My cousin Maggie and her husband, Angus, are staying with us on Corfu. They are farmers in Pembrokeshire (west Wales) and immensely useful guests. Angus has sorted out a plumbing blockage in the bathroom, smoothed the rubble that fills the new terrace, helped me clear the construction site that used to be our parking place and lay a drain across the driveway. Ah, the romance of an Ionian holiday!
Some years ago, they stayed on Crete and fell for the heavy, unfiltered, cloudy olive oil they found there. The Corfiot olive farmers I know prefer the topaz-bright, clear, golden oil of the island’s lianolia olives and call that mirky Cretan stuff “sump oil, ” but I wondered if anyone here pressed such a product. My koubaros, Philip, suggested there might be a place—a convent about ten kilometers inland near the village of Aghia Douloi. He gave us directions and off we went.
The convent (Iero Isichastirio Pantokratoras Kamarela) is a place of amazing serenity in a shallow valley filled with extremely old and magnificent olive trees, a small vineyard, a vegetable garden and a tree-shaded meadow where a handful of ewes graze. We approached the great black iron gates with some trepidation, not knowing whether visitors were even welcome. The olive trees in the courtyard of the convent were lifted above ground level as if they were in round flower beds made of stone and surrounded by other plants. We saw a nun watering a different part of the garden. She was less than five feet tall, dressed in a black habit and tightly fitted black wimple and a pair of blue wellington boots. Her hose was as thick as her arm—the sort of thing a fireman uses—and delivered hundreds of gallons a minute to the fecund garden.
While we hung back, Wendy went up to her and introduced herself, complimenting the nun on the flowers and asking advice about one of our own trees that had been severely stressed by July’s week of 42-degree heat. We all got on very well and were soon joined by two of the other sisters, who showed us round and brought us soft bread flavoured with fennel seeds and glasses of cold water from their well. Five nuns now live in the convent, farm the olives and grapes organically, make feta cheese from the sheep and bay-scented olive oil soap which they sell. Typical Corfiot monasteries are consciously austere; this convent is quite the opposite. The nuns have decorated every available space in amazingly creative ways—with formal mosaics, paintings, wreaths and garlands. Here stones and shells have been set in cement, there a door carved to represent Christ knocking on the door of the soul. House martins dart in under the eaves and cling to a mosaic of a saint; under the pergola by the well, where we sat to break our bread, four painted angels smiled down upon us… The whole place is immensely cheerful and merry—as are the nuns themselves.
They press the oil in the old fashioned way, crushing the olives and shovelling the pulp and stones into rope baskets which are then soaked with cold water and squeezed in the press. Hot water would bring out more oil but the heat changes its properties, hence the value of cold pressing. They bottle the oil and sell it under their own label, a label which states that the olive trees at the convent are 1700 years old. Hmm. Yes, they were huge and stately but 1700 would be an almost miraculous age… Maybe that is the point. Anyway, we weren’t about to question the point with the nuns who had been so friendly and hospitable in their pious Shangri-La. And the oil was delicious—a fine example of Corfiot lianolia—clear and golden, mild and fruity: not what my cousin was hoping for, but you can’t win them all.