The pressure is on during the autumn harvest, as fruit ripens on the tree or vine and there's no time to waste. These weeks are some of the most illuminating to visit Europe, offering the chance to peak behind the scenes and get your hands dirty in this annual ritual.
Traveling in Greece during autumn truly lets you immerse yourself into a tradition that dates back generations, and it provides the opportunity to break bread with the people behind beloved local olive oils and wines. The harvest allows travelers to slow down and get to know a place through its natural flavors.
Olive Picking in Costa Navarino
Each October deep in the southwest Peloponnese, harvest workers have an enormous task. At Costa Navarino, an eco-friendly destination overlooking the Ionian Sea, there are over 6,000 olive trees to be picked by hand. While tree-shaking machines do exist, the result of using them is an inferior oil. To produce the green, slightly spicy olive oil that is the signature of the Peloponnese, all olives are picked by hand.
Travel in October can coincide with the harvest as part of Costa Navarino's Messinian Authenticity Program. In between spa appointments and lounging beside private infinity pools, travelers can jump right in and follow the process of making olive oil from start to finish. Harvest day begins in an olive grove, admiring stumpy trees with their gnarled trunks. A net is placed around the base and tools that resemble rakes come out. Limbs are combed free of fruit and skillful workers climb the trunks, clipping branches to give the tree its annual prune.
Honorary harvest workers can be as involved as they please. Feel free to pick up a rake or simply stand aside and encounter the masters at work. Next up, olives are gathered in the net and sorted, casting aside any bruised or moldy ones. Out come the burlap sacks that are filled to the brim—weighing over 100 pounds when full—and then thrown in the back of a truck. The best olive oil is made from fruit that is picked and brought to the mill quickly for pressing.
At lunchtime, take a seat under the shade of an olive tree for a picnic. Costa Navarino prepares baskets full of spanakopita, fruit, and Greek wine. A harvest trip isn't all work—you get to taste the fruits of your labor too.
Olive Harvest and Cooking Classes in Kea
A harvest trip links travelers to food at its source, and also to invaluable local knowledge. Greek cookbook author Aglaia Kremezi is very familiar with all things Greek cuisine, from ingredients and traditional dishes to wines, and shares her expertise in classes on the island of Kea, where she lives with her husband.
Kea Artisanal offers cooking classes throughout the year, but October includes a special bonus: olive picking and pressing. These activities are planned in addition to classes that teach you how to prepare traditional breads, pies made from phyllo dough, roasted lamb, stuffed vegetables, and more.
In addition to picking olives and learning about the pressing process, guests get a crash course in other Greek pleasures like wines (white and red), cheese, yogurts, and honey. An olive oil tasting will help guests identify the characteristics of superior olive oil and just-pressed oil is used as a finishing touch on salads when sitting down for a meal.
Insider Tip: Another way to get to know local ingredients is by browsing through produce markets. From Costa Navarino, take a short drive to the city of Kalamata, home to an excellent market. Local products are piled high on small stalls, including wild greens from the mountains, eggplants, and zucchini blossoms. Items to bring home include fragrant mountain tea (said to have medicinal qualities), spices, and of course a bottle of hand-picked, hard-won olive oil smuggled in your suitcase.
Freelance writer Jessica Colley covers cuisine, culture, the arts, and experiential travel. She is currently based in New York City and called Dublin, Ireland home for several years. You can follow her on Twitter @jessicacolley or check out her "Writer in the Kitchen" series on her blog The Great American Travel Dream.
Photos courtesy of Jessica Colley