Much of Corfu’s lush green landscape comes from its vast groves of olive trees. For islanders they have long been an economic mainstay. For visitors, there is nothing more magical than a walk or drive through these rustling, sun-dappled groves that cling to the hillsides on stone-banked terraces. Corfu’s olive trees are larger than anywhere else in Greece. Some of these ancient giants with their gnarled and knotted trunks are nearly 500 years old.
Legend has it that St Spyridon appeared in an olive grove and forbade the islanders to cut or beat the branches of the trees, because it was cruel. So for centuries they have not pruned the trees, and instead of picking the olives they let them fall to the ground by themselves, spreading nets beneath the trees to catch them. But the Greek government has decreed that olive trees must be pruned in order to maintain peak productivity.
The Venetians were responsible for the widespread, systematic planting of olives on the island, which reached its peak in the 16th century. They wanted to ensure their city would never run short of oil. The Venetians gave ten gold pieces for every grove of 100 olive trees planted, and when they left it is said the islanders had nearly two million trees.
Today there are said to be 3-4 million trees and olives remain one of the main agricultural crops on Corfu. Trees bear fruit only every other year, and new trees may take 12 years to yield a first crop. In a good year the olive harvest lasts from January through till May.
Corfu’s olive oil is a dark, slightly greenish colour and is of high quality. Despite the abundance of trees, it can be surprisingly hard to find on Corfu. Locals keep most of it for their own use and the rest is exported to Italy.