Olive tree & olive oil

The olive tree is an evergreen tree that can live for centuries. The leaves of olive trees are shiny and oval-shaped. Its grey trunk has an uneven surface, bearing a lot of swellings. The fruit of the olive tree are oval-shaped and while in the beginning they have a firm and green skin, this becomes darker and softer as the fruit mature. The fruit of olive trees are either processed into table olives or olive oil.

Olive Mills

The process of harvesting olives is completed in the olive mill, when olive oil is obtained from the crop. Traditionally, when they reached the last of the olive oil in the mill, the workers were given lalaggides or koutalides (traditional Peloponnesian fritters) with honey and sugar, figs, walnuts, salt-cured meat, cheese, bread, and wine.

Olive oil production developed in the mid-19th century alongside the emergence of olive mills, when manually operated mills were replaced by animal-driven ones, which were in turn succeeded by steam-powered, motor-driven, and water-powered mills at the end of the 19th century, and diesel-powered and electric-powered ones in the mid-20th century. 

Α. Animal-driven mills

This type of mill came into prominence in the mid-19th century. The mill was powered by either animals or humans for olive pressing, and human power was used for crushing the crops.

The animal-driven mills were one-storied, elongated stone buildings with a pitched roof. They usually had a storage area, called the rogos, and a well or a cistern. The floor consisted of pressed soil. Apart from the main facilities, the interior also had specially formed stone compartments, the mangers, where the olives and the animal feed were placed; there was also space for storing olive oil in jars. Moreover, there was space where the kernels were stored, from which olive pomace oil was produced.

On one side of the building and built quite high above ground level was a circular stone threshing floor, where the olives were ground. At the top of it were the millstones, connected to each other by an iron shaft, which penetrated another vertical wooden shaft. The vertical shaft was supported at the center of the bottom millstone on two sturdy pieces of wood that were connected to the olive mill’s ceiling. The vertical shaft was connected to another wooden shaft, slightly tilted towards the ground, where the animal was tied. Millstones were made of chipped granite.

The ground crop, the so-called chamouri, was collected in a wooden container, and later the pulp was put into the tsantiles, which were coarse bags made of animal hair. The tsantiles were carefully placed in the olive press, where the pulp was crushed. Initially olive presses were made of wood, and later they were metallic. About 23-24 tsantiles were enough for one round of pressing.

Every animal-driven mill was equipped with a boiler used in the next stage, the heating, a process that facilitated the extraction of olive oil. The heating was done by dousing the tsantiles with boiling water out of a metallic container, the botza. To separate the olive oil from water and solids, a reservoir in front of the press was used, called the libi, consisting of 2-3 partitions.

The first thing people did when the fresh olive oil arrived at the house from the mill was to use it to light the vigil lamp in front of the icons, giving thanks for the good harvest. Traditionally housewives also used the fresh olive oil to make lalaggides/koutalides

Β. Water-powered mills

Water-powered mills are rare in Messinia. They came into use in the post-Byzantine period, and became more widespread in the 19th century. Water-powered mills can be divided into two categories: Mills with a horizontal or vertical impeller. In the area of Desyllas, in Messinia, a water-powered mill with a horizontal impeller is preserved in good condition.

C. Diesel-powered mills

These include steam-powered, motor-driven, and hydraulic mills. The screw press is converted into a hydraulic press, and the animal-driven mill is redesigned and reinforced, in order to accommodate the increased loads and the straps used in motorization. Steam-powered olive mills prevailed until 1925, when they were mostly replaced by diesel-powered ones.

From 1947 onwards diesel engines almost totally replaced steam engines. From 1960 onwards most motor-driven olive mills in the Peloponnese were converted into electric-powered ones. The quantity of olive oil produced changed significantly with the motor-driven olive mills. Firstly because the residues resulting from the pressing of the oil decreased to a large extent (in manually-operated olive mills these reached 20-30%, in animal-driven mills 15%, and finally in steam-powered ones 3-4%). Secondly, production time was dramatically reduced.

In the prefecture of Messinia the agricultural sector remains a significant factor in the local economy, with olive oil, olives and figs as the main products. It is the largest olive oil producing prefecture in the Peloponnese. More than 617 olive mills have been recorded, of which 386 are animal-driven, dating to the final decades of the 19th century, 229 are motor-driven and 2 are water-powered. Most motor-driven olive mills, mainly diesel-powered, are located in the area of Kalamata, and most animal-driven ones are found in Koroni, Messini, and Ano Messinia.

The stages of processing olives to produce olive oil in modern olive mills are the following:

1.  Cleaning/washing

The olives are placed in a large funnel and posited into the washing machine, where any foreign bodies (leaves, stones, dirt, wood) are removed. The olives are cleaned in running water. After the washing process they are led into the crushing/grinding machine.

2. Crushing/ grinding

This stage marks the beginning of the processing before the olive oil is ready. At this stage the olives are pulped in a special device and converted into an olive paste. 

3. Malaxing/mixing

After crushing/grinding, the olive paste must be homogenized and gain consistency, so that it yields the highest possible quantity of olive oil. The malaxing machines consist of a large chamber with a stirrer, which mixes the olive paste. The chamber is an oblong, horizontal construction, shaped like a semi-circular basin. For better homogeneity, the malaxing machine is warmed through an exterior wall, where hot water (20-25 οC) passes through an interstitial space. 

4. Separating the olive oil

This is done in two ways:

Α. Separation by pressure filtration. The pulp enters special bags, the previously mentioned tsantiles, and is placed in olive oil presses.

Β. Separation by centrifugation. Centrifugation is based on the difference between the specific weight of olive oil and that of the other ingredients, and is achieved by means of special machines (decanters). Older devices required large amounts of water to function, resulting in the final product being of lesser quality. Today the separators use water and comprise two phases. The olive oil thus produced is richer in antioxidants, mainly phenols. From the decanter the liquids (olive oil and water) are led into a second, vertical separator, which, after a second centrifugation, gives us the olive oil.

5. Receiving the olive oil

Following centrifugation in the separator, we receive the final product, the olive oil, which is then led into special filtering devices. Using filter paper, it is filtered and then stored in containers or olive oil jars.


The olive tree is considered a sacred and blessed tree. It has an eternal soul like the God that blessed it. The longevity of the olive tree is attributed to the fact that Jesus Chris shed his tears at the roots of an olive tree at the Mount of Olives. The olive tree is also considered a symbol of piece and victory because according to the Old Testament an olive shoot was returned by a dove to Noah on the ark, proving the end of the great cataclysm.

In Greek mythology, the first reference of wild olive trees in Greece is associated with Hercules. After finishing the 12 labours imposed as punishment by Eurystheus, Hercules transported young wild olive shoots to Ancient Olympia. He planted them there as a symbol of victory. This is why athletes who competed in the Ancient Olympic stadium were crowned with a wreath made of olive shoots, the  



Proverbs, sayings and riddles
Όποιος έχει σιτάρι, κρασί και λάδι στο πιθάρι
έχει του κόσμου τα καλά και του θεού τη χάρη

From the grape to the olive harvest, work never ceases (continuous agricultural tasks)

 He/She poured oil on the fire (for whomever is a troublemaker)

Pressure produces olive oil (only by work can something be achieved – no pain, no gain)

Three cents for olive oil, three cents for vinegar, six cents for olive oil and vinegar (everything has its price)

The suffering of the flax and the passion of the olive tree (difficult situations)

Eat olive oil and come at night (readiness)

She/he came to the surface like olive oil (exempt/discharged from all responsibilities/liabilities/blame)

I excreted olive oil (it is referring to the olive oil anointed at baptism – to slave away at something)

Plant an olive tree for your child and a fig tree for you (because olive trees take longer than fig trees to produce fruit)

Different lord, different olive oil (every person is different)

A vineyard by you and an olive grove by your grandfather (every age/time period has its value)

Honey from the bottom and olive oil from the top (referring to the tank – everything needs expertise)

If you hear about olive oil, run; if you hear about wedding crowns, leave (avoidance of undesirable consequences)

You can’t be eaten (tolerated) either with olive oil or vinegar (about obnoxious people)

Without olive oil and vinegar, we cannot travel (without the necessary tools, no task can be accomplished)

Zucchini/Pumpkin without olive oil, stomach rumbling at night (the negative consequences of unfinished tasks

Relieve the olive tree, so it loads you with olive oil (work precedes the result)

She/he is like water in olive oil (virtuous and honest person)

Her/his bowels have not been greased with olive oil (very poor person)

Truth floats like olive oil (the power of truth)

The sea is like olive oil (calm sea)

Olive oil but no pancakes (talking without tangible results)

Let your path be like olive oil (wish for a good trip)

Better to have olive oil and rusks to eat at home than sugar at a foreign land and others ruling me (it is better to be independent with a few possessions than dependent and rich)

The first foundations of a home are bread, wine and olive oil (everything needs the basic elements)

Craft needs workmanship and fava soup needs olive oil (everything needs expertise)

Spoon by spoon the long handle does the job. What is it? (The person who takes olive oil from the jar with a ladle)

A snake is eating the sea, the sea is eating the snake and on the surface of the sea a boat is sailing. What is it? (An olive oil lamp and the wick)

Cultivation & Propagation


Traditionally the propagation was done by either cuttings (grotharia) or grafting wild olive trees. Propagation would take place on a full moon so that the cuttings would grow and produce fruit. Olive producers designated a part of the olive groves as the nursery (grotharomantra).  It was separated from the rest of the olive grove by a stone wall or a wooden fence. When ready, the young olive tree was dug and transplanted to the main olive grove using a hoe, a hammer, wedges and a saw. Care was taken not to remove the soil from the roots. It would take five years for the young olive tree to bear fruit and more than ten to reach full production.

The field in which the new olive trees or cuttings were going to be planted was cleaned from weeds.  Next, they would measure and mark the planting places and dig holes (gouvia) half a meter deep with a pickaxe and a mattock.  The distance between the holes was 9 – 12 meters for fields in lowlands and smaller at slopes. Before planting the trees, the holes were left open for 3-4 days to allow air ventilation and sunlight exposure. Planting the cuttings was an easy process. Traditionally, farmers took care to plant the cuttings facing east as they believed that by this way all the cuttings would survive and grow. Each cutting was placed vertically in the hole. The roots were covered with sifted soil, then with their feet they pressed the soil firmly around the tree, and they watered it. If the field was on a slope or arid, the cuttings were planted from November to December. In more humid areas, planting was performed in March and April.

Extra care was taken during the first two years of the cuttings’ lives. To prevent animals from gaining access to them and feeding on the tender shoots, farmers placed thorny shrubs around them. After the third year, the trees would be pruned in a T-shape depending on their development.

Wild olive trees grow around the fences or the edges of the terraces, often germinating from seeds. Grafting is a horticultural technique whereby tissues of plants are joined so as to continue their growth together combining the most desirable traits of both and resulting in large and productive trees in a relatively short time. The upper part is the scion and the lower one the rootstock.

Grafting involves taking buds from the bark of cultivated olive trees (scion). These are carefully removed by cutting the bark with the bud in the centre in a rectangular shape and removing it. The wild olive is cut at the point where the branches grow. In this way the nutrients from the roots are transfered to the new tree and the wild olive tree is converted into a cultivated one. Next, an T-shape incision on the bark of the wild tree is performed. Using a sharp knife the bark is lifted and the scion is inserted and held in place by tightly wrapping string or adhesive tape. Fifteen to twenty days later, they remove the wrapping and check whether the grafting process is successful. If not, the procedure is repeated the following spring.



The main stages of olive cultivation are the following:

  • Tillage.At least one tillage treatment is necessary either in October – November or April – March. Often both tillage treatments were applied.
  • Fertilization.In the past farmers used animal manure to fertilize olive trees. Alternatively, they used green manure, that is, they grew legumes (barley, wheat, oats, flax, lupine and vetch), which were ploughed under and incorporated into the soil while green or shortly after flowering. Today, chemical fertilizers are mainly applied.
  • Pruning.Pruning is an essential task that is performed after olive harvesting, from February to mid-April. The olive tree is cleaned from the many and small shoots that grow from the branches, the trunk and the roots of the tree. The most robust and sturdy shoots are left on each branch of the olive tree and the rest is removed. Pruning allows air ventilation and sunlight exposure. Pruning is performed using a wooden ladder, a sharp axe or pruning knife and small saws.  The shoots cut from the tree are used as animal fodder for sheep and goats.
  • Pest Control.To eliminate olive fruit fly and other pests of the olive tree, the olive trees are sprayed depending on the intensity and scale of the olive fruit fly incidence in the region. Special glass olive fruit fly traps that are hung on the trees are used to count their population. Pest control in Greece is managed either by the individual olive grower or as part of the government pest control management program.
Handmade Soap

One of the main occupations of the people in Messinia was to make soap from olive oil. They used this soap not only for personal hygienne but also for household cleaning. Soap was made during spring when they transferred the previous year’s olive oil from the tanks to put in the fresh olive oil. The muddy sediment taken from the bottom of the tanks was used in the manufacturing of soap.


To manufacture soap they used:

  • 5 kg of olive oil – usually used olive oil or the muddy sediment taken from the bottom of the tanks
  • 1 kg of lye or caustic soda
  • 7.5 kg of water and salt


The first step of manufacturing soap was to boil equal proportions of water and olive oil. Then they would gradually add the rest of the water in which they had dissolved the lye. After some time, the mixture started to foam as the soap formed and came to the surface. They allowed it to rest all night to thicken and the next day they cut it into pieces and sun-dried it. If the soap pieces were hard and coarse, the process was successful. If the soap remained soft, they had to put it back into the pot, and add water and lye until it was thick enough. The success of the recipe was not easy and they did not allow just anybody to approach in fear of the evil eye. 

Today there are still people who create olive oil soaps using this traditional method.

Olive Harvest

Preparation for the olive harvest starts at the beginning of October. The first task is to clean the fields from all kinds of weeds. The trunks and roots of the trees are also cleaned from shoots so that the nets can be spread easier. At the same time, the women of the family clean the jars, and the stainless steel and plastic containers.

Olive harvesting take place from mid November to the end of January. It starts from the isolated trees and moves to the trees that are on slopes or lowlands. In the past, many olive growers started harvesting after Christmas because they falsely believed that the fruit would produce more olive oil this way.  There is a saying in Messinia that on the 14th of September, the day of the Elevation of the Life-giving Cross, “the olives are crossed”, which means that it is in mid September when olive fruit reach their optimal maturity stage. Olive harvesting traditionally is a family affair. If the family cannot harvest their trees themselves, they give the task to others, who then take a percentage of the fruit harvested.

Olive harvesting starts early in the morning. Initially, the nets are laid under the tree so that the surrounding ground under the olive tree's branches is well covered. Laying the net properly is crucial as it is said that any olives that fall outside the net are “property tax of the field”. The owner of the grove or an experienced worker first cuts the large branches which are full of fruit and throws them on the ground. Using a ladder, another worker climbs on the tree and using a pole beats the olives from the middle and upper reaches of the tree, paying attention not to injure the tree. At the same time, other workers are on the ground either beating the outer branches of the tree or the cut branches on the net. In the past, at the village of Konstantinoi in Messinia, the worker who was on the tree was not allowed to drink water because they believed that this could bring rain.

In the last 30 years or so, olives from the cut branches are picked using a gasoline-powered machine that consists of a rotating cylinder with rakes inside it. The worker places the branch on the moving rakes and the olive fruit drop in the cylinder. The fruit is then put into sacks. The olive fruit on the net is separated from the leaves using a rake and again put into sacks. The sacks are transported to the olive mill, which processes the fruit as soon as possible to avoid compromising the quality of the olive oil.

In the past, before olive presses became obsolete, the olive fruit had to be cleaned beforehand from foreign matter and leaves. This was done by winnowing. After harvesting the olives, the farmers covered a threshing floor with a fabric and spread the olive fruit on it. They then heaped them on one side of the fabric and with a wooden shovel, like the one that is used in the winnowing of grains and legiminous crops,  they threw the olives into the air so that the wind would blow any impurities and leaves. The clean fruit was put into sacks and transfered to the olive mill using animals.  

In the past, in areas where yields were low and the living conditions difficult, there were families who even picked the olives that had dropped on the ground. Olives fall from trees due to bad weather conditions (rain, hail, wind). However, no fruit could be afforded to be wasted and so they gathered them one-by-one (‘pit-by-pit’ in Greek). Picking olives from the ground was a very arduous task as the workers sat or kneeled for many hours. Each farmer only picked the olives from their own property and never entered someone else’s fields without permission. Olive oil that came from olives picked from the ground was of inferior quality and it was sold to traders at low prices.

Traditional Medicine & Folklore
In local rural communities, olive oil had an important role in traditional medicine. Due to its emulsifying and disinfecting physical properties, olive oil was used by

Traditional Medicine

In local rural communities, olive oil had an important role in traditional medicine. Due to its emulsifying and disinfecting physical properties, olive oil was used by traditional healers and midwives to treat diseases, facilitate labour and take care of animals. Olive oil is widely used as an emollient, as well as an antiseptic and therapeutic agent. It is also an ingredient in cosmetics and perfumes. It has been the main ingredient in ointments for burns, muscle pains and skin irritations. Warm olive oil is considered effective for fighting headaches and food poisoning. In most areas of the Peloponnese, hot olive oil is considered essential for the treatment against animal bites.

Good and bad luck

In traditional societies, the olive tree is considered a sacred tree, so even a single branch could bring good luck, foresee the future and protect against misfortunes. The thoughtless and unnecessary waste of olive oil was considered a bad sign and a portent of difficulties. On Palm Sunday in many regions of Messinia and the Peloponnese,  olive and bay laurel branches are brought to the church. The May wreath on the 1st of May besides flowers also includes olive branches, wheat ears and garlic. At Pylos, the bride is touched with an olive branch by her parents for good luck. Olive oil is a symbol of good luck. For this reason new buildings are sprinkled with either olive oil or holy water. On newly built walls they often place two olive branches forming a cross sign. 

Olive oil and Church

The popular beliefs that associate Jesus Christ, Virgin Mary and saints with olive oil are of great interest.  When we pray to a saint for a wish to come true or for good luck we offer olive oil or other offerings. The offering of olive oil to the church on the nameday of Saints is a tradition that has lasted through time. Olive oil is used to light the vigil oil lamps, known in Greek as kantili. The oil of the kantili is considered to have therapeutic properties against nose and ear pain. The role of olive oil in the sacraments of unction and christening is also very important.  The person being baptized is annoited with olive oil. In Kalamata and Messini, the godparent offers a gift wrapped in white cloth containing 100 ml olive oil, one bar of soap and 5 candles. The guests wish the godparent that he/she also become the official wedding sponsor (koumbaros) at the christened child’s wedding and exhange the wedding crowns (stefana): «you blessed with olive oil, you also bless with stefana».

Magic role of olive oil: warding off the evil eye (vaskania)

In both the traditional and modern lifestyle the role of olive oil to treat the evil eye is important. Vaskania refers to the ability some people have to transmit negative energy to other people, animals and objects. When someone has the evil eye, they say he/she has ‘matiasma’ or vaskama’. The Greek Orthodox Church accepts the ancient belief of the evil eye and treats it with special prayers. To confirm if someone suffers from the evil eye, they place 2-3 drops of olive oil in a glass of water. If the olive oil disappears, that is, if it dissolves in the water, there is evil eye. If the drops remain separated from the water forming a small circle, there isn't. In the area of Kalamata people do the sign of the cross over the afflicted using blessed water and an olive branch.

Pests and Diseases

Extreme weather conditions such as rain, heat, wind, hail, snow and prolonged drought can cause great damage to olive trees, especially during flowering.
The olive fly is considered the most damaging pest of the olive tree, causing great damage to both the quality and quantity of olive oil production. The  female olive fly mates and lays eggs into the olive fruits. Each egg hatches into a tiny larva (maggot) that feeds throughout the olive and develops into a pupa (pupates) in a hollow area just beneath the outer skin. One way to control the spread of the olive fly is by spraying with insecticides. 

Second only to the olive fly is the olive moth Prays oleae . Three yearly generations are typical of this species, which attack the leaves, the flowers and the fruit.Current control methods are based on treatments with insecticides. Other pests of the olive tree include the olive psyllid, the olive leaf moth, the olive bark beetle, the ash bark beetle and the twig cutter

Various diseases can also affect olive trees. One such disease is sooty mold which coats leaves, branches and fruit with black mycelia. Another frequent disease is olive knot, caused by the bacterium, Pseudomonas syringae pv. savastanoi. Olive knot appears as rough galls or swellings on twigs, branches, trunks, leaves, or fruit stems. Openings are necessary for the penetration of the bacteria, and are provided by leaf and blossom scars, pruning injuries, bark cracks made by freezing, or wounds that occur during orchard operations. 

  •  http://estia.hua.gr:8080/dspace/bitstream/123456789/128/1/Ptychiaki55.pdf
  • http://estia.hua.gr:8080/dspace/bitstream/123456789/78/1/Ptychiaki28.pdf
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