It’s been over two years since I first visited Kythira. I got to know the olive oil of this beautiful Greek island through a friend in Holland. The moment I tasted it, I wanted more. While I have been to Greece over the last 20 years, I had never visited Kythira. It was early October when I checked the island out on the internet. To my surprise, I read that it was possible to go to Kythira and pick olives right then. Albert and Anita, (also former Omilo-students and the Dutch owners of Fos ke Choros guesthouse**), apparently organized olive picking holidays. I found the idea of a holiday that blended work and pleasure immediately appealing.
Picking olives! Not only could I experience a time honoured Greek tradition, it was a time of year when few tourists were on the island. What a great opportunity to taste the authentic atmosphere of the island! And I was right. When I reached Kythera I was surprised to discover there was no mass tourism, only locals.
The picking week consisted of three or four days hard work. On days off you were free to explore the island however you liked. I borrowed a bike and cycled round virtually the whole island. I visited various villages, the market in Potamos, the beautiful hiking trails, the beaches and the welcoming restaurants.
But it was the olive picking I really came for. It was so lovely to experience working in the olive groves. Last autumn when I told an Athenian shopkeeper what I was doing he was surprised. He wanted to know why someone like me who works in an office all day would want to travel all this way to Greece to work as a labourer? I told him I found the working in the olive groves on Kythira relaxing because I emptied my of all other things.
But it is not only the olive picking that makes such a week so relaxing. It’s the whole atmosphere around it. Albert and Anita provided us every morning with a delicious breakfast, consisting of a variety of Greek products, which Albert fetched from the bakery before dawn. And the picnic lunches Anita sent us off to the olive groves were a feast – salads, tzatziki and olive bread. At coffee time we were provided with delicious Greek delights.
And then, after picking all day there was always a Greek dinner waiting for us at the guesthouse. Anita is a fantastic cook and has made an art of preparing extensive Greek meals entirely on her own. That week she gave us all a cooking class, so now I often cook Greek meals at home. The Greek cuisine offers so many delicious dishes, especially for me as a vegetarian.
Each picking day Albert took us to a different field. Not only we did see different parts of the island as we travelled to our work place, we also enjoyed new views and scenery as we worked. We picked the olives by hand using plastic hand rakes similar to those we played in the sand with as kids on our Dutch beaches. We raked the olives onto huge nets we spread under the trees. Then at the end of the day we gathered them in big hessian sacks.
We also visited the olive press in Tsikalaria. It was a special experience to see how our olives were pressed into oil and then taste the first oil with bread and salt! My friends back home tasted this fantastic olive oil with its delicious grassy flavour rave about its quality. I was so charmed by Kythira that I have since been back again a few times in the spring. Last autumn I came once again to pick the olives along with other enthusiast from America, England, France and the Netherlands.
When I searched the internet, I was surprised how few places there are in Greece that offer this sort of opportunity. For not only is picking olives an ancient Greek tradition, a time when families all gather together at the groves to harvest olives to make their oil for the coming year, it is also the best way to learn about the taste and the quality of olive oil. Tasting this oil fresh from the press is really an experience!
I can recommend to anyone travelling to Greece to take part in an olive picking week on Kythera and get acquainted with the friendly and hospitable locals.
*Marianne Both is a lawyer living in Utrecht, Holland. She was first introduced to very good quality olive oil by a member of Utrecht’s large Greek community, something for which she will forever be grateful. She attended her first Omilo course on the island of Syros during summer 2015.
**Albert and Anita, the owners of the small traditional guesthouse “Xenonas Fos ke Choros” on the island of Kythera, are organizing various workshops, walks and olive-picking weeks. They attended an Omilo course in Nafplion in 2006 and started “building/operating” their dream guesthouse in 2008-2009.