The Queen of the Tribe

Written on 12th November 2003

A few days ago, I was in Cyprus and I was sitting in the garden of my great aunt’s home in the village where my father had been brought up, Ayia Fyla. In many ways, the scene in the garden had not changed much over the years: the doors to the different parts of the expanded house may have become more modern, the number of outbuildings increased and the exotic nature of the pots and plants that inhabited them reached levels that brought awe from all that visited, but essentially the scene was timeless.

We were all sitting around a large circular table about to eat a light evening meal: with us was my mother, sister, brother in law, some cousins, my uncle and numerous neighbours. As the evening wore on the local priest would also join us slightly inebriated by the newly acquired bottle of Johnny Walker 'Black Label' shared with him by the neigbour down the road. We were eating the normal things that any Cypriot family would have on their table: freshly grown tomatoes, cucumbers, halloumi cheese, ‘kefalotiri’ cheese, capers, freshly grilled ‘loucanica’ and ‘lounza’. In pride of place, at the very epicentre of the table, was a space for the fresh batch of green 'tsakistes' olives. These had just come out of their salt water which for months had been lovingly and systematically changed two times a week, ensuring that at just the time when last year’s crop was coming to an end, they would have lost enough of their bitterness to make them edible. They would then be washed with clear running water for several hours so that the accumulated salt would disappear and leave just the olive. Afterwards, they would be mixed with sliced garlic, crushed coriander seeds and drowned in extra virgin olive oil and fresh lemons.

These were always my favourites. Whilst I loved the small black olives and the ‘Kalamata’ variety, 'tsakistes' always represented for me the queen of the tribe. They had in them my three favourite ingredients: olive oil, coriander and of course lemons.

As we sat in the small courtyard and the 'tsakistes' were placed in their allotted position, my great aunt excitedly offered them to me to try first. As the soup of green olives and white garlic began to spread all over my plate I could hear everyone around me beginning the descriptions of taste, the slopping noise of the olives being rolled around their mouths and the discussions of how the repetitive nature of the preparation of these olives was paramount. It was clear from all that was being said that this was a matter of great pride.

"Oh yes, it's all in the preparation and the care and affection attached to it. You can even make the bitterest olives taste right if you give them enough care." my aunt said as she placed a few of the olives on her waiting tongue.

With this the table erupted with stories and descriptions of past olive harvests, olive making, and the days when the whole village would go out picking the new harvest, of the big parties in the squares afterwards. My mother recalled how when she was young a mobile olive mill would visit each village to help with extracting the pure oil from the freshly picked green olives. She moaned that today you would be lucky to find anybody, in any location to perform such a task for private.

As I sat and listened to the chattering I could not help but ask myself the question of what other nationality of people could create such a degree of excitement, anticipation and serious in depth conversation about olives. My face with its mixed look of bewilderment and awe must have revealed my thoughts, because as I placed another group of olives in my mouth my uncle lent down and asked:

"Why the look?"

"I don't know. It's just odd that we can spend so much time talking about olives. Can you imagine this conversation ever taking place in England?” I replied.

"No, I cannot. Nor in any other northern European country for that matter save possibly France. But here ‘Marié mou’ (my Marios) you must never underestimate or denigrate the significance of the olive. It goes to the very heart and essence of what it is to be Greek. It links us not only to our land but to our ancestors. It is the very essence of life which together with the vine and fig have been part of our heritage since time began. To mock it is to mock ourselves.”