Yesterday, my mother and I went to our favorite cafenion in the village for a mid-morning coffee. Normally, the place is full at 10:00, but yesterday it was empty. “Where is everybody?” I asked Panagiota, the proprietress. “Bori mazevoune ilies,” she said, shrugging. “Probably gathering olives,” was her answer. And, indeed, during my walk through the village a bit later, I saw that she was right. Next door to my apartment, my friend Andreas and his 87-year-old mother were busy harvesting the trees in their garden. The owner of the half-constructed house across the street from us had driven down from his home in the mountain village of Pigadi to harvest from the grove that surrounds the building site. Up and down the main village road, everyone, it seemed, was picking olives.
And today, despite having two stories due tomorrow, I took a few hours off to join them. So instead of tapping away at my keyboard, I spent the morning climbing around in the gray-green canopy of an olive grove, wielding a device that looks very much like the miniature toy rake my children played with when they were toddlers. The idea is to use the rake to comb the fruit from the tree. It works well, sending the olives scattering like hail onto a thin net spread on the ground.
The grove we picked from today sits about five meters from the sea. The sun was shining, birds were singing. In short, it was my idea of heaven. But I am new to this work and those of you who know me know I’m a romantic by nature. Moreover, I have been researching olives—their production, their history, their use in Greek cookery—for a year or so now and have become undeniably smitten with the fruit. Thus, despite my aching neck and shoulders, I was giddy with my task as I worked, surrounded as I was by olive trees that shimmered in the morning light.
For my friends here, however, the annual olive harvest is not a novelty but a necessary and immense chore. Greece has by far the highest per capita consumption of olive oil in the world (over 26 liters per person per year according to Wikipedia), and my friends here are no exception to that rule. The friend I helped today will harvest olives through the winter, first picking the fruit of his trees to press into oil for his own household and then going on to help family and friends harvest their crops. It’s a task he and nearly everyone in this village have completed every year since they were mature enough to pluck an olive from a tree and know well enough not to eat it—around 6 or 7, years old. Moreover for my neighbors here, these trees and their annual crop are life. Olives and olive oil are what got them through lean times in the past and with today’s economic crisis, the fruit still serves them well, imparting a delicious and, apart from labor, free source of “good” fat, antioxidants and flavor to nearly every dish.
Here in the village and throughout the Peloponnese, household cooks use generous amounts of delicious, local oil on salads, in sauces and in stews, and whatever oil left on the plate is sopped up with a chunk of bread, never to be wasted. Moreover, it’s not uncommon to see olive oil used instead of butter in many sweets, including baklava, galaktoboureiko and cakes. This recipe for Lemon Cake with Olive Oil and Greek Yogurt is similar to the citrus-olive oil cakes my neighbors make here in the village. It comes from Greek food guru, Diane Kochilas, author of The Glorious Foods of Greece and many other books. It is healthy, delicious and easy to make.
Lemon Olive-Oil Cake
2 ½ cups sugar
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1 cup/240 ml extra-virgin Greek olive oil
¾ cup/180 ml orange juice
2 Tbsp. Greek yogurt
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Grated zest of 1 lemon or 2 tsp. lemon extract
1 ½ cups powdered sugar, for garnish
Heat oven to 325˚F/165˚C. In a large bowl, add sugar, flour, salt, baking powder, olive oil, orange juice, yogurt, eggs, vanilla extract and lemon zest. Blend at low speed until moistened, for about a minute. Then beat 3 minutes at medium speed.
Lightly grease a 12-cup cake pan with oil. Pour batter into the pan.
Bake in the preheated oven for 40 to 50 minutes or until toothpick inserted near center comes out clean. Remove cake from the oven.
Invert cake onto a serving plate. Cool completely and dust the cake on top with powdered sugar. Serve.