Before the Second World War there were few olive trees in Agios Ioannis, but in the 70’s olives for oil production were the most important crop in the village. In addition, every family had one or more garden plots; a household might have some of these near the house; others might be found in other parts of the village. The most common crops were squash, onion, potatoes, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, artichokes and horta (various greens, including vlita – a pot herb). Several families had small vineyards scattered around in the lower part of the village. Few produced enough wine for a family’s yearly need, even though wine was only served on special occasions.
Today, the grain is bought in the store, but ground in the village. Every family has a small hand mill, consisting of two flat stones with a piece of wood going through the middle of both stones, and a handle in the upper part. The grain is put into a hole in the middle of the upper stone and ground by turning the upper stone while the lower remains stationary. This is hard work, and it is one by the women.
Earlier, grain was grown both within and outside the village walls, and old threshing floors could still be seen in the area. The fields went out of use during World War II when grain for sowing was difficult to obtain. In the 70’s grain was store-bought, but was ground in the village. Every family had a small hand mill, consisting of two flat grind stones with a wood shaft going through the middle of both stones, and a handle to rotate the upper stone.
The olive tree is a biennial producer of fruit and bears a good crop every second year. The season lasted from November to March. The olives stayed on the trees until they were ripe, and wind and rain knocked them down. Only towards the end of the season were the remaining olives beaten down with long sticks. This was work-intensive in a kinotis that had about 3500 olive trees, and with about 20% of the population more than 64 years old. One family had about 70 trees, another about 30 spread around the village – some bought and some inherited.
The olive harvest is labour-intensive, and the whole family had to cooperate. An old couple with many trees might be given a hand by a neighbour or a visiting relative. If the wife had her own trees, she would work on these with help from her children. In addition to harvesting their own trees, some people would work the trees of relatives who had moved away. Some ex-villagers returned to the village every two years and stayed for a month or two to harvest their olive trees, visiting relatives and renewing old ties to their birthplace.
Beating ripe olives from the trees and collecting olives from the ground was hard and time-consuming. The olives had to be picked out from between the stones and tree roots. During the olive harvest season we were much in demand as olive pickers and soon realised the job required back-breaking effort. To be able to handle the work, some of the villagers had bought plastic netting to put under the trees. The first household purchased netting in 1976, and in 1978 two more families followed the example of the innovators. This made the work quicker and easier and made it possible for the villagers to harvest their trees more efficiently.
There were two olive presses in Agios Ioannis, both were operated by hand. The press tub was about 1,5 – 2 metres in diameter, and had three grinding stones that mashed the olives into a pulp. About 40-60 kilos of olives were dumped into a round concrete tub at a time. A blindfolded mule powered this work, and each session lasted about 45 minutes.
The mash was then scooped out and put into thick woven rope bags – about 2 kilos in each bag – and stored in a wooden trough. After about 25-30 bags were filled, they were carried to the press and set one on top of the other, and hot water was poured over the surface. When all the bags were in place, a long wooden handle was used to manually screw the press down. Two or three people were needed to work the winch.
The oil flowed into a tub by the press. Early in the season 4-5 kg. of olives were required to produce 1 kilo of oil; later 2.5 kg. was sufficent. The owners of the press received 10% of the oil – the first kilo, the 11th kilo and so on – as their payment.
A few of the villagers sold oil in Chania while others only had enough for themselves and their family. Olive oil for cooking is an important ingredient in Greek cooking. When we returned to the Agios Ioannis in 1980, our landlady was very upset when she realised that we had no oil and promptly gave us a bottle as a gift.