Olives

O

Great excitement this weekend at the Midleton Farmers Market, we’ll have the first of the new seasons olive oil for our customers to taste. This is the second year that we’ve brought Mani extra virgin olive oil directly from Greece. The fruity green oil is cold pressed from the Koroneïki olives in a traditional stone mill in the Mani peninsula in the southern Peloponnese.
Just before Christmas we visited Fritz and Burgi Bläuel in Mani to see the harvest and the production. The drive from Athens via Epidavrous and the neo-classical city of Nafplio is spectacular, rugged hilly countryside, stupendous views. It’s the citrus fruit season so the trees are laden with oranges, mandarins, grapefruit and satsumas. Occasionally we see a shepherd watching over his herd of sheep or goats. The milk will be used to make cheese or thick unctuous yoghurt, to sell, or sometimes kept for their own use. Every now and then we see an old lady all dressed in black collecting wild greens by the roadside. These greens called Khόrta, a mixture of dandelions, mustard and wild chicory, and even some special grasses, are boiled and drizzled with olive oil and eaten with a few drops of fresh lemon juice squeezed over the top. Many older people particularly, also drink the cooking water, full of vitamins and minerals.
The Mani peninsula has some of the most dramatic scenery in the Mediterranean, stunning coastline, sleepy fishing villages and olive groves as far as the eye can see. As we climbed up the hill towards the village of Pyrgos Lefktrou we could see terracotta tiled roofs of houses emerging out of a sea of olives trees with the Ionian Sea in the background.
We passed many of the farms who grow olives for the Mani Olive Oil company. The visionary behind this company, Fritz Blaűel grew up in his family’s restaurant in Vienna. Almost 30 years ago, he came to Kalamata to meditate and commune with nature in one of the most beautiful and peaceful places on earth. He was drawn towards an alternative life style, a counter culture as he described it and so became part of a commune. Gradually his companions left but Fritz stayed on as a Buddhist. He grew vegetables and worked with the local farmers and picked olives to survive. He soon realised that the quality of the olive oil made from the local Korόneike olives was superb. The local farmers just produced in a haphazard way. He was convinced that this oil was exceptional and food lovers would appreciate it and that there could be a market for this specific olive oil, as well as the more famous Kalamata olives which were already familiar to epicures. The challenge was to get the farmers to co-operate and to trust him, most already farmed organically by tradition. They were naturally wary at first, but gradually they realised that this was an opportunity to enable them to stay on the land, to earn a better living and maintain the lifestyle they loved.
Over 300 farmers now grow olives for Mani. Fritz employs a full time agronomist to help and advise the farmers. Together they have drawn up a protocol – many had come to enjoy the flavour of rancid olive oil over the years, so Fritz convinced the farmers of the importance of picking at optimum ripeness for the international market. They also became certified organic and are recognised by ‘Bio hellas’ of Athens, ‘Naturland’ of Germany, and the Soil Association in the UK. The business has grown and grown and Mani oil has won top prizes and is now exported to Germany, Austria, Switzerland, USA, UK and Ireland.
Englishman Charles Byrne who now lives in Kinsale met Fritz in 1978 while on holiday in Kalamata. He was gobsmacked by the quality of the local oil and so an enduring partnership was born. Charles now looks after Mani interests in the UK and Ireland.
Extra virgin olive oil is the unadulterated oil of the olive. Georg Gigas had just picked his olives, we went along with him to the local olive press. The olives were hand-picked into plastic crates rather than sacks, (damaged olives can sometimes start to ferment if left in sacks for several days.)
The traditional process is fascinating to see, the olives are tipped into a hopper and washed, the stray leaves fall off as the olives make their way along a slatted vibrating belt to the mill stones. The olives are then stone-ground into a kind of porridge, which is spread on to esparto mats. Between every six mats there’s a steel plate to facilitate the pressing. When the stack is complete it is inserted into a hydraulic press. As the pressure gradually increases the oil starts to drip down the sides of the mats into a container containing a little water. The impurities fall to the bottom as the oil rises to the top. The oil then makes its way to a centrifuge to separate the water from the freshly pressed oil.
There’s a growing excitement as we wait for the first of the new season’s olive oil to emerge from the tap. There are several other farmers waiting to have their olives pressed, everyone brings something, freshly baked bread, lemons, smoked herrings, a slab of crumbly feta and local wine in recycled plastic water bottles. When the first of the oil flows from the pipe, the men dip freshly toasted country bread into the new season’s oil and murmur appreciation as they compare the quality with last year’s harvest.
This year has been difficult, the harvest is well down on last year, partly because the olive is bi-annual but also because of the almost incessant rain from December to April, followed by storms during the flowering season. Consequently the yield is down by approximately 35%. This will naturally result in an increase in price. Fritz and his wife Burgi have saved an entire community livelihood by working with the farmers, they were pioneers in their field and now other communities in Crete have followed their example with considerable success.
Fritz and Burgi still run Buddhist retreats in Mani, yet they are linked into worldwide markets as well as their local community.

Greek Moussaka

Serves 8
This is a Greek peasant recipe served in almost every taverna in Greece, there are many variations on the theme some of which include a layer of cooked potato slices and raisins. I’m not sure if it is my imagination but I sometimes feel that moussaka is even better on the second day. 

340g (¾lb) aubergines
1 x 400g (14oz) can tomatoes or very ripe fresh tomatoes in summer
1 onion, finely chopped (include some green part of spring onion if you have it)
1 garlic clove, crushed
olive oil for frying
450g (1lb) cooked minced lamb
1 tablespoon chopped fresh marjoram or fresh thyme
2 teaspoons chopped fresh parsley
1 bay leaf
pinch of grated nutmeg
2 teaspoons flour
salt and freshly ground pepper
340g (¾lb) courgettes

For the topping
45g (1½oz) butter
45g (1½oz) flour
600ml (1 pint) milk
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons cream
110g (4oz) grated gruyère or mature cheddar cheese
1 bay leaf
salt and freshly ground pepper

earthenware dish 25.5 x 21.5cm (10 x 8½inch)

Slice the aubergines and courgettes into 1cm (½inch) slices, score the flesh with a sharp knife and sprinkle with salt. Leave for half an hour. Roughly chop or cut up the tinned tomatoes. Peel and chop the fresh tomatoes finely if using. Keep the juices.
Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a heavy saucepan over a gentle heat, add the onions and garlic and cover and sweat for 4 minutes. Add the meat, herbs, bay leaf and 
nutmeg to the onions. Stir in the flour and pour in the tomatoes and their juice. Bring to the boil, stirring, and simmer for 2-3 minutes. Season well.
Rinse and wipe the aubergines dry. Heat a little olive oil in a pan-grill until hot. Cook the aubergines on both sides until golden. Brush the courgettes with olive oil, pan-grill until light golden on each side. As the courgettes are done, put them into the bottom of a shallow casserole. Tip the meat mixture onto the courgettes, then lay the fried aubergines on top of that. See that the top is as flat as possible. 
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/regulo 4.
Melt the butter in a saucepan. Stir in the flour. Cook stirring for 1 minute, then draw off the heat, add the milk slowly, whisking out the lumps as you go. Add the bay leaf. Return the pan to the heat and stir until boiling. Season with salt and pepper and simmer for 2 minutes. Mix the egg yolk with the cream in a large bowl. Pour the sauce on to this mixture stirring all the time. Add half the cheese and pour over the casserole. Sprinkle the rest of the cheese on top and bake for 30-35 minutes in a moderate oven 180C/350F/regulo 4 until completely reheated and well browned on top.

Moussaka can be made up in large quantities ahead of time, cooled quickly and frozen after it has been closely covered with cling film or plastic wrap. 

Greek Green Salad

I first ate this crisp chilled salad in a little taverna overlooking a harbour on the island of Aegina on a warm spring day - so simple and quite wonderful.
Cos or similar crisp lettuce
sprigs of fresh dill, about 2-3 tablesp.
3-4 spring onions
1-2 tablesp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
4 tablesp. Greek Extra Virgin Olive Oil
salt and freshly ground pepper

Wash, drain and chill the lettuce. Slice across the grain about  inch (5mm thick). Put into a bowl, sprinkle with sliced scallion or spring onion and tiny sprigs of dill. Just before serving mix the olive oil with the freshly squeezed lemon juice. Sprinkle over the salad, season with salt and freshly ground pepper, toss and serve immediately.
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Aubergine Puree with Olive Oil and Lemon

Serves 6 approx.
This is one of my absolute favourite ways to eat aubergine. It is served all through the southern Mediterranean, there are many delicious variations.

4 large aubergines
4-5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
freshly squeezed organic lemon juice
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 cloves garlic, optional

Roast or grill the aubergines depending on the flavour you like.
Allow to cool. Peel the aubergines thinly, careful to get every little morsel of flesh. Discard the skin and drain the flesh in a sieve or colander. Transfer to a bowl, mash the puree with a fork or chop with a knife depending on the texture you like. Add extra virgin olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon juice, salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

Variations:
1. freshly crushed garlic may also be added.
2. In Turkey some thick Greek yoghurt is often added, about 5-6 tablespoons for this quantity of aubergine puree, reduce the olive oil by half. 
Mixed with ricotta and freshly chopped herbs eg. marjoram this makes a delicious 'sauce' for pasta.
3. A spicier version from Morocco includes 1 teaspoon harissa , 1 teaspoon freshly ground cumin and 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped coriander leaves,
4. Add some pomegranate molasses - our new flavour of the month as they do in Syria - about 3-4 tablespoons instead of the freshly squeezed lemon juice.
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Lamb Kebabs with Tsatsiki

Serves 8 approx.
Choose kebab skewers carefully. They need to be flat and at least 3mm (cinch) wide, better still 5mm (¼inch). If they are round, the meat will swivel as you try to turn it. Best barbecued but kebabs may also be pan-grilled or cooked under a salamander.

900g (2lb) lean shoulder or leg of lamb

Marinade 1
300ml (½ pint) natural yoghurt
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
juice of ½ lemon
OR
Marinade 2
6 tablespoons olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon annual marjoram, rosemary or thyme leaves
2 large garlic cloves, crushed
salt and freshly ground pepper

metal skewers or kebab sticks
Accompaniments
Tsatsiki – see recipe below 

Mix either or both marinades, cut the meat into 2.5cm (1inch) cubes approx., season with salt and freshly ground pepper and put into chosen marinade for 1 hour at least. Drain the meat and thread into metal skewers or kebab sticks. Grill for 7 -10 minutes over a barbecue. Turn and baste with the marinade, serve with a green salad and chosen sauce eg. Tsatsiki 

Tzatziki
This Greek speciality is a delicious cucumber and yoghurt mixture and can be served as an accompanying salad or as a sauce to serve with grilled fish or meat. Greek yoghurt is often made with sheep's milk and is wonderfully thick and creamy.
1 crisp Irish cucumber, peeled and diced into - inch dice approx.
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1-2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 heaped tablesp. of freshly chopped mint
 pint (450ml) Greek yoghurt or best quality natural yoghurt
4 tablespoons cream

Put the cucumber dice into a sieve and sprinkle with salt and allow to drain for about 30 minutes. Dry the cucumber on kitchen paper, put into a bowl and mix with garlic, a dash of wine vinegar or lemon juice and the yoghurt and cream. Stir in the mint and taste, it may need a little salt and freshly ground pepper, or even a pinch of sugar.

Taramasalata

Serves 4-8 

Smoked cod roe is available in winter for a few months, we love it and often just spread it thinly on hot toast for supper. The Greek speciality Taramasalata is very easy to make, the home made version is paler in colour than the rather disconcerting pink often found nowadays. Some recipes call for an egg yolk to be added to the base mixture.

250g (9oz) smoked cod roe
3-4 slices good quality white bread 
juice of 1 organic lemon or to taste
50ml (2fl oz) sunflower oil
50ml (2fl oz) extra virgin olive oil

Cut the crusts off the bread and soak the bread in water. Skin the smoked and salted cod roe and put it into the food processor with the bread, which has been squeezed dry, add the freshly squeezed lemon juice. Flick on the motor. Trickle in the oil gradually as though you are making mayonnaise. Transfer to a bowl, cover and refrigerate, it will firm up.

Loukoumades
Sweet Fried Fritters

These sweet fried fritters are popular at the seaside cafes and sweet shops in Greece, on a summer evening, often with small cups of Greek coffee. Traditionally loukoumades are made with yeast, flour and water. Here is a simple but tasty version that mixes up in no time, it was given to me by Janette Xinotroulias.
5-6½ ozs (140-185g) self-raising flour
8 fl.ozs (250ml) buttermilk approx.
a little sugar and vanilla if desired
Honey, cinnamon and chopped walnuts

16 fl.ozs (500ml) corn oil for frying

Mix the above ingredients well with a wooden spoon. Heat approximately 16 fl.ozs (500ml) corn oil in a saucepan. The oil must be deep enough to accommodate the loukoumades as they puff up quite a bit. Be sure the batter is thick enough to form balls when dropped into the hot oil. When oil is just smoking, about (190C/375F), drop by teaspoonfuls into the oil. Be careful not to burn as they brown rapidly. Remove from oil with slotted spoon to a platter. Drizzle honey on top and sprinkle with cinnamon. Powdered sugar and or chopped nuts may also be sprinkled on them. 

Tiny Fried Fish (Marithes Tighanités)

Serves 6-8

We greatly enjoyed little fresh fish as part of mezze. Choose very fresh fish, eat whole hot, including the bones and head – crunchy and yummy.

1 lb (450g) whitebait
2½ ozs (60g) plain white flour
1 teasp. sea salt, or more to taste
1 teasp. freshly cracked black pepper, or more to taste

Extra virgin olive oil for frying

To serve:
2 large lemons, cut into wedges

Rinse the fish, drain, blot dry between layers of paper towels. Mix the flour and seasoning in a bowl. Add the fish. Toss to coat. Heat a ½ inch (1cm) layer of olive oil in a large pan. When hot fry a single layer of fish until golden brown, turning once. Drain on kitchen paper. Repeat with the remaining fish. 
Serve, piled on a warm platter with the lemon wedges.
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Foolproof food

Ballymaloe French Dressing

2 fl ozs (55ml) Wine vinegar
6 fl ozs (150ml) olive oil or a mixture of olive and other oils. eg. sunflower and arachide
1 level teaspoon mustard (Dijon or English)
1 large clove of garlic
1 scallion or small spring onion
Sprig of parsley
Sprig of watercress
1 level teaspoon salt
Few grinds of pepper

Put all the ingredients into a blender and run at medium speed for 1 minutes approx. or mix oil and vinegar in a bowl, add mustard, salt, freshly ground pepper and mashed garlic. Chop the parsley, spring onion and watercress finely and add in. Whisk before serving. N.B Vital to put in correct amount of salt.
 

Top Tips
The International Olive Oil Council www.internationaloliveoil.org   have details of the various designations and definitions of olive oils.
1. Research has demonstrated that olive oil has an effect in preventing the formation of blood clots and it has been observed that olive oil rich diets can attenuate the effect of fatty foods in encouraging blood clot formation, thus contributing to the low incidence of heart failure in countries where olive oil is the principal fat consumed.
2. Olive oil lowers the levels of total blood cholesterol, LDL-cholestrol and triglycerides. At the same time it does not alter the levels of HDL-cholestrol (and may even raise them) which plays a protective role.
The beneficial effect of olive oil consumption with regard to cardiovascular disease has been demonstrated in primary prevention, where it reduces the risk of developing the disease and in secondary prevention, where it prevents recurrence after a first coronary event.
3. At present, research is revealing the effectiveness of the Mediterranean diet in the prevention of secondary coronary events and the positive influence of olive oil on the depression associated with such events. These findings are very important in view of the high incidence of depression in the modern-day world and the great risk it poses in recurrent heart disease.
The Organic Centre, Rossinver, Co Leitrim has a wide range of courses available for 2004 – their mantra for this year is Reduce – Recycle – Refine – get yourself a copy of their brochure –
 email@organiccentgre@eircom.net  www.theorganiccentre.ie  Tel 071-98 54338 - new this year is a Garden Complete Course – a practical month by month guide including a session on bio-dynamic gardening. They will also run an outreach education programme for farmers and growers as well as community schools and groups and much, much more.

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Darina Allen
By Darina Allen

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