Sunday, April 10, 2016

Greek Liquid Gold: Authentic Extra Virgin Olive Oil in Crete and Athens

Cretan Olive Oil Champions 

Three weeks ago, on a rare solitary drive beyond Crete’s Souda Bay, I climbed and descended hills on curving roads bordered by towering dark green pine, cypress, and eucalyptus trees, clusters of reeds and plane trees near riverbeds, brilliant yellow acacia trees, and light green emerging spring leaves. I passed olive groves stretched out below mountains and long beaches lying next to a deep blue sea. I sped along under a bright blue sky decorated with billowy cumulus clouds in varying shades of white and grey. Every time I drive from Chania to Rethymno, I am so impressed by the scenery that I must fight off the desire to stop and photograph the view.

I continued on my way to the 2nd Cretan Olive Oil Competition awards ceremony in Rethymno, which turned out to be a combination of the ceremony I expected and a short conference about olive oil production, marketing, and quality analysis. My limited Greek left me with only a general idea of the points being made, but I was struck by the way the judges and panel leaders represented a cooperation between Greeks (such as International Olive Council trainer of olive oil tasters Effie Christopoulou) and Italians (especially agronomist, olive cultivation expert, and consultant Antonio Lauro) in the olive oil sector. 

I also understood that the judges praised this year’s considerable improvement over last year’s extra virgin olive oil samples (in the first Cretan Olive Oil Competition). In fact, the judges were so impressed by the quality of this year’s samples and the very small differences among the best oils that they decided to award a number of honorable mentions. Since I have not seen the full results of the 2nd Cretan Olive Oil Competition announced anywhere in English, I list all the winners, including honorable mentions, below this article.

Before the awards ceremony, the governor of Crete, Stavros Arnaoutakis, and the mayor of Rethymno, Giorgos Marinakis (who’s also president of SEDIK, the Association of Cretan Olive Municipalities), emphasized the importance of the “brand name” of Crete and the Cretan diet. While I’d never thought of these as “brand names” before, the governor and the mayor had a point: these words could be used that way, especially since the Agronutritional Cooperation and the Region of Crete have begun certifying certain high-quality locally grown produce and traditional products with the Quality Label “CRETE.”

The mayor discussed the need to forge more links between tourism and Cretan cuisine and products, so tourists taste and purchase more local products such as olive oil. I’ve heard this argument before, and it seems self-evident to me: Greece has wonderful fresh, local agricultural products and foods which all my non-Greek visitors rave over. Tourists’ discoveries of incredible food and drink here should carry over into a desire to take some of that home with them, and then to import it to their home country. This would benefit everyone: tourists would have excellent healthy products, they would help improve the struggling Greek economy, and they could introduce their family and friends to Greek products as well as sharing stories about Greek beaches and archaeological sites.

Food Expo Greece

The day after my trip to Rethymno, I woke before dawn—not an easy feat for me--for an early flight to Athens and a day-long visit to the Food Expo that was conveniently located a short shuttle bus ride from the airport. It was my first visit to a major trade fair, aside from book publishers’ exhibits at the large literature conferences I attended back when I was still an English professor in the U.S.A. The Food Expo’s scale was impressive, with its 55,000 visitors from 55 countries and more than 970 Greek and international exhibitors, including 153 exhibiting olive oil—my main interest, as an Olive Oil Times correspondent covering the event and manager of the Greek Liquid Gold: Authentic Extra Virgin Olive Oil Facebook page.

Wandering around the 55,000 square meter Metropolitan Expo site, I must have covered many American football fields’ worth of territory that day, from the Oenotelia international trade fair for wine and spirits to the Mediterranean Food Experience with its exhibits of products from different regions of Greece, its group of white-clad chefs tasting the dishes prepared below and projected on a movie-theater-sized screen, and its audience listening to interviews and enjoying samples.

I spent most of my time meeting with dozens of olive oil businesspeople, talking with them and sampling their extra virgin olive oils, as well as small appetizers, snacks, and vinegars. Many were excellent, but I think my favorite sample was the chocolate mousse with olive oil offered by E-LA-WON. I never would have guessed chocolate and olive oil made such an incredible combination, but try it with a really good extra virgin olive oil, and you’ll see how amazing it is. E-LA-WON’s luxury olive oil with bits of real edible gold flakes floating in the liquid gold of the oil was also visually and conceptually striking, although I didn’t get to taste it.

It was exciting to see such a vibrant illustration, at the Food Expo, of what motivated Greek businesspeople can do, even in the midst of a continuing economic crisis. Everyone I talked with offered high-quality products in attractive containers, and they spoke with confidence about their contacts with international buyers. Moreover, many simply seemed like nice people to talk with. Forget the stereotypes of lazy Greeks and Greek inefficiency; I saw the opposite at the bustling, well organized Food Expo. This is not an advertisement; it’s the truth.

Before I came to Greece with my PhD in English and my love of photography, I was more interested in academics and artists than businesspeople. But since I have started learning and writing about the Greek olive oil industry, I have come to understand that good, conscientious businesspeople, including talented marketers and designers as well as intelligent olive oil bottlers and exporters, can do a great deal to help the hard-working producers of olive oil earn a fair living. Together, all of these people can—and should--help the Greek economy recover, if the end product is a high-quality item that is marketed well to bring the price it deserves.

Overall, I found the Food Expo an invigorating, encouraging sign of hope for Greece, its people, and its economy. And I hope the foreign buyers there will order a lot from their Greek contacts. As Philippe Poli of Philippos Hellenic Goods told me, just "like you have different wines, you can have different [olive] oils each day, sold together in a shop." Hear, hear, international buyers! Order a wonderful assortment of Greek extra virgin olive oils, and offer your customers impressive health benefits as well as excellent tasting oils. Individual consumers can either ask their local supermarkets and gourmet stores to order Greek olive oils, or go to companies’ websites to order. (See the Greek Liquid Gold Facebook page for links to many of these websites.)

Return to the Cretan Spring

It was refreshing to return from the vicinity of the Athens airport to the blossoms, blue sea, and sky of the Cretan spring, but we were hit by the worst dust storm I’ve ever seen a day later. It blew out the large plate glass window on our elementary school patio, so school was dismissed early. In place of our view of the Mediterranean sea, hills, and mountains we saw a strange gray-orange haze of African dust.

By the end of that week, however, we could once again enjoy the calm touch of a Greek island spring and the extensive  array of Cretan wildflowers in and around my neighborhood: giant fennel rising like little trees from a feathery light green base to spherical clusters of golden yellow florets at the end of multiple branches; Cretan rock roses with five delicate pink crepe paper petals surrounding a miniature sun; the soft lavender spikes of thistles above their treacherously sharp leaves; my beloved fuschia field gladiolas beneath the tiny white blossoms of olive trees; bizarre little pink tongue orchids between the trees; and radiant gold and white crown daisies bordering roadsides. Ah, spring in Crete! A few tourists are here, but most will miss this season’s beauty. More should come early, so they don’t miss the wildflowers!

Winners and Honorable Mentions at the 2nd Cretan Olive Oil Competition

In two categories, conventional and organic

Conventional Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Gold ELEA (or “olive”): Liokarpi PDO, a Koroneiki monovarietal (that is, an extra virgin olive oil made only from the Koroneiki variety of olives, the most common type of olives in Crete) from Emmanouil Protogerakis Sons

Silver ELEA: Omega, a Koroneiki/Tsounati blend from Kardia Food

Bronze ELEA: Toplou Sitia, a Koroneiki from Biokalliergites Sitias

Honorable Mentions (all but one Koroneiki monovarietals)
Amphorae from AS Messaras

Plora – Prince of Crete and Euripidis Messara PDO from Euripides AE

Cretan Prince from Botzakis

Drop of Gods from Bio Kritika Elaiolada Mon. EPE

Crete Gold PDO Kolymvari from Kreta Food EPE

Kakoulaki from Kyralaki Theonymphi

Extra Partheno Elaiolado Assargiotakis from Assargiotakis Ioannis

Kreta Koumadorakis Olive Noel, a Tsounati from Kreta Koumadorakis Olive Noel

Terra Zakros from Nikolaos Ailamakis

Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Gold ELEA: Liokarpi Bio, a Koroneiki from Emmanouil Protogerakis Sons

Silver ELEA: Kardia Tsounati, a Tsounati from Kardia Food

Bronze ELEA: Kardia Koroneiki, a Koroneiki from Kardia Food

Honorable Mentions (all Koroneiki monovarietals):

Terra Creta Organic from Terra Creta

Toplou Sitia Bio from Biokallergites Siteias AE

Evlogia from Biokritika Elaiolada Mon. EPE

Oliviennos from Olivos Gourniezakis Ioannis & Sia EE

Ladi Bio from Tsouderos EPE

For more photos, olive oil news, recipes, and information, including links to articles about the health benefits of olive oil and the websites of award-winning Greek extra virgin olive oils, see this Facebook page: Greek Liquid Gold: Authentic Extra Virgin Olive Oil

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