Beyond Olive Oil

Olive trees. Beautiful, gnarled, and thick. They are everywhere in Greece, and in spring their gray leaves contrast with the bright green clover and creamy narcissus that surround them. It is easy to imbue them with magic, spirit and grace. The spirit of an ancient grove can be palpable.

Olives have long been the backbone of Mediterranean commerce and culture-especially in Greece. But the old groves are being ripped out and burned to make way for a newer variety of tree. Our friends in Crete have become champions for saving the old trees going up in smoke all over Greece and perhaps elsewhere. Theirs is a new version of the "old growth forest" debate. It is a debate fueled not only by economics, ecosystems and biology, but also traditions, culture and culinary arts.

Traditionally, a family's wealth in Greece is measured not in acres or hectares or stocks and bonds, but in trees. Olive trees. A family's olive trees are neither all together nor separated from their neighbor's trees. But the owners are proudly conscious of their responsibility to be guardians of the trees, and know where each of them is. These trees have been developed, grafted trimmed and loved to withstand the vagaries of Greek climate and

Pavlo, George and Jean Vlastos wave goodby to us from the roof porch of their house.

culture over hundreds – perhaps thousands – of years. And with luck, they'll last hundreds or thousands more. One Greek farmer we met lamented the advent of what he called "turbo trees" that are taking the place of the beautiful old giants. These are fast-growing, easy to harvest, and produce predictable numbers of olives for "extra virgin" olive oil every year. Like slick young stockbrokers, they promise a quick return on a small investment. The risk involves much more than trees or wealth, but survival of a way of life that had endured for thousands of years.

No one can argue that these turbo trees are not much more suited to the new social structure: near-empty villages with sons and daughters returning only on weekends or vacations. They visit the older family members who remain

One of the oldest olive orchards in the Amari Valley.

in the village, tend the family's holdings and then return to jobs in towns and cities tending shops or driving taxis. Neither the trees nor the village are a part of their everyday life. And the counter debate is that the villages and way of life are already lost. For many, the old ways are not very romantic.

On a purely factual side, the downside of the new trees is that they require lots of water, fertilizer (plentiful chemical fertilizer and pesticides are a "benefit" of the E.U.--for now), and the oil must be heated or allowed to age before it looses its bitter taste. (Many of the old olive farmers believe that it is so lacking in oil that it won't burn when first harvested. Our unscientific tests proved that it does burn, but that it makes a better massage than cooking oil until it has aged). Repeatedly we heard worries that the new trees won't be able to adapt to the inevitable changes in the Greek climate, and that the required fertilizers and water will become too dear to continue. The old stocks will be gone, and then what?

But the downside of the old trees is clear. As with the old ways of living, although survival of the trees is predictable, harvests from them are not. Farmers never know if the cold-pressed oil to be bottled under their label will come from one barrel or three. Hand picking takes more time than a quick thump and a rake, and the traditional cold presses used to make the best oil are now hard to find. But for connoisseurs of this kind of oil and life, what is produced is grand: thick, golden, sturdy and flavorful.

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