Harvesting olives for Cretan olive oil
Harvesting the olives

From November thru January, is the time for Cretan olive oil. Nearly every Cretan will be out in their olive groves, harvesting olives! So its a common sight to come round a corner and find nets spread out over the road to catch the olives.  And there’s the very distinctive noise of the rotary harvesting rakes – a sort of scratchy whine – you’ll need to come here to know what we mean!

How to find a good Cretan olive oil

So how do you tell what’s a good olive oil?  Well, clearly you need to taste it!  But you don’t need to see it! All that stuff about its rich green colour (with one exception, see below) is just that, does not mean anything about its taste, at professional tastings blue glasses are used.

Cretan olive oil
Cretan olive oil and crusty wholemeal bread

Here’s how to go about it:

  1. With a little oil in a small glass, firstly warm it in one hand, whilst closing the top of your glass with the other.
  2. Then take a sip and aerate it in your mouth by drawing air in between your lips – may need practise to avoid spilling it down your front!  This should concentrate the aroma.
  3. Note the tastes, then swallow
  4. After swallowing a spicy burn should develop in your throat – its like the finish in a wine.  After a few seconds this should die away again. But if it lasts longer this is a sign of poor quality.

The colour of olive oil

The only instance when you should be careful of colour is if you see a yellow Cretan olive oil.  This is a sign of degradation through exposure to light.  A well-kept Cretan oil should be a deep green.  Try to keep olive oil in dark glass bottles out of sunlight at an even temperature not over 20 deg. Plastic bottles may contaminate the oil with plasticizers, and though metal tins are fine whilst unopened, afterwards the metals may react with the oil.

Our Tasting Notes of Cretan olive oils

Recently we visited Terra Creta, a producer with one of the most modern olive mills in Europe, based in Kolymbari, Crete.  They have made this charming video which shows you how central the olive is to Cretan culture and life.  We tried several of their Cretan olive oils, guided by Costas, the plant manager, and here are our impressions.

  • PDO Kolymbari Extra Virgin Olive Oil: grassy nose; mild taste, smooth on the palate and with very little spiciness.
  • Terra Creta Biological Olive Oil: stronger grassy nose and stronger grassy taste; much spicier aftertaste this is caused by the polyphenols.
  • Terra Creta 0.2% acidity Olive Oil: smoother texture; milder taste; spiciness develops slowly in the mouth and then dies away.  Terra Creta make this limited production from olives harvested in November, at the beginning of the harvest season.  At this time the olives yield less oil, but of a higher quality.

Acidity and first cold pressing

Cretans call the olive trees “the children of the earth” –  its in every Cretan’s blood and soul, passed from one generation to the other.  Cretan olive oil consists of oil from the Koroneiki olive, with a small proportion of Tsunati.  Cretans typically eat the Tsunati, which has a fruitier taste but higher acidity.  This enables Cretan olive oils to be anything up to a medium fruitiness and spiciness.

Lots of sorts of Cretan olive
Olives at a Chania street market

You may have heard of “first cold pressing” being the best olive oil.  Producers press the olives at a maximum temperature of 27 degrees in order to preserve vitamins, (mainly E and A).  After this pressing about 10% of the oil remains in the olive pulp. 

After this pressing about 10% of the oil remains in the olive pulp. 

Pomice and Extra Virgin olive oil

Pomice producers typically extract this by a different process using heat and chemicals, This destroys much of the benefits, but yields a very neutral and low acidity oil.  Therefore if an olive oil has low acidity it is not necessarily good. But it is important for first cold pressed olive oil. 

To be “Extra Virgin” it must have acidity less than 0.8% whilst “Virgin” olive oil can be up to 2% acidity. Cretan Olive oil contains approximately 200 polyphenols which give the oil its spiciness and bitterness, too much can affect taste;  therefore it is necessary to get the amount right!  Many of these phenols have not yet been fully explored.

The ancient olive tree at Vouves
The old olive tree at Vouves

The age of olive trees

And olives age well!  One of the 10 oldest olive trees in the world is in VOUVES in Crete. It was pretty old even when Christ was born, and may even have been around when the Minoans were inhabiting their palaces. Its important that the olives are processed as soon after picking as possible.

Stone ground Cretan olive oil
Pressing olives the old way – the wooden levers are for attachment to a donkey!

Cretans have many olive mills, almost literally dotted around each village.  Each services their local area, and even larger producers like Terra Creta only take olives from their region.

At Panokosmos, we use the best olive oils, from a modern plant processing olives from local farmers.

Terra Creta;s modern plant for producing Cretan olive oil
Terra Creta olive oil storage

If your interested we can set up a tour of Terra Creta in Kolymbari, which is less than an hour away.