Bringing Olive Oil Culture to Bulgaria

How an olive oil hobbyist turned certified sommelier is parlaying a passion into a career in education and beyond.

Anna Petkova at the Olive Oil Times Education Lab Sommelier Certification Program in September, 2018
Nov. 27, 2018
By Daniel Dawson
Anna Petkova at the Olive Oil Times Education Lab Sommelier Certification Program in September, 2018

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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.- Annie Petkova, My Pure Olive

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.

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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.


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