Greece’s agony is painful to watch. For those who know and love the country, the long fiscal battering, now in its third year, has often seemed excruciating, most of all, of course, for the Greek people, especially the young, who face a staggering unemployment rate of 54%. But there are ways to help, small perhaps but nonetheless significant. One is to seek out, buy and use some of Greece’s many fine food exports. Extra virgin olive oil should be at the top of that shopping list.
Patriotic Greeks, not content to sit by, are looking for ways to encourage not just economic recovery but the development of a new generation of innovative thinkers, which the country so desperately needs.
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Kefalogiannis is what would be called in France a négociant of fine extra virgin olive oil. He doesn’t actually produce oil himself and has no ancient trees to show off to visitors. Instead, he works with existing producers to promote and market high-quality olive oil and olive products. Gaea is a specialty foods giant, with award-winning olive oils and other olive-based products — such as tapénades and cooking sauces — in its inventory. In the U.S., the products are sold under the “Cat Cora’s Kitchen” brand.
Extra virgin export
Greece is primarily what economists call a domestic demand-oriented economy, meaning most products are geared to the domestic market. It has the lowest ratio of exports to gross domestic products, or GDP, in the European Union, just 27% (compared to the EU-wide average of 45%). Most experts think Greece should be selling more abroad — much more. And olive oil, given the high quality of Greek production, should have a big role to play. Keep in mind that about three-quarters of all the oil produced in Greece is extra virgin — unlike Italy, for instance, where extra virgin accounts for a little less than half, or Spain where it is barely a third of total oil production. Most of this extra virgin comes from modest family farms, the backbone of the country’s agricultural economy. But such small enterprises find it difficult to compete on the international scale, lacking both investment capital and marketing skills necessary to play the game.
The statistics surrounding Greek olive oil production are amazing. First off, Greeks consume more olive oil per capita, by far, than any other people in the world — 18 kilos or nearly 40 pounds per person annually, according to the European Commission. (By comparison, Italians consume a little less than 11 kilos — about 24 pounds — each, while the U.S. is still less than a measly kilo). A third of all Greek oil is exported to other countries, mostly extra virgin, mostly to the European Union. But 90% of that is sold in bulk to Italian and Spanish packagers who either bottle and rebrand the oil or blend it with more expensive home-produced oil to make the kind of cheap, indifferent oils found in supermarkets all over the world. Only 10% of this remarkable product is exported in branded bottles.
For consumers aware of the price commanded by a bottle of premium quality Italian, French or Spanish oil, or for anyone who has experienced the quality of top Greek olive oils, there is something inherently odd about such high-quality extra virgin oil being sold off as a cheap bulk commodity. True, no one is forcing Greek producers to sell in bulk, but the olive oil market, like most agricultural niche markets around the world, is deeply conservative. The Italian market for Greek oil has always been there, going back probably several millennia, so why change things now? In short, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Tapping a young market with Greek olive oil
But Greece’s economy is indeed broken. Faced with a steady drain of exactly the youthful population that should be helping to put Greece back on track, Kefalogiannis has set up a think tank where young Greeks, straight out of high school or university, present business plans for evaluation by a group of expert judges who then select the 10 most likely to succeed. Each of the 10 winners is awarded seed capital amounting to 25,000 euros (about $32,500) plus a low-interest loan from a reliable Greek bank, plus access to Gaea’s broad international distribution network.
The whole project, “Reinspiring Greece from the Youth Up,” is funded through sales of Agrilia, a remarkable single-estate, certified organic olive oil from Antiparos, a tiny Cycladic island in the heart of the Aegean. The oil, which comes mostly from the favorite Greek olive variety koroneiki, is extraordinarily high in polyphenols — 550 mg per kilogram at the time of processing. High polyphenols mean the oil is not only exceptionally healthful, but also that it has a long life, protected by its own polyphenols from the taint of rancidity.
When I heard about the program, I rushed to buy a bottle of the oil through the Greek America Foundation, which sponsors the project.
So what does Antiparos Agrilia Estate oil taste like?
In short, it’s an outstanding oil, beautifully balanced among the three critical points of fruitiness, bitterness and pungency. (That last characteristic is an indication of the presence of polyphenols.) I found delicious hints of apple and fresh almond, and a balanced roundness, without the least hint of greasiness or fatty textures.
This is an oil to reserve for garnishing. Dolloped generously over buffalo-milk mozzarella or a fresh goat’s milk cheese or added at the table to a plain bowl of pasta with tomato sauce or a hearty beans-and-greens soup, it will take such simple dishes to heights of elegance. At $38 for a 17-ounce bottle, Agrilia Estate is not cheap, but it’s worth it: It’s worth it to support Aris Kefalogiannis’s generous vision, it’s worth it to celebrate the potential of Greek recovery, and it’s worth it to experience one of Greece’s finest products.
Top photo: Old olive trees in Kritsa, Crete. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins