The olive and the tree on which it grows have been revered since ancient times. Archaeological digs have unearthed evidence that olive trees have existed on the island of Crete since 3500 B.C. The Semitic peoples began cultivating the tree’s fruit around 3000 B.C. and particularly liked to use the oil of the olive to anoint their bodies during religious ceremonies, and even to light lamps. The Greeks traded it for wheat and the elaborately decorated clay pots that they used to transport the oil became a key part of the civilization’s burgeoning art industry. By the time of the Roman Empire, olives were a mainstay of the agricultural economy. The Romans used olive oil to grease the axles of their wagons and chariots.
As well as being a key component to many ancient cultures it also held great religious importance and is mentioned frequently in the Koran and in the Bible as well. The Bible states that Noah receives the message that land is near when a dove arrives at the ark with an olive branch in its mouth. Greek mythology associates the goddess Athena with the olive tree and credits Acropos, the founder of Athens, with teaching the Greeks to extract oil from the tree’s fruit. An ancient Hebrew law prohibiting the destruction of any olive tree is still obeyed today, demonstrating the importance of the olive tree in both ancient and current societies.
A member of the evergreen family, the olive tree features a gnarled trunk and leaves with a silvery underside. Its strong root system is perfect for penetrating sand, limestone, or heavy, poorly aerated soil. The trees thrive best in regions with rainy winters and hot, dry summers, making Crete a perfect candidate for olive tree cultivation. Although it may take up to eight years before a tree produces its first harvest, a single tree can live for centuries. Early oil producers pressed the olives by crushing them between huge cone-shaped stones as they turned slowly on a base of granite. Today, most factories employ hydraulic presses, exerting hundreds of tons of pressure, to separate the oil from the olive paste. Spain and Italy are the primary commercial producers of olives and olive oil with Greece close behind them. However, California, Australia, and South Africa are emerging as leaders in the industry. Some wineries have begun to plant olives to offset poor wine harvests. Ironically, olive trees were planted in California by missionaries in the 1800s, which by the turn of the century were producing an excellent grade of olive oil. However, the market demand was weak so the trees were uprooted and grape vines were planted in their place. In the late twentieth century, emphasis on good nutrition and a fascination with the so-called Mediterranean diet has resulted in a resurgence in the olive oil trade world wide. Olive oil is touted as a monounsaturate that is healthier for human consumption than corn and vegetable oils. The oil is also promoted as a dandruff reliever and, when mixed with beeswax, a homemade lip balm. In ancient times it was also seen as a medicine. Hippocrates stated that olive oil could be used to cure skin conditions, wounds, burns, gynecological afflictions, ear conditions and more.
While olive oil extraction processes may vary the basic procedure is as follows; The first step is to clean the olives and remove the stems, leaves, twigs, and other debris accidentally harvested with the olives. The olives are then washed with water to remove pesticides, dirt, etc. Light contaminants are removed by heavy air flow from a blower and heavy objects sink in the water bath, making this process quick, simple, and efficient. The second step is to crush the olives into a paste. The purpose of crushing the olives is to tear the flesh cells to facilitate the release of the oil from the vacuoles. This step can be done with stone mills, metal tooth grinders, or various kinds of hammermills. Mixing this paste for 20 to 45 minutes allows small oil droplets to combine into larger ones. This step is crucial. The paste can be heated or water added during this process to increase the yield, although this generally results in a lower quality of oil being produced. Longer mixing times increase oil yield but allows a longer oxidation period that decreases the oils shelf life. The next step is to separate the oil from the rest of the olive components. This used to be done with presses (hence the now somewhat obsolete terms first press and cold press), but is now commonly done by centrifugation, except in old traditional facilities. Some centrifuges are called three-phase because they separate the oil, the water, and the solids separately. The two-phase centrifuges separate the oil from a wet paste. In most cases, the oil coming out of the first centrifuge is further processed to eliminate any remaining water and solids by a second centrifuge that rotates faster. The oil is then left in tanks or barrels where a final separation, if needed, happens through gravity. This is called racking the oil. Finally the oil can be filtered, if desired, and then consumed.
The olive oil industry is obviously a big deal and very popular throughout Crete. Like their production of wine, this process was traditionally done by every Cretan family for everyone had lands that grew olive trees. The olive harvesting season became a time of family get togethers and BBQ’s in the orchards while everyone gathered together to harvest the ripe olives that were dropping off the trees. Now, however, there are fewer and fewer of these family owned small scale olive oil producers and more industrialized companies taking over the production industry. These large scale companies, sadly, opt to grow their olive trees using non-organic fertilizers and unsustainable methods, harming not only the land that they grow their olive trees on but also the surrounding areas ecosystem. While the industry may seem dominated by these kinds of money hungry producers, some small scale, family owned producers continue to make top quality extra virgin olive oil today in traditional and sustainable fashions. One of these unique producers is the Daskalakis family, who works with a group called Cretan Tree, an organization that connects 31 organic family owned olive tree farms and helps them to produce organically licensed and high quality olive oils. The Daskalakis however, stand out as exceptional olive oil producers for they have gone the extra mile to not only produce and grow their trees completely sustainably and organically, but their entire orchard of 3,000 trees is totally biodynamic as well.
Biodynamic farming is a system of farming that follows both a sustainable and holistic approach while using only organic, and usually locally-sourced materials for fertilizing and soil conditioning in order to maintain soil health and the microorganisms that live within the soil. This agricultural method views the farm as a closed, diversified ecosystem, and often bases farming activities on lunar cycles. To be truly biodynamic a farm, or in this case olive tree orchard, must be situated in a ecologically aware and protected area where nearby farms are also practicing organic and sustainable farming and are not using any non-organic fertilizers, pesticides, or insecticides of any kind. This is crucial because even if your farm may not be implementing the use of such high intensity chemicals, other farmers use of such products could affect the quality of your crops simply due to the wind carrying the airborne chemical particles to your farm or rain causing toxic runoff from nearby non-organic farms to your own, which can harm your soil as well as the entire ecosystem as a whole. The Daskalakis farm however is located in the Apesokari passage of Heraklion Crete, an area that is not only preserved for organic and biodynamic farming, but has also historically been used as a place for olive oil cultivation since the time of the ancient Minoans. The passages dark red, iron rich soil has been feeding olive trees since they first started being widely cultivated, and too this day you can visit this area and see olive trees that are over 1,000 years old.
The key to biodynamic farming is the preservation of the microorganism that are crucial for soil and plant health. We often forget this, but the dirt on which we walk everyday is not lifeless, in fact its exploding with microclimates and micro ecosystems that allow our own ecosystem to thrive and prosper. Alexandros Daskalakis is acutely aware of this fact and when he began to care for his family owned orchard twelve years ago the first thing he did was test the soil to see how these little microorganisms were doing. Sadly he found that due to the non-organic fertilizers and chemicals that farmers had once used on his families orchard and the continued use of such chemicals on nearby olive orchards these microbes and organisms were suffering greatly and largely non existent in the amounts that are needed in order to grow healthy and high quality olives. So what did he do in order to bring back the population of microorganisms? The simplest thing he could do, he left the orchard to sit and heal by itself. Instead of forcing the trees to continue to produce in strained conditions under the influence of chemicals or fertilizers he allowed the trees and the surrounding earth to slowly build itself back up again, literally from the ground up. His belief was that these trees have been prospering and producing these emerald fruits for generations without the need for fertilizers, chemicals, or any other added products, so why would he as a new farmer to these ancient trees need to do anything to them other then let them grow on their own? For a year or so he left the orchard, only occasionally trimming back the tree to allow for space between the rows that allow sunlight to get in, and every six months adding a small amount of spray that contains concentrated microorganisms to the roots of the trees to encourage microorganism growth. He left all these trimmings on the ground so that the microorganisms and bacteria had something to eat and decompose in order to improve the nutrient content of the soil, and even let the olives produced that season to fall to the ground in order to also add to this completely natural fertilizer that the trees were creating on their own.
You may be wondering what exactly these microorganisms are and what their purpose it within the soil. Soil consists of thousands of millions of these different microorganisms which include; Bacteria, Fungi, Algae, Protozoa, Actinomycete, Bacteriophages, and Nematodes to name just a few. Each of these organisms both single and multicellular have different roles to play within the soil and our ecosystem. Bacteria are crucial for both nitrogen fixation and the decomposing process of living matter. They break down dead plant matter as well as animal and insect carcases into nutrients and release those nutrients into the root zone of each plant. Fungi help facilitate water and nutrient uptake by the roots of plants and provide them with sugar, amino acids, and other nutrients. Protozoa are large microbes that love to be surrounded by and to consume bacteria. When they consume bacteria they release the nutrients that were once consumed by the bacteria, increasing the amount of nutrients found in the soil that are ready to be consumed by the roots of plants. Nematodes are microscopic worms that live in and around the plant. They eat pathogenic nematodes, that could harm or disease plants, and secret nutrients that are taken up by the plants roots. Last but not least are the oh-so-important Actinomycete which act as antibiotics for all plants. As you can see these microscopic organisms, although invisible to the naked eye, are crucial to the upkeep of our environment and the health of our soil and local ecosystems.
When visiting the Daskalakis orchard you can visibly see how healthy the soil and closed ecosystem is. Flowers bloomed from every corner while the reddish dirt was teaming with worm and snail life. Everything felt alive, the soft drone of bees that filled the air accompanied with the earthy smell of healthy soil and moist earth made you stop and truly appreciate your surroundings. Butterflies flitted around the dark green leaves of the olive trees, white wings lazily stroking the air as they were carried on a soft breeze that came down from the mountains. The location of the orchard itself was magnificent. It sat in the center of the Apesokari passage surrounded by high rocky cliffs while in the distance you could see the white peaks of the white mountains and to the left the snow kissed top of Psiloritis. It seemed that from this very spot you could see almost all of Crete. As we walked around the orchard, through the lines of wild olive trees with their ancient gnarled trunks, Alexandros told us, my incredibly translator Sue Holihan and I, the story of his family’s connection to the orchard and the importance of farming organically. He said that the main reason why he farmed organically and biodynamically wasn’t only to protect the environment and his land but also because he wanted his family to be healthy, their for eating safe and healthy products that weren’t chemically produced. He wanted to preserve natural resources by using water sparingly and didn’t want to introduce anything into the environment that wasn’t already there such as fertilizers or chemicals.
This attention to farming organically and in a way that helps not only the larger noticeable environment but also the ecosystems that live deep within our earth is slowly but surely becoming more common throughout the global agricultural society as well as the Cretan farming community. Producers such as Alexandros are some of the few who are becoming pioneers of this process within their communities while also working to spread their knowledge in order to make the process more popular and widely accepted. While there’s still a long way to go within this industry, the high quality of the product that the Daskalakis family and other biodynamic producers are producing speak for itself. Their oil is high in elaiokanthalis, a substance with potent anti-inflammatory activity, and elaiasini, a substance that contains a large amount of antioxidants, making it one of the healthiest forms of olive oil one can buy. What they are producing is very similar to the kind of olive oil that ancient greeks were believed to produce and use as medicine. If your interested in tasting one of the smoothest, yet rich and aromatic oils that I have personally ever tried, then reach out to the Daskalakis or learn more about their production and other traditional Cretan, family owned producers production methods at https://www.cretantree.com.