Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Sample Sale

So... we're off to Corfu on June 22nd. The flight back is a moveable feast; hopefully, as a next-door peasant is claimed to have done in the '70s, we'll dig up some gold coins to melt down into stay-prolonging ready cash (or ovola- "obols"- as we still thrillingly say in our village).

We've saved up enough money, from jobbing journalism and PA'ing, to let us live a frugal peasant lifestyle until the autumn storms drift in. I've been hawking early drafts of our oil around North London delis, with limited success. Hopefully- hopefully- we'll be able to place it in one of the new tourist delis (invariably run by Germans, oddly) in the town... once we work out where the bottling plant is, what they charge, and what our options are. All our competitors in the Corfu lathi business use the same bottles- I assume just what the mysterious bottling plant has to hand. We want to have a distinctive bottle, to showcase our (did I mention?) boutique, organic oil in all its earthy magnificence.

I had a lunch meeting today with a newly-ex magazine commissioning editor. After commiserating with each other over London's media famine, I mentioned our oily plans. He said we're very brave- brave being, as ever, the gentle word for mad.

I said that, at heart, I'm not sure English people actually like olive oil. They like the idea of it, or the idea of liking it (like Kundera's "second tear"), but not the actual product. Hence the concept of extra-virgin olive oil- actually a very technical assessment of its acidity- is transmuted into a fetish for the wateriest, most pallid, flavourless liquid. Despite its fabled parthenogenic origin, any Corfiot farmer would rather a blowsy dockside strumpet of an oil than a timid virgin; though it would it be a job to convince, say, Jamie Oliver, that cloudy green Greek oil is better than translucent bottled-in-Tuscany olive water...

He said- I think astutely- that olive oil in the UK now is where wine was in the 1960s. We know it's a good idea, but we still think Blue Nun is the best the world has to offer. As any monotheistic religion will tell you, being a prophet's all well and good, as long as you're the last one. Otherwise you're stuck in a crumbling ruin with a hundred barrels of wasted oil. Bah.


It's 40 C in Corfu this week. The chances of my pallid, Ulster Katie not melting are minimal. Rain's forecast for our arrival. Hopefully it'll be a good, angry Corfu storm from the Adriatic. I always thought, as a myth-obsessed child, that Greek weather justified the Olympic theogeny. The summer sun, hammering down, seemed as worthy of fear as veneration; the autumn storms seemed a genuine expression of divine anger; the ancient olive trees are as venerable as ancestral gods; the sea (in the Adriatic Northwest at least) is as suddenly and violently temperamental as any person.

My grandmother used to tell me a story- when I still dreamed in childish Greek- of a peasant from her village who found a Dryad in his olive grove, in the 1930s. She couldn't speak Greek-"like a Christian"- but he married her, bewitched by her beauty. They had many beautiful daughters- no sons- until one day she drifted back to the olive groves, never to be seen again. This was all presented as fact- one of the daughters owns a shop in Avliotes today- and anywhere else in Europe, or the world, this tale would sound ludicrous. Nothing can sum up Corfu more than the fact it doesn't. In an utterly un-ironic way, I have no more difficulty believing it than my giagia does. Corfu is its own world, and the better you understand its tiniest parishes- in my case, the 3 or 4 square kilometres where my family have spent the last half-millennium- the wider and stranger it seems.

London suddenly seems impossibly small.


  1. We have a human scale oil processing plant below Ano Korakiana to which local people take their family sized harvests. They've invested in modern technologies recently but also make iron gates and balconies. Vasilis owns the business, started by his father.

    BTW did you see this?:
    '.. some centuries old, they are deep-rooted in history, being of an ancient and unadulterated stock called 'lianolia', producing small, slim, pointy black berries... 'The entire Mediterranean seems to rise out of the sour, pungent taste of black olives between the teeth,' wrote Lawrence Durrell. 'A taste older than meat or wine, a taste as old as cold water. Only the sea itself seems as ancient a part of the region as the olive and its oil.'

    Our neighbour when serving olives in a bowl offers a medley and has taken us through the different types from Tripoli, Kalamata (tastiest) to Corfu (more for oil), but we'd never heard the word 'lianolia' before.
    You are going so against the grain of turbo-charged capitalism whose cultivation of the olive involves syndicates, distribution centres, mechanised bottling and packaging techniques and a pair of jaws on the back of a tractor that clasps and vibrates the trunks to shake olives into a big upside facing umbrella - while the children of the black garbed farmers are at university studying to be scientists, doctors, engineers and lawyers and agronomists who'll be inventing further mechanisation for the industry, genetically modified futures for the olive and wondering where to buy their second home, and buy organic food from a farmers' market. But may be just maybe...

  2. Ah, but the black-clad farmers' grandchildren and great-grandchildren will, no doubt, tire of the Athens rat race and dream of making artisanal cheese or sausages or- who knows?- olive oil.

    It's odd seeing adverts on Greek TV, now a newish meme taps into nostalgia for a rural past- all stone Zagori villages and gossiping yiayias.

    I often wonder how my gran views the ads between her beloved telenovelas after a hard day milking the goats or picking plums, headscarved like a peasant in a Byzantine manuscript illustration. Does she see them as a straightforward reflection of reality, and not mediated through Athenian Mad Men's fantasies?

    In Salonika a few years ago, I watched chubby middle-aged businessmen pawing a belly dancer and smoking narghiles in an 'Eastern'-themed Ladadika bar. They were dipping their toes in an Orientalist fantasy that their grandfathers -in Salonika or Smyrna or The City- would have taken for granted as, simply, life.

  3. I'm tentatively gingerly nervously taking a step into that dream -