Olive Oil from Lesvos


The first impression the visitor to Lesvos gets is of the island with the ‘bays of olive groves’, as Greek laureate Odysseus Elytis describes the vast olive groves that stretch from the hilltops down to the seaside.
The Greek island of Lesvos (the ancient Lesvos), whose capital is the town of Mytilene, lies at the edge of Greece and Europe’s geopolitical borders, a mere five nautical miles from the shores of Turkey. It is a border but also a portal between two countries, two continents and two civilizations. It has stood the test of time due to the age-long relationship of man and olive tree.
The two are so inextricably intertwined that it is hard to say whether it is man who tamed the olive tree by the sweat of his brow or the olive tree which tempered man by bestowing upon him its valuable gifts. One might be able to find larger and lasher olive groves in many other places. But nowhere have people struggled so intently to cultivate the olive tree; and nowhere has the olive tree repaid this struggle so fully as in Lesvos, rewarding its inhabitants with the means for survival, independence from foreign rulers and one of the most important elements of its culture.

When the Great Frost of 1850 destroyed all the olive groves on the island, the inhabitants did not give up hope on their tree. They imported and planted new, resilient varieties; they carried sacks of soil on their backs up the hill and mountainsides; stone by stone they built the terraces of land to protect the groves. Thus, they created better olive groves that were ten times bigger than the former ones. Then they constructed new oil mills and equipped them with extensive machinery imported from England. And so the ‘treasure’ of oil they produced brought in money and allowed them to keep their island alive despite being under the yoke of Ottoman Rule.


Early Beginnings:

The story dates back to antiquity when all the islands of the Aegean Sea were dotted with olive trees belonging to the same species of the Olea Euro pea that is cultivated today.

Archaeologists have recently brought to light fossils of olive leaves carbon-dated back 50 – 60 thousand years. That is the beginning of the saga of olive tree cultivation and man’s attempt to understand, tame and benefit from this numinous and precious tree.

It took many thousands of years of pain and experience until man was able to tame the tree, gather its fruit and valuable juice (because that’s what olive oil is: the juice of the olive fruit). Another important discovery was made by an archaeologist who found in the area of Thermi in Lesvos a primitive Bronze Age oil press that dates back to 2800 – 2000 BC. This primitive oil press is a shallow stone basin in which the oils were crushed.

Lesvos was then colonized by Aeolians who had emigrated from central Greece, whose main occupation was farming. In the 11th c. BC the capital of Lesvos, Mytilene, was founded. From the 8th c. BC on there was a boom in commerce. Opening up to the outside world brought riches, new ideas and democracy replaced the aristocracy of landowners. Lesvos became the hub of arts and letters. One of the most outstanding poets of all time, Sappho (6th c. BC) came from Lesvos and in her poems one can discern the ideas of women’s liberation and get a sense of the idyllic, natural beauties of the island. The cultivation of the olive tree had at this time of course also spread to the rest of Greece where it was worshipped and where its branches crowned the winners of the Olympic Games. Cups of olive oil were the prize of the Panathinea Games.

In contrast to barbarian foods, which come from hunting and root and berry gathering, bread, oil and wine are adopted as the main staples and are elevated to sacred symbols because they are agricultural products processed by man. Similarly, the symposium, that is, the gathering of people who eat, drink, converse and enjoy themselves together, strictly regulated by dietary, religious and traditional rules, symbolizes the transcendence of basic needs.

During these ancient times wine was Lesvos’ most celebrated product, but the cultivation of olive trees was steadily rising. Olive tree leaves are depicted on coins of Mytilene and later, during the reign of Emperor Diocletian (3rd c. AD) property lists engraved on rocks make mention of olive grove estates built on terraces just as they are today. In the 3rd c. AD the olive groves of Lesvos were estimated at 45,000 km2.

Many are the finds of ancient oil mill remains on the island. No one, however, quite seems to comprehend the relation between these ancient oil mills and the places of worship of later times. The chiseled stones of the ancient mills are usually discovered in the ruins of churchyards. Perhaps the olive tree across time has been symbolically identified with the divine, independent of current religious practices, be they paganistic or Christian.

What is known is that the techniques and means for pressing the olive have remained virtually unchanged through the ages. There are two stages of processing. The first is the crushing of the olive with moving stones (millstones) which rotate on a fixed base. At first the millstones were lens-shaped, the outer surface being concave and the inner straight. They rotated in the groove of the basin on a wooden axle powered by domestic beasts or humans. Later the millstones became cone-shaped with a hole in the middle and during the 19th century, cylindrical.

The second stage of processing, the pressing of the olive, did not change from the Mycenaean era up until the 20th century. The olive pulp is placed in horsehair bags, which are stacked on a stone plaque. A wooden screw on wooden beams is tightened and presses the bags, which the workers flush with hot water. Then the oil and the water separate and behold the oil!

Hard Times:

The flourishing of Lesvos was followed by centuries of decline and slavery. The island’s economy had already received a great blow by the Persian war. This has followed by the break with Athens, the continual plundering by pirates and Roman Rule. By the time of the Byzantine era, the island, which had become a place of exile for the personae non gratae, was a mere shadow of its former illustrious self.

Since the 11th century Lesvos had attracted the attention of the Italian merchants who had gained privileges with the 1261 Treaty. In 1355 the Genoese nobleman and merchant Francesco Gattelusi met by chance the fugitive Emperor John V Paleologus and helped him gain back the throne from his usurper John Cantacuzenus. As a reward the merchant received the emperor’s sister in marriage and the whole island of Lesvos as dowry. For the next 100 years the island economy flourished and the foundations of today’s olive groves were laid. The Gattelusi family saw great commercial progress and they encouraged the cultivation of the olive tree.

The Great Frost:

January 10, 1850 was a significant date in the history of the olive tree of Lesvos. It was preceded by 40 days of rain and warm southerly winds. The olive trees were deceived into thinking spring had arrived. Suddenly that night, the thermometer dropped to -8o C. The warm and damp skin of the olive fruit frosted over and burst. The olive groves of Lesvos were completely destroyed. In addition, all the domestic animal died and the people were left helpless the face of this catastrophe. The only solution for many was to emigrate. They went to foreign lands, worked and progressed, but they did not forget their homeland. Thus, many returned after making their fortunes elsewhere and infused new life into the veins of the wounded isle.

The people who had remained threw themselves into the hard work that had to be done. They chopped down the destroyed trees and in makeshift kilns made charcoal which they sold all over the Mediterranean up to the shores of the Russia. In the spring of 1850 green shoots sprouted from the few trees that had survived the frost, but there were no olives to be harvested and no oil to be pressed. It was then that they took the great decision of replanting all of Lesvos with new trees. They brought in new varieties, the ‘kolovi’ and the ‘adramytiani’, which were more resilient to the cold. New fields were sown. They carried soil up the mountainsides on their backs and on the backs of their beasts of burden. Stonemasons from northern Greece arrived to build terraces on the sides of the mountains to hold the soil. The olive groves with their young, vital trees grew to be ten times bigger than the original ones, reaching a total of 450,000 Km2. The 1850 catastrophe brought about the rebirth of the island and man repaid the olive tree for all it had offered him over the centuries. it was the beginning of a new age.

The Golden Age:

During the following decades the economy of Lesvos saw an upward swing and the island became a hub of social, political and cultural activity. There were many reasons for this: although one third of the land remained under the ownership of the Turks, cultivation was still in the hands of the Greeks. The high taxation was counterbalanced by the great output of the new olive trees that had been planted.

Technological progress and steam engines had brought industrial growth. Modern steam-powered oil mills quickly replaced the old oil mills that were powered by humans or domestic beasts. The procedure for crushing the olives remained unaltered but the time needed for this first stage of processing was greatly reduced and the yield much higher. Over a span of 28 years the number of old oil mills fell from 269 to 79, while the steam-powered increased from 10 to 113. The by-product of the olive, the pit, became a plentiful and cheap source of fuel and modern factories were built for the processing of he olive pit and the manufacture of oil soap, which was highly valued at the time. The locals competed to see who would import the best quality machinery from England. Greek importers based in Smyrna often sold this machinery to the farmers of Lesvos at exorbitant prices, but it was capital well invested that yielded profits exceeding 30% annually. The capital usually came either from profits from olive tree cultivation on the island or investments that the inhabitants of Mytilene had made in Egypt, Russia and Rumania.

Along with industry, commerce also saw its heyday, which was increased five-fold during the 1850-1910 period. Olive oil and olive soap were the main products, which amounted to 70% of the island’s exports. One third of the olive oil was exported to Marseilles and one fourth to England. Later when the local shipping lines were improved, Istanbul and other closer markets were established. Russia also absorbed significant percentages of the olive oil exports, which was used for lighting oil wicks in their churches. In fact, in 1890 by edict of the Holy Synod, Russia was forbidden from importing Italian olive oil because it was diluted with cottonseed oil. Since then Italy has imported significant amounts of Greek olive oil, which it then sells to France, England and the United States.

The Mytilene port became a great crossroads. At the time the Aegean Sea bustled with life. Greek and Turkish sailors went back and forth; workers from Mytilene commuted daily to Aivali on the opposite shore; the bourgeoisie, the merchants and the industrialists came and went. The Aegean Sea was the field of trade from Egypt to Russia and cosmopolitan Mytilene was the link that joined businesses, nations and cultures.

The accumulating profits and the new prospects led to new business investments. Panos Kourtzis, perhaps one of the most significant businessmen of the time, founded the Bank of Mytilene with branches in Istanbul, Egypt and Greece. He went to found Aegean Shipping Lines with fleets of steamboats in direct competition with the all-powerful Lloyds Shipping Company. The fares were 5% higher than Lloyds’ were, but the passenger and cargo services were of such high quality that Greeks and Turks preferred it to its English rival. Aegean Shipping linked Mytilene to Trieste, Alexandria, Piraeus, Istanbul, Vraila and the rest of the islands of the Aegean.

The flourishing of the economy brought about general prosperity. All the remnants of that era bear witness to the aristocratic background of the inhabitants of Mytilene: their fine taste and their love of art. Due to the commercial activity and the many successful immigrants, the urban society was highly cosmopolitan. Indicative of this is that all developed countries maintained consulates in Mytilene, which became a miniature European metropolis. With a population of only 17,000, the town was full of mansions furnished with imported European furnishings. The town sported eight churches, a hospital, four schools (one of which was French), two theatres, two cinemas, clubs, unions etc. Cars circulated in the streets, which were lit with gas lamps. The post was delivered through foreign postal services and there was a telegraph service. Large, luxurious hotels adorned the capital and there were celebrated hot springs. There were six local newspapers and ten periodicals in circulation, which gave vent to the social and ideological concerns of the time.

These concerns focused to a large degree on national independence, a feeling that had been simmering for 450 years and boiling over at the least provocation. One such case was the destructive earthquake of 1867 when the Greek inhabitants hailed the ship that brought aid by saying that they would suffer a thousand earthquakes and a thousand deaths to see the day the island would become part of Greece.

This day would come in November 1912 when Lesvos would be liberated from Turkey and would cede to Greece. But the happiness of the inhabitants of Lesvos did not last long because it was hard hit by the 1922 Asia Minor Disaster when thousands of Greeks were forced to evacuate cities such as Smyrna and shiploads of destitute refugees arrived.

The Grate Depression of 1929 and the Great War followed. In any case Lesvos had become a remote province of the Greek State. The island was lacking in the most basic food staples and it attempted to cover these needs by exporting its famed olive oil, but at times exportation was forbidden and at other times bulk imports of cheap seed oils in the form of ‘aid’ created unnecessary competition.

Despite these adversities there were also many successes. A fine example is the invention of the ‘Ergani’, an amazing, for its time (1920), portable thrashing appliance, which aided in the gathering of the olives. It was invented by Panos Kourtzis’ son, Mitsas, who is described in a contemporary newspaper as a type of Renaissance man: land owner, businessman, banker, founder, playwright and inventor.


Today Lesvos is searching for its own place in a complex web of relations that is forever changing. This is the era of globalization, of intense competition, but the roads to its traditional markets (Turkey, Russia, Rumania and Egypt) are not as accessible as they used to be. This is one reason the French, the English and the German consuls and businessmen have ceased to assemble in Mytilene. The Olive Oil of Lesvos is protected by the Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union, yet the roads to New York, Melbourne or Tokyo are long and hard going.

The island continues to be a small hidden paradise. The landscape retains the gentleness described by the foreign travelers of the 18th century. Fortunately, it has not undergone the modernization that other resorts of the Aegean have. The silvery-green olive groves, both solemn and breezily friendly, stretch from the waves breaking on the shore up to the mountain pine trees. The terraced olive groves keep the whole ecosystem alive. If they are neglected, the depth of the topsoil is reduced from 30 to 5 cm, the vegetation from 47% to 28 % and the plant species from 12 to six.

The inhabitants resemble their friend the olive tree. They are open, friendly, proud and yet quick to laugh with sharp sense of humour, possessing a free and inquisitive spirit. They’ve kept their traditions alive. The local dialect is not only spoken, but it transforms the conversation into a kind of celebration, especially if it is accompanied by a glass of ouzo and some local appetizers or mezedes, as they are called. Even love is expressed through the olive tree in the lines of Elytis, I saw his eyes. I saw some ancient olive groves.

In Lesvos women are still highly revered as they were in antiquity. Women are free and equal to men, bearing no comparison to the eastern model. This can be seen in the most minor detail of everyday life. For example, a person’s first name is not followed by the father’s first name, as is the custom in the rest of Greece, by the mother’s. Thus it is not ‘Stratis, the son of Christos’, but, ‘Stratis, the son of Eleni’.

Today the olive continues to be all the islanders’ main occupation as well as their main topic of conversation. What will olive oil production be like this year? is the question on everyone’s lips.

The average annual production is approximately 20,000 tons, with quite severe fluctuations, however, depending on weather conditions. Eleven million olive trees cover 450 thousand km2, that is, 79% of the arable land and 28% of the total area of the island. The varieties that were planted after the Great Frost still flourish: 65% of the trees are of the ‘kolovi’ variety and 30% the ‘adramytiani’. These 11 million trees correspond to 87,000 inhabitants, which translates to 126 olive trees per inhabitant, which is far higher ratio than can be found in any other place in the world. In the rest of Greece the ratio is 9.5 per person, in Italy 3.0 and in Spain 5.4. There is not a local of Mytilene, regardless of occupation, who does not also have some olive trees, even if they produce just enough oil for the family whose children are perhaps studying or who have married and moved to Athens. Indeed, emigration is one of the island’s greatest problems. The population has dwindled from 120,000 in the 1950s to 87,000 today. Another problem is that almost half the olive groves are located in mountainous or hilly regions, often far from roads. The only way to reach them is by donkey or on foot, making the gathering of the olives arduous and fatiguing, as they usually must be handpicked, aided only slightly by portable thrashing appliances.

Of course this implies that the olive oil produced contains all the benefits of the most natural and pure agricultural product, but it costs more than oil extracted from expansive, flat olive tree groves, which allow for cultivating and gathering the olives with ‘industrialised’ means. This can be confirmed by the types of fertilizers used. The traces of nitrogen per root in Lesvos does not exceed 100 gr., a quantity that is much lower than quantities measured in other types of groves. The same applies for pesticides and weed killers.

Another feature that contributes to the high quality of the Olive Oil of Lesvos is the large number of modern oil presses and small-scale farmers. These two factors mean that the fruit is crushed immediately and that the owner of the olives, the farmer, is present when they are crushed and pressed and carefully watches over every stage of the procedure, ensuring the high quality of his/her olive oil.

Of the 73 oil presses in Lesvos, 41 belong to agricultural co-operatives, three to the local authorities and 29 to private owners. Of course steam-powered oil presses became obsolete at the turn of the century, but many of these have been salvaged and have been transformed into small museums, which also operate as cultural centers where conferences are often held.

Almost all of the olive oil producers are organized in agricultural co-operatives, which combined form a Union. The roots of unionization in Lesvos go back to the 1920s when, despite the large production of olive oil, the working conditions for the small-scale farmers were appalling: long working hours and daily wages that amounted to two-three liters of oil. This is why, after Lesvos ceded to Greece, the union gained power under the free Greek nation and grew stronger than many other places. The foundation of the first co-operative oil mills necessitated a general mobilization in order to secure the necessary capital. Naturally when the co-operatives opened, it was a day of joy and celebration and a ray of hope for the future of the islanders.

Olive oil is no longer stored in barrels as it used to be. The network of co-operative oil mills, the union, as well as many of the privately owned oil mills have an adequate number of vats so that the oil is stored under optimal conditions after it is pressed. Special tank trucks transport the oil either to the packaging units on the island or to other units in the rest of Greece through dealers and merchants. Large quantities of olive oil are exported mainly to Italy and recently to Spain as well. The sale of unpackaged oil is carried out either through direct negotiation or through open auctions.

Of the five packaging units on the island, two are co-operative and three privately owned. They are fully equipped and staffed to package the olive oil in 5-litre (or smaller) tin drums or one-liter (or smaller) glass bottles. Quality control is particularly tight and is facilitated by the fact that all the packaged olive oils are local and the oil mill and even the olive grove from which the olives originate are known.

There are also two olive oil mills for the production olive pit oil as well as units which cure and package table olives. Unfortunately the production of olive oil soap, which used to be very popular, is limited, as the use of detergents has become more widespread.

Due to the particular conditions prevailing in the olive groves of Lesvos one could say that the olive oil should automatically be labeled as organic. Yet, there have been organized attempts to produced certified organic olive oil under E.U. regulation 2092/91. In particular, there is a large farm of approximately 1400 acres, one-third of which is oil groves. Today it is run as a self-sufficient ecosystem in which the fields and grove are fertilized by the manure of the farm animals. After five years of olive oil production, it is now fully certified as organically produced olive oil, which is packaged on the premises. It is hoped that other producers will follow suit in the production of organic olive oil.

The meaning and aim of establishing products with a Protected Designation of Origin or Geographical Indication could find no better application than in Lesvos. Indeed, Lesvos’ Virgin Olive Oil has been officially recognized under E.U. regulation 1107/96 as a product with a Protected Geographical Indication. The particular quality of Lesvos’ Virgin Olive Oil is determined by the weather conditions, the grade of soil, the climate, and the olive tree varieties as well as by the human factor. It is an unbeatable combination that T. Paraskevaidis describes as follows: From the tormented olive tree trunks springs the history of our island. The olive trees are laden with our own human voices:. For the outsider, but keen observer, this story signifies what Elytis tried to say,
You will give me, the traveler, a place to stay
laying on the tablecloth bread
olives and your conscience

The Chemical Structure and Behavior of the Olive Oil of Lesvos:

Virgin olive oil is a natural oleaginous substance of a complex structure, an exclusive result of the Mediterranean natural environment. The manner it is produced (crushing the olive fruit and pressing the oil from the olive pulp) allows it to have the name ‘Olive juice’, as it bears the taste, aroma and composition of the olive. The particular features of the Olive Oil of Lesvos have been officially recognized by the European Union and it has been registered as a product with a Geographical Indication.

In a breakdown of the composition of Virgin Olive Oil of Lesvos it is important to make a distinction between macro-ingredients (~ 99%) and micro-ingredients (~ 1%). Included in the macro-ingredients are the fatty acids, which are mainly present in the form of triglycerides. Their composition depends on the variety of olive oil tree, the main ones cultivated in Lesvos being the kolovi and the adramytiani.

The micro-ingredients include Vitamin E, phenolic and polyphenolic compounds (coloring substances with intense antioxidant activity), sterols, alcohols, coloring agents (carotenoid substances, small quantities of chlorophyll), squalene etc.

A number of factors come into play in determining the quality of the Virgin Olive Oil of Lesvos: less than 1.0% acidity for labeling it as Extra Virgin and less than 2% for Virgin Olive Oil; the K270 and K232 factors (lower than 0.20 and 2.50 respectively); the number of hyper oxides (less than 20) and the degree of organoleptic value which usually ranges from 6.5 to 9.

It is worth noting that up to today no sample of Virgin Olive Oil from Lesvos, wherever it may have been tasted, has shown traces of pesticicides, which is another indication of the high quality of this oil. Chemical analyses to certify the quality of the oil are carried out on a regular basis by all the packaging units on the island and of course by state quality control services.

Thus, the following macroscopic and organoleptic features can be found in the Olive Oil of Lesvos:

A liquid texture (low glutinosity – smooth taste) which is due to its relatively high level of unsaturates, as can be seen in the breakdown of the fatty acids. The more saturated fats an oil contains, the thicker it is; while the higher the degree for unsaturated fats, the higher the liquidity.

A golden light color, which is due to the low content of chlorophyll, a green coloring agent found in vegetables. It has been established that chlorophyll speeds up the oxidation of olive oil when it is exposed to light. The low content of chlorophyll in the Olive Oil of Lesvos keeps the oil from going rancid.

The distinctive aroma and taste of the Aegean olive.