before were wielding harvesting poles and dragging nets from tree to tree.

I looked up and contemplated the coiffed wood ceiling built by my paternal grandfather, a carpenter who died while his surviving children were no more than early teenagers.

Several generations of my ancestors were both baptised and married in this church, as were their children and grandchildren.  We the siblings were the last in our line to be there anointed with the first branch of those rituals.

The consecrating oil now flows elsewhere.

After the church service, the harvesters kept catching each other’s gazes to reach a silent consensus when we could all leave without offending the family and the rest of the tribe.

Eventually, we dropped away from the crowd with apologetic nods and, once out of sight of the church courtyard (and after making sure none stayed longer furtively to score points at our expense), hurried to our homes to change back into work clothes and jump into our cars. 

We kept a somber, slow procession through the village careful not to look insensitive to others' grief.  Once on the steep road down the mountain, we kept our solidarity of mercy by letting gravity supply all haste to get us back to the river.


THE LAST DAY

My workers had made terrific progress during my absence.

At the end of that third day, only two trees remained.

 

In the early morning of the fourth day I finished those two trees alone, gathered my nets and tools, and took the olives back to the house.

By noon, a pickup truck arrived, loaded the crates and burlap bags of olives and headed off to the olive press an hour’s drive away.

I got in my car and followed.

 

“COLD OFF THE PRESS!”

Within a couple hours of my arrival, the pressing began. From olives to oil it takes about 90 minutes or so.

In the company of other local growers, I waited, sharing and comparing harvest notes.

When the silent spigot at the end of the line started dripping and then ran full with neon green, rich, cloudy, aromatic fresh oil it was serenely exhilarating.

This is a scene from a self-repeating movie that has played, year after year, for thousands of years.

Similar scenes (but spanning several weeks) played out in the groves and presses of our growers.

Taking my first sip of the fresh, just-pressed oil, the taste was incredible.

Waves of accomplishment, relief, satisfaction and pride coursed through me like an emotional soundtrack alongside images from the past month and back two decades since ralo came into existence.

I watched as the fresh oil was put into tins to share with my siblings and extended family.

Two tins would stay in the village house.  As the traditional folk saying goes, "A house without olive oil cannot stand, it will fall."

Tradition knows.

 

 

WE ARE OPEN FOR BUSINESS: "NO CONTACT" PICKUP

Though we will not be at Market in 2020 you can continue to buy our products by ordering them online and pick them up locally (Waterloo) or have them shipped to your door.

To read our Tasting Notes please click to see our 2020 ralo FLAVOUR GUIDE.

To buy our products go to our PRODUCTS/STORE page.

To see who sells ralo products please see our LIST OF RETAILERS.

If you need to reach us come to this website.  It is ralo's home.  You can email us at info@ralooliveoil.com or call us: 519 570 4277 (Robert) OR 519 574 1335 (Deborah).

We look forward to crossing paths again, one day soon.

Until then and after, be well, stay well, and take good care.

To view large-size versions of the photos, click HERE.

Robert & Deborah