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The Greek Olive Oil You Should Buy Right Now — Here’s Why

Old olive trees in Kritsa, Crete. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Old olive trees in Kritsa, Crete. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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.

One such patriot is Aris Kefalogiannis, CEO of Gaea, a leading exporter of olive oil products. With what friends say is characteristic aplomb and imagination, Kefalogiannis thinks he has found a simple but effective solution: using income from sales of an exclusive high-quality organic extra virgin called Antiparos Agrilia Estate to fund a unique competition to promote young entrepreneurs.

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.

Single-estate solution

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

Zester Daily contributor Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of many books about Italy and the Mediterranean. Her most recent books are "Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil," published by Houghton Mifflin in February 2015, and "The Four Seasons of Pasta," published by Avery in October 2015.

  • Pebble Gifford 8·5·13

    I am rushing out to buy some!,

  • Ange T Kenos, ex Tsamandas, Filiates, Epirus now Australia 8·6·13

    Brilliant. I will buy one to try and if my wife is happy I will buy more AND tell the story. Work on others to buy too’

  • Dianne Edwards 8·6·13

    I will try to find some of this wonderful Greek olive oil here in San Jose, California. I buy Greek
    products regularly, but haven’t seen the “Cat Cora’s Kitchen” brand. I wish Mr. Kefalogiannis well!!

  • Richard 8·11·13

    The Greeks do not export their good olive oil and over half the extra virgin olive oil shipped to the US from various countries is fake.

  • June Pagan 8·13·13

    What about the staggering unemployment rates here in the United States? I prefer to support a California producer called Nuvo out of Oroville ,California. The 125 year old orchard has been revived, recently after years of neglect (imagine the polyphenols to survive the elements without care) and is producing a quality balanced oil. The young men that own it are hand picking the olives and a local artisan is pressing the oil. Buying from California producers is supporting the local farms and has lower carbon footprint. It is direct from the producer and every bottle is handled by them
    assuring quality. Each bottle has the crush date.

  • nancy Harmon Jenkins 8·13·13

    Thanks for that comment, June. It’s good to know about conscientious California producers–and there are many more of them besides the one you mentioned. But my point in the article was the truly staggering unemployment in Greece (42% among young people, as opposed to a little over 7% in the US) and creative ways we can help out as consumers of fine extra-virgin olive oil.

  • David Jester 8·14·13

    Dear Zester,

    Encouraging Americans to overpay ($38 a half-liter is highway robbery) for branded Greek olive oil is not going to “save Greek youth” or fix an economy that is “indeed broken.” (Zester might do better to focus on food-related rather than economic analysis.) Gaea is a for-profit entity whose chairman, according to his CV on the company’s website, doesn’t even speak Greek. So much for local! The Gaea website also states, “Our management team is well-tuned on creating shareholder value through the increase in business opportunities and broader access to markets.” In other words, business as usual. One can’t help but wonder what kind of margin Gaea is getting on this particular oil.

    Let us not confuse business with philanthropy. It is naïve and irresponsible, if not self-serving, for Zester to promote one specific product in the name of Greek economic recovery. Such an action is tantamount to overpaying for hotels and restaurants in Greece and does a grave disservice to the Greek people, who find themselves priced out of their local market, and to Zester readers, who surely are not dupes.


    David Jester

  • sally larhette 9·26·13

    Nancy, your views are greatly needed…your informed opinions have great substance and help
    us do more intelligent things.

    Olive oil is so fabulous,especially the best, no matter its cost, a little goes a long way
    lifting our spirits and faith for all things Good.

    Thank you!

  • Stamatis Alamanioitis 10·15·13

    Dear Mrs. Jenkins,
    Thank you very much for your supportive words regarding my country which is really undergoing a very difficult situation due to the austerity measures, political corruption and IMF practices that leads us in deep recession and has irretrievably destroy the economic and social structure of the country ,the future of new generations and our international profile. Despite to what politicians proclaimed in the media the situation is going to get worst in the very upcoming months. But this is a big story to discuss right now.

    Olive Tree in Greece is something more than cultivation and olive oil. It is our national culture, tradition and life history from the ancient times up today. There is no nation in the world to be more tie with olive tree as Greece is. There many places around Greece with strong & alive olive growing tradition that many people ignore.

    You are absolutely right, Greece is producing excellent quality of olive goods and of course amazing extra virgin olive oil which exporting in bulk mainly to Italy for many years in very low prices and afterward it is sold from “traders” in the international market in high prices because of the extremely high quality.

    Unfortunately the lack of national strategy and government support as a nation we did not succeed to place this miracle food in the right position in the global market and educating consumer about the benefits of this natural healthy olive good. We left this important issue to others who have already developed strong channels and knowledge to market-in our EVOO.

    All of a sudden in the middle of the recession when most of business sector are almost dead, everybody remembers EVOO and the important role that should have been playing in the national economy. And today Greece is full of experts and guru’s from inside country or abroad who comes here to teach us how to do right a job done perfectly for centuries from our ancestors and how to trade fast. And the funny thing is that these people are the one who are responsible for the national economy destruction. They are the one who continues to take state money for making profit against Greek producers.

    There are of course some private held companies that have developed some EVOO brands and and have promote these in different countries and sales channels, for example Gaea. But in the way they act there are helping neither National Economy nor Greek Olive Growing Sector. In fact they create much more problems.
    As you mention, and I agree, the backbone of olive growing in Greece is family, small to medium size business, that lacks the capital to invest, the knowledge and above everything the support and guidance from a central government institution. Even though there are some companies that are working seriously on olive goods issues and are trying to promote Greek Natural Products, there is no sufficient Strategy Positioning and central direction and every firm is working just for profit in a fast changed global environment in way that don’t built nothing stable for the long run. There is no kind of link between Olive Growing, Olive Oil Production and Olive Oil Promotion System.

    Olive Oil companies in Greece buying the EVOO in very low prices that normally don’t exceed 1.80 to 2.00 euros per kgr, a price that is under the break-even point of the business operation. In other words the buying price is much lower than the cultivation costs. Recent example, the harvest year 2012/2013 Greece produces one the best EVOO of the last 50 maybe 80 years and its been sold in an average of 2.10 euros per kg. Of course this is not the real price for buying pure and fresh real EVOO with high level of phenols that support our health.
    As costs are increased month by month and as they don’t have working capital to continue the olive groves cultivation they are forced to sell in low prices to cover their business and everyday life needs.

    Food & EVOO companies, if really want to help olive growers, mainly the young one, they should give a fair price for they products in order to help them to survive firstly.
    Instead of giving personal exposure, small grants and financial awards that will be of minor importance very soon they should help young people to develop a strong olive growing background.. they must give them …Resources for Research…Business know How…Training …Equal Opportunities…Fair Trade Practices ..and mostly they must inspire them and give them …a Vision to set up something that will change the olive growing sector for better. If they don’t support Greek Olive Growing Sector ……sooner or later…they won’t be able to sell Greek Olive products. As no one will be able to cultivate olive trees.

    The current socio-economic environment in Greece with almost 3.000.000 unemployed…no kind of development….no plans…no available resources…hard and unfair Tax System…and the gathering of capital and trade power in the very few “hands”…I think do not help at all.
    Any kind of such Social Responsibility Programs like Gaea “projects”.. applied from companies are rather for promotional purposes and nothing more. The Greek economy needs substance and ethics not tricky tactics.

    I am willing to go into more detail about Gaea corporate practices in Greece that harm the industry if you are interested let me know.

    Kind Regards,
    Stamatis Alamaniotis
    Athens,Greece ,

  • roberta nelson 11·10·13

    Interesting comments. Why Greek olive oil has been such a secret to a mass market is beyond me. I’ve been purchasing 100% single source Greek olive oil for many years thru minos imports.
    Someone must be watching for the newest harvest to come on because so many of the brands are sold out immediately without the penny pinching issues. For some, the specialty garnishing olive oils are are out their budget but that olive oil is not to be squandered in a salad dressing.
    When I order it’s usually 3 different brands, 3 different price points for different uses in my kitchen.
    I’m a simple cook who takes pride in the meals I prepare. I’ve tried the Cat Cora brand and it’s outstanding compared to say Bertolli but when it stands next to other Greek single source olive oils, it’s ok.

  • Phil Spyrou (B.Pharm) 5·12·15

    Congratulations to Aris on his excellent work in reviving the Greek economy! We must do more to promote the outstanding quality of olive oils in Greece.

  • wayne 5·8·16

    Am I able to buy the olive oil in Australia?

  • Nancy Harmon Jenkins 5·17·16

    Wayne, I’m sorry to say, I don’t know anything at all about the Australian market. Why not check with a local gourmet products store and ask them.