Olive-Press workers


The island of Lesvos has a long tradition in systematic olive tree cultivation which dates back from 17th – 18th century until today, and the exceptional quality of its olive oil is widely known.

Cultivation works begin every year in November and end in May. In the past, for the oil production that followed the olive harvesting, farmers used improvised olive mills made of two millstones occasionally rotating in parallel, or more often, vertically to the ground (in the form of “trapetum ”), powered by men or animals. Olive mills were first replaced by steam powered (end of 19th century) and later on (about mid-20th century) by electric powered olive presses (centrifuges) which have been used, in their modern version, until today. Private and cooperative olive presses operated all around the island, since oleiculture was developed in most of the regions. The regions of Gera, Plomari, Agiassos and Mandamados were well-known olive oil production centres, but generally this was also the case for all central and northeast Lesvos.

A great number of people worked in the old olive presses, since the olive oil production requirements were high. The main specialties involved were engineers and their apprentices (tsirakia), “stone workers” (petrades) that handled the “crushers”, that is the olive mills where the first crushing of the olives was made, porters for the olive and the oil transportation, stokers, “scriveners” (scales men), olive sheet (tsoupia) tiers, as well as non-specialised workers. Daily, they started working very early at about 5.30 in the morning until late at noon, and before the development of technology, many work accidents occurred.

In brief, the production process, concerning the steam powered olive presses, was the following: every producer carried his olives in sacks to the olive press, where the scales man weighed them. Then the olives were stored on lofts arranged in a row over the “millstones” of the “crusher”, in order not to be mixed up. The procedure for every producer was separate and it was repeated for each one according to his time of arrival at the olive press. The “stone workers” threw the olives in the millstones. The olive paste produced by this procedure, called hamouri, fell into square basins (hamourieres) under the millstones. These basins had partitions to keep in separate each producer’s paste. Then, a worker took out the olive paste with a big wooden porringer (like a ladle) from the basins and emptied it in a tank. The “tier” spread the paste on the olive sheets (tsoupia) with the porringer, made envelope like folds and tied them with a knot (using a rope incorporated in the olive sheets). As soon as the workman of the press with his assistant gathered about sixty to seventy olive sheets, they piled them up in the press (baski), the one over the other, with great precision so that nothing stuck out. The press consisted of a square surface like a plate with open brims, where the olive sheets were piled up. A device with movable bars compressed the olive sheets, and a mixture of oil with water (amouri) was produced and flowed into a small basin (polymi). It should be noted that during the whole procedure, from the stage of the crusher to the stage of the compression, the workers were continuously pouring warm water on the olive paste to facilitate the squeezing. After having finished with the press, they put this mixture in a special rectangular metal tank, where an expert workman had to separate the water from the oil. Initially, when the olive oil content in the mixture was high, they used a copper jug (mastra[m]pas), and when it became lower a large deep iron plate (gaїzdermas), until all the floating oil (as lighter) was gradually removed and stored in earthenware jars and more recently in tin pots. The remaining water flowed into a tank, under the small basin (polymi), and finally run outside the olive press. The separators were soon replaced by special centrifugal machines (in about the early 20th century) called “Laval’, after the name of the company that manufactured them (since 1890), “Alfa Laval” .

The modern (electric powered) olive presses have very low manpower requirements in comparison to the steam powered ones, since most of the production phases such as the press phase, are completed with automated equipment. A kind of “mixer” stirs the olive pulp and the tasks of workers have been limited to the supervision of the equipment operation.

Sources used

  • Interview with Anastasis Hatzigiannis [olive press worker], with the participation of Christos Glezellis and Asimakis Hatzigiannis (son of Anastasis, also worker in the olive press), in Agiassos, Lesvos, 28/07/2004
  • S.A. Alexakis, Olive oil and its production, Mihalis Sideris Editions, Athens, 1998
  • Dimitriou N., Folklore of Samos, Athens, 1986: 123-130
  • A. Kiourellis, The production technology of olive oil in Lesvos during antiquity, Prefectural Administration of Lesvos