Despite being a sprawling city of over three million inhabitants with more than its fair share of congestion and pollution, Athens has a strong sense of season. Its hills are capped with green spaces, and fruit trees are planted at intervals along its pavements and median strips. Roughly 2,200 kilometres of pavement are lined with around 80,000 trees, the majority of which are fruit-bearing, including Seville oranges, mulberries, and, yes, olives.
The olive is, of course, the sacred tree of Athens according to the city’s ancient foundation myth. When the goddess Athena and her uncle Poseidon were vying to become the city’s patron deity, her gift of an olive tree won hands-down over his less practical offering of a salt water spring. When Athens first became the capital of the modern Greek state in the mid-19th century it was largely pasture, and the planting of fruit trees was part of a planned project to transform it into a European urban centre in the course of the 20th century. The varieties were chosen mainly for their minimal watering needs.
The tradition continues. In the last couple of years, the construction arm of the Greek railway company ERGOSE S.A. expropriated and cleared a number of olive groves in the countryside as part of expansion works on its network. Thousands of trees were auctioned off, but a few of the more ancient specimens were saved for replanting in Athens. Trees with an estimated age of 1,500 years were donated to local authorities and planted in key locations, including the historic buildings of Athens University in the city centre, the glass sheet statue of the runner marking the final stretch of the Athens Marathon route, and the grounds of the Ministry of Defence.
The latest addition to the city’s gardens, the park surrounding the Stavros Niarchos cultural centre in Faliron, also centres around native drought-resistant species and includes olives surrounded by herb gardens. Among the photographs documenting the project is a stunning image of a mature olive tree being lowered into the ground by a crane. The photo is taken from ground level looking up at the descending root ball, which eclipses the sun with a surreal Magritte-like quality (the image can be seen in this video presentation around the 1:06 mark).
Athenians have a close relationship with the fruit trees in their city. On dark winter evenings, it is not uncommon to see lone figures using self-fashioned reaching sticks to pick the oranges, which are known in Greek as nerátzia. The bitter variety was chosen by the city authorities specifically to deter picking and eating, but boiled down with sugar it is well-known that their peel makes excellent marmalade and preserves (or “spoon sweets” to use the somewhat inelegant English translation). In November, when the olives ripen, some engage in more open foraging. They come equipped with olive netting, which they lay on the pavement, and sticks, with which they beat the branches to bring the fruit down.
You will hear a variety of reactions to these urban foraging activities. Some disapprove of them, objecting that the trees are the property of local authorities who pay to prune and maintain them, and that the foragers are in effect free-riding at their fellow taxpayers’ expense. Others thank the pickers for clearing what would otherwise fall and create a skidding hazard and a nuisance on the pavement, muttering that this should also be done by the local authority. Others still, express a degree of pity for those they assume are forced to scavenge for what is considered, in the case of olives, a dietary staple. Finally, many are concerned about the level of pollution in fruit grown at close proximity to traffic; however tests have shown that the soil does not absorb as many toxic pollutants as is often assumed, and that a thorough washing will rid the fruit of any airborne pollution.
Most urban Greeks have very recent roots in the countryside and can look forward to receiving a few tins of oil “from the village”, or even harvesting and pressing their own as part of an autumnal expedition back to their roots (or their holiday home). This link with the countryside and its produce has become even more vital to city dwelling families during the financial crisis. When the average Greek consumes over 12 litres of olive oil each year, access to “free” oil not only saves money but in most cases improves the quality of food on the table. For this reason, the urban olives probably haven’t been exploited as much as they perhaps could be, and it still takes a degree of audacity to shake down the neighbourhood trees.
The reality of urban foraging is probably more varied. The author has certainly partaken in a spot of recreational olive picking and curing in the local park (despite finding the actual taste of olives revolting, I am assured that the result was far superior to what you can buy in most northern European delis). Most urban olive-pickers are lone operators, picking from a single tree, but we have on occasion seen groups of men with pickup trucks gathering sacks of olives from trees in the university campus, presumably to put to more commercial use, perhaps at an out-of-town olive press.
In recent years, the pressure created by the financial crisis and the rise of interest in volunteering activities has inspired a couple of local authorities to get creative and put the neglected resources in their ownership to good use. The municipality of Glyfada in the southern suburbs has been harvesting the olives from its trees for the past three years. In 2015 it produced 800 litres of good quality olive oil in conjunction with an educational initiative in local schools. Aghia Parakevi in the north of Athens called on local volunteers to participate in its harvest, and the oil produced was used in the municipal soup kitchen.
Athena’s gift to the city keeps on giving.
IMAGES: urban olive tree in fruit, photo by Koutofrangos; 1,500 year old olive tree transplanted to central Athens by ERGOSE S.A., photo via kathimerini.gr; urban olive-picking, photo by Koutofrangos; our modest olive harvest, in preparation for curing in brine, photo by Koutofrangos.