Koroneiki: From Tree to Table

I grew up around olive trees and my brother, Mike, makes olive oil in California. As kids he once convinced me to eat a raw Mission olive, saying it was just like those in the can, only free because you could just pick it. You only fall for that one once because there is nothing more unpleasant than an olive http://www.raybani.com/ right off the tree. Something has to be done with them. Like turning them into oil.

At the gorgeous Westin resort in Costa Navarino, Greece (the lush green area of Messinia) olive trees are innumerable. About 7,000 of them were transplanted to the resort when a reservoir was dug not far away. (All but 3 survived.) Many of them are fairly young while others are old and venerable.

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The variety is Koroneiki, a modest tree that produces very small olives that are harvested green and transformed into a lively, pungent oil. (The city of Kalamata is not far from the resort, so Kalamata olives grow in the area too, but those big meaty fruits are for eating, not pressing into oil.)

My brother grows some Koroneiki olives and presses them as a single varietal. His trees are many but his crop is small. “You think you’re picking a lot, but they’re so small they’re never as many as you want,” he says, something that was corroborated during my recent visit to Costa Navarino..

October is when the harvest starts and I was fortunate to witness its beginning. Rather than picking the olives from the branches, as my brother does, the trees were first pruned of their large branches, then beaten to release the olives onto the nets on the ground.  It takes a strong motion of your whole Ray Ban outlet arm to separate the olives from their branches; they’re too green to come off voluntarily. Although it looks easy, it’s not, and I speak from experience for I gave it try.  Once the trees are well picked, the larger branches are tossed aside, smaller clumps of leaves deftly picked out by the workers, the olives are poured form their net into sacks, then off they go to the mill.

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I got to tag along for the next part, their transformation into a golden green elixir. Time is of great importance when it comes to making oil. If the olives aren’t pressed within 24 hours (and preferably sooner), they begin to deteriorate and rancidity sets in, so there’s a definite sense of urgency. As soon as the olives were picked, packed and loaded into a pick-up, we drove through the hilly green countryside up to the mill where they were immediately unloaded, washed, cleansed of any remaining leaves, then crushed to a paste.

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In less than an hour, a river of green oil began to gush out of a pipe, an amazing site to see if you’ve only dealt with drizzles from a bottle. Even better was having the chance to taste this just-pressed olive over bread that had been grilled over the coals. This is an experience I hope everyone can experience. It has nothing to do with this business of being served a dish of olive oil with your bread in a restaurant. This is oil in its most pristine form, and from this point on, some say, it’s all down hill. But fortunately it’s a gentle slope. You have about a year to enjoy the oil. It is packed in a can, which makes it safe to carry home. (Helpfully, the oil and other products from Costa Navarino, are now available through Dean and DeLuca.)

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This beautiful oil is produced, cooked with, eaten and sold at the resort. Its green and grassy flavors play perfectly with the vegetables that are also grown there. Add to the oil and produce the Greek varietal wines that are offered and I found I was eating in a way where the taste of terroir is absolutely vibrant.  I have excellent Greek cookbooks that I use, vegetables from my garden, access to homegrown Koroneiki olive oil and excellent wines, but they all add up differently somehow, good, but subtly different, the Greek version being possibly more intense, saltier, wilder. This is one reason why it’s so valuable to travel and eat food and drink wine from its place of origin. But I have to admit that today, that authentic experience can be hard to find. Cost is more a determinant than Occhiali Da sole Ray Ban outlet locale, just as it is here, and not everything is as indigenous as we’d like to think. But at Costa Navarino there is an unusual commitment to local foods and traditional ones as well, not only their olive oil, but also their vinegar, sea salt, jewels of spoon sweets, olive oil biscuits, Kalamata olives in a wine syrup and other exceptionally fine foods that show up at the resort in a variety of ways. That you can spend days in blissful comfort gazing at the Ionian sea plus eat well in a resort that presses and uses its own oil is rare indeed, but it certainly makes for a more delicious and interesting world that such an effort has been made at Costa Navarino.

9 comments to Koroneiki: From Tree to Table

  • What perfection! I cook as locally as possible here in Maine, but olive oil is one of my major exceptions. Thanks for the lovely tour.

  • Hi Deborah,

    Your trip sounds lovely! I didn’t know about Koroneiki (and I’ll be on the lookout here in Yolo, I haven’t seen this variety locally.)

    I’m curious which Greek cookbooks you really like and recommend, and also about the olive biscuits of Costa Navarino–are they ladokouloura–the sweet twisty ones with sesame seeds for dunking, or something thin and savory like crackers/crisps?

    Thank you!

  • Elizabeth –
    I use The Glorious Foods of Greece by Diane Kochilas,
    and any books by Agalia Kremezi (The Foods of Greece and The Foods of the Greek Islands and Mediterranean Hot and Spicy. Also Rosemary Baron’s big book.
    The biscuits are not lakadouloura – but little, round, dry cookies rather than thin. I will write more about them soon.
    I just found some Koroneiki olive oil at Whole Foods this week, but you can also get the oil from Costa Navarino through Dean and Deluca. But if you’re in Yolo Country you can buy my brother’s at the Davis Farmers Market (Yolo Press).

  • Thanks for the recommendations, Deborah. We go through two bottles of Yolo Press a month, but I haven’t seen the Koroneiki, will have to look beyond my beloved Tuscan Blend next time…

  • gianna

    Hello from Greece,
    yes, the biscuits are the traditional “ladokouloura”, olive oil biscuits with red wine, sesame, cinnamon and sugar.

    • Thank you, Gianna. They are so good and I am so glad to know the proper name. Now for a recipe – I would love to be able to makes these here as my supply from Greece is nearly gone.

  • When I was young I fell for the trick of eatting an olive fresh from the tree. It amazing that someone discovered how to process olives into something so good!

    • I fell for that trick too when my now olive-oil producer brother urged me to eat a black olive right off the tree. I thought it was so amazing we could have as many olives as we wished, until
      I tasted it. Horrid! You’re right, it’s amazing that someone discovered how to turn the difficult olive into divine oil.

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