How an olive oil hobbyist turned certified sommelier is parlaying a passion into a career in education and beyond.
Annie Petkova is taking the plunge. After leaving her job in marketing at the food behemoth, Nestlé, she is dedicating herself full-time to her new startup, My Pure Olive.
“My idea is to educate Bulgarians about olive oil and to really enhance the culture of olive oil in Bulgaria,” Petkova told Olive Oil Times. “For them to know the difference between the types of olive oils.”
I want to illustrate that olive oil is not just for bread and salad. This is mostly the perception in Bulgaria.
However, Petkova’s decision to change the trajectory of her career is not something that happened overnight.
“This started about 12 years ago when I was working in Moscow,” she said. “I used to have an Italian boss and this is the moment when I started tasting olive oils, which were not supermarket olive oils. In a way, this changed my perception of olive oil and it created interest.”
Petkova hopes to use flavor to pique the interest of her fellow Bulgarians and parlay her new passion into a sustainable business endeavor.
She held her first olive oil tasting class at a Bulgarian wine forum last Sunday. The participants tasted olive oils from Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain, all of which are already being imported.
“We [did] a little journey in the Mediterranean basin,” she said.
Petkova’s decision to ultimately leave her job working both in premium chocolate and breakfast cereal at Nestlé also started with a journey in the Mediterranean basin.
Nine years after first tasting those olive oils with her boss in Moscow, she went to Portugal in order to do a professional wine tasting. Along with olive oil, Petkova is a wine enthusiast with a WSET level two tasting certification.
“The trigger was in Portugal,” she said. “I was near Porto, in the Douro Valley, doing some professional wine and olive oil tasting.”
“I thought, why not look for further information and learn more about olive oil because it was really an amazing experience?” she added.
This brought her to Italy, on the banks of Lake Garda, where she participated in a tasting course. One of the instructors on the course was Antonio Giuseppe Lauro, a judge for the NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition.
By this point, Petkova had already decided to leave Nestlé and use what she had learned there about the marketing side of the food industry as well as the overall business model to strike out on her own.
“Until two or three years ago, olive oil had been mostly a hobby of mine – trying different oils and also olives,” she said. “Then I really came to the moment when I wanted to be more focused and become an olive oil professional. There is a special emotion and energy that I feel with this tree.”
Upon completion of the class in Italy, Petkova wanted to continue expanding her knowledge and brainstorm, how exactly, to find her niche in the olive oil world. Lauro recommended that Petkova take the Olive Oil Times Education Lab sommelier certification course in New York last May.
“What changed with the sommelier course was it gave me more breadth and also the vision about the olive oil world as well as a lot of inspiration,” she said. “The course unlocked this project [My Pure Olive] and I decided really to go for it. To build an educational platform even without a commercial dimension in the beginning, really just to increase education.”
Petkova’s blog along with her most recent masterclass is where she is beginning to lay the groundwork of her educational platform. Along with the olive oil tasting, she spent a lot of time last Sunday explaining some basic olive oil knowledge.
Olive oil is not widely used in Bulgaria, with oilseeds, such as canola and sunflower, dominating the country’s domestic cooking oils market.
“In Bulgaria, unfortunately, we are not growing olive trees for oil or table olive production. It is mainly for decorative purposes,” she said. “Although the country is a neighbor to Turkey and Greece, so there are some areas where there might be an option for growing olives.”
“However, the climate here is more severe, with colder winters and later frosts,” she added. “Which might be why nobody has the courage to do this kind of thing.”
Petkova also used the course to dispel some commonly held, but incorrect, beliefs about cooking with olive oil that have taken hold in Bulgaria.
“There are also some taboos around olive oil, that for instance, we cannot cook with it because it becomes poisonous,” she said.
Petkova used a food pairing session to help drive the point home that olive oil is a healthy and stable fat for cooking. She also dedicates a lot of space on her blog to food pairing recipes, which she believes is the best way to get people interested in and interacting with olive oil.
“I want to illustrate that olive oil is not just for bread and salad,” she said. “This is mostly the perception in Bulgaria.”
For now, Petkova wants to help the Bulgarian public become more aware of olive oils that are already being imported into the country. For this, she will work with many of the same importers that were at the wine forum.
“The idea is to demonstrate oils which are already imported in Bulgaria,” she said. “Then I will also work with the importers in order to create awareness and more knowledge and to increase the purchase rate.”
Petkova believes that once more Bulgarians discover how high-quality olive oils taste, demand for them will increase.
“The situation in Bulgaria is talking about the quality of olive oil,” she said. “We don’t have much interest to buy quality or premium oils yet in the country.”
But when there is that interest, Petkova and My Pure Olive can take yet another plunge from an educational platform into a commercial one.