TASTE OF THE MANI IN BRISTOL – A VINTAGE YEAR FOR OLIVE OIL

Julie SayFood, HistoryLeave a Comment

YEIA SAS from post-lockdown London.  One of the consolations of this restricted time has been my cupboard full of Greek produce, an alimentary route to the Mani on a wet city evening. Far more evocative of the peninsula than my home versions of moussaka and dolmades is my store of local Mani olive oil, a cheering and transporting part of most meals while restricted from my planned springtime trip to Greece. This season’s crop is reputed as a vintage year, I have sourced my tins via a Mani connection now based in Bristol. Leandrou and Alex Kousiounis are the owners of Be Natural Products which specialises in Mani Peninsula ethically produced products. Everything they stock is locally sourced, chemical free and available both at their store in the Corn Exchange, Bristol and online via their website: www.benaturalproducts.co.uk.

The Benatural store in Bristol

The roots of Greek culture are entwined with the olive tree. Sacred to Athena it has sustained Greeks for thousands of years providing essential food, light, cosmetics, medicine, vessels and utensils. As early as the 4th century BC the Greeks historian Theophrastus records an especially long-lived olive tree on the Acropolis.  This staple of the Greek table was also key to the establishment of trade routes, and later colonies, around the Mediterranean.

Be Natural Products’ oil is sourced from Mani family run groves of  Koroneiki olive trees grown on the small strip of coast and terraces high up into the Taygetus Mountains. The mineral packed stony soil and sunny climate (300 days a year) yield a fruity grassy tasting oil with a mild aroma.  Around November when the colour turns from green to purple, the farmers close their tavernas and with their families all head to the groves.  Traditional methods are still often used, the steepness of the land keeping mechanisation to a minimum. The olives are picked by hand using ladders, rakes and sticks sometimes mechanical hand machinery and are collected under the trees in sheets or nets. They are then  packed into corse woven sacks and transported to the mill.

The British Museum has produced a YouTube video on the archaeology of the olive that describes the olive making process in 5000BC in the southern Levant. This process was almost the same in Greece, evidence of this ancient process survives on painted Greek amphora such as the 520BC painting below of farmers beating the trees with sticks.

Archaic Greek amphora 520 BC, held at the British Museum.

As it was thousands of years ago, the olives are sifted of leaves and twigs, washed and weighed before being crushed by millstones into a tapenade paste. The pulp is then placed onto mats so that the pressing process can begin and an olive juice extracted. The juice is transferred into another container and here a modern intervention occurs as a centrifuge is now used to separate any water from the oil yielding a glorious emerald green liquid.  The oil is then transferred into vats to settle before being bottled.  Depending upon the location and size of the tree, it can yield from 3 -15 litres. 

Hard pruning takes place after harvest, this provides wood for more local products such as bowls, spoons, boards (all available from Be Natural Products – Leandrou and Alex only sell olive wood products  from pruned wood to ensure trees are not needlessly cut down).

Olive pruning in the Mani in January

A lesser known byproduct of this tree is olive leaf tea. The tea has been used for medicinal purpose for centuries as a prophylactic against inflammation and infection.  The leaf is rich in antioxidants and contains Oleuropein that may have health benefits for hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes type 2, boost immunity and  lower blood pressure.

So, until we can gather again and explore the olive groves perhaps have a look at the other products from the Mani stocked by Leandrou and Alex such as the famous Kalamata olives, locally hand picked salt, herbs both culinary and medicinal and wonderful soaps, all highly recommended. We have scheduled our next trip to the Mani for 17-24 October 2020 and 10-17 April and 17-24 April 2021.

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