Business

An Olive Oil 'Odyssey' at Winter Fancy Food

Jan. 21, 2015
By Athan Gadanidis

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Greek olive oil at the Winter Fancy Food Show made in impact this year through a sem­i­nar called “The Great Olive Oil Odyssey.” The event was orga­nized by SEVITEL, the Greek asso­ci­a­tion of olive oil proces­sors and related indus­tries.

The sem­i­nar was intro­duced by Aris Kefalogiannis, CEO of the Mediterranean foods com­pany Gaea and Filio Myrtsidou, a mar­ket­ing con­sul­tant.

Myrtsidou is an ener­getic sup­porter of Greek olive oil brand­ing who was one of three female par­tic­i­pants in the Routes of the Olive Tree in 2008 — a 52-day, 23,000 km motor­cy­cle jour­ney from ancient Messinia in the Peloponnese along the Silk Road to carry a sym­bolic “flame of peace” and a 4,000 year-old olive wreath to 14 coun­tries, arriv­ing in China for the 2008 Olympics.

The first speaker, Dan Flynn direc­tor of the UC Davis Olive Center, made an inspired pre­sen­ta­tion titled “Beyond Extra Virgin” explain­ing why not all extra vir­gins are the same, and why chem­i­cal test­ing alone is not the final mea­sure of EVOO excel­lence.

UC Davis has been steadily expand­ing their organolep­tic edu­ca­tional and train­ing pro­grams. Flynn explained why some EVOOs can pass chem­i­cal analy­ses “with flying colors” and be judged defec­tive by organolep­tic experts.

A defect can occur during at any of the many stages of extra virgin olive oil pro­duc­tion and bot­tling. Flynn said you first need to start with a good olive fruit vari­ety, har­vested in a proper manner, at the right time and milled within the same day. Then it msut be stored, bot­tled, pack­aged, trans­ported and, finally, deliv­ered to the cus­tomer — all under opti­mum con­di­tions.

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The type of mill also plays a role in the qual­ity of the EVOO as does the tem­per­a­ture during the malax­a­tion stage. If water is used in the extrac­tion process it must be less than 27ºC and kept to a min­i­mum in order to main­tain the full range of aroma and taste char­ac­ter­is­tics.

Flynn reminded us the olive is a fruit and EVOO is the juice of the olive. Unlike oils chem­i­cally extracted from nuts or seeds, EVOO is extremely sen­si­tive to light, heat and oxygen and can dete­ri­o­rate very rapidly. A well-trained organolep­tic expert can iden­tify defects in any of the stages of pro­duc­tion. Some defects cannot be detected by chem­i­cal analy­sis alone. After a thor­ough chem­i­cal analy­sis, taste is indeed the final arbiter of excel­lence for EVOO.

Flynn expressed his sup­port for the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) method and affirmed a col­lab­o­ra­tion with American Farm school in Thessaloniki which is mod­eled after the UC Davis Olive Center in California. An aca­d­e­mic mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary group was cre­ated and has the task of con­nect­ing with olive indus­try offi­cials to exam­ine olive tree cul­ti­va­tion and olive oil making processes in Greece.

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Many Greek EVOO pro­duc­ers have not under­stood the impor­tance of sub­mit­ting their EVOOs to olive oil com­pe­ti­tions. Flynn believes they are becom­ing more impor­tant than ever. A thor­ough chem­i­cal analy­sis cou­pled with a com­pe­ti­tion award, or an organolep­tic analy­sis con­ducted by a well known expert, is an excel­lent way to gain the cus­tomer’s con­fi­dence, Flynn explained, and an effec­tive call­ing card when enter­ing a new ter­ri­tory, espe­cially true for the U.S. market.

Next up was Prokopios Magiatis and Eleni Melliou, the team who invented the NMR method of mea­sur­ing the indi­vid­ual phe­no­lic com­pounds in extra virgin olive oil. They con­tinue to dis­cover new test­ing meth­ods and phe­no­lic com­pounds in EVOO and they out­lined how the emer­gence of the NMR method has con­tributed to an expanded aware­ness of the high qual­ity of Greek olive oil and the best ways to raise the qual­ity even fur­ther.

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Across Greece small inde­pen­dent grow­ers are achiev­ing com­mer­cial suc­cess and estab­lish­ing brands by pro­duc­ing high-phe­no­lic EVOOs com­bined with excel­lent organolep­tic char­ac­ter­is­tics.

The team pre­sented their new hand-held col­ori­met­ric method of mea­sur­ing oleo­can­thal and olea­cein in a test tube.

The last lec­ture was pre­sented by Kostas Peimanidis who is an accred­i­ta­tion sys­tems and PDO cer­ti­fi­ca­tion con­sul­tant. He gave a stir­ring call to action for the Greek olive oil indus­try by iden­ti­fy­ing the progress that has been made over the last few years and also the work that still needs to be done.

Today, Greek olive oil imports account for 1.7 per­cent of the U.S. market, dwarfed by Spanish and Italian olive oils who enjoy a com­bined 87 per­cent of market share. Peimanidis men­tioned that one out of twenty Greeks have a direct family rela­tion to an olive grove.

Sensory analy­sis is a must he agreed, and although the PDO seal is a guar­an­tee of authen­tic­ity and trace­abil­ity, taste and smell is what makes the dif­fer­ence. The Technological Educational Institute of Kalamata accred­ited to ISO 17025 for organolep­tic assess­ment of virgin olive oil is a sig­nif­i­cant sci­en­tific “tool” for select­ing the best EVOO, he added.

Peimanidis also drew atten­tion to the offi­cial State Seal of California, which con­tains the image of Athena who accord­ing to Greek mythol­ogy gifted the olive tree to Athens. It also includes the Greek word Eureka (“I dis­cov­ered it”). Eureka is the word the ancient scholar Archimedes uttered when he dis­cov­ered what is known in physics as the Archimedes prin­ci­ple of buoy­ancy while taking a bath (287 BC– 212 BC).

The “Great Olive Oil Odyssey” was thus rede­fined by Peimanidis as the “Greek Olive Oil Odyssey.” The Odyssey is a metaphor for the long jour­ney ahead for Greek olive oil to increase its pres­ence in the U.S.

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Peimanidis, in his quest to inspire new efforts to market Greek olive oil in the U.S., also pro­posed that Athens and the California city of Davis could form a sort of broth­er­hood rela­tion­ship to high­light their close rela­tion­ship. Athens rep­re­sent­ing the myth­i­cal origin of the olive tree, and California and UC Davis their never-ending quest for excel­lence – αἰὲν ἀριστεύειν (ever to excel) derived from the sixth book of Homer’s Iliad and their shared love for excel­lent EVOO.

I also met with Alkiviadis Kalabokis, man­ag­ing direc­tor of Great Exhibitions com­pany, who orga­nizes edu­ca­tional and pro­mo­tional events for Greek prod­ucts. He wanted to convey a more pos­i­tive per­spec­tive on the state of the Greek olive oil indus­try, and specif­i­cally for Crete. “Crete is a leader in branded EVOO exports and has gone from export­ing 95 per­cent of their EVOO in bulk to now export­ing less than 70 per­cent,” he said. “Their efforts are bear­ing fruit,” he said emphat­i­cally.

Indeed in recent arti­cles I have focused more on the prob­lems the Greek olive oil indus­try needs to focus on and yet I have vis­ited many inde­pen­dent olive grow­ers across Greece and been astounded at their will­ing­ness to keep work­ing in the olive groves with very little if any finan­cial return.

Many have lost money now for the second year in a row, either by mis­man­age­ment of the fruit fly prob­lem or by the ever-increas­ing costs of doing busi­ness. Not only have they lost prof­its but they had to sell off assets to pay debts. Some had no choice but to sell high qual­ity EVOO in bulk at rock bottom prices. Their unbend­ing will to con­tinue is a source of great inspi­ra­tion.

Meanwhile, those who were able to hold on to their EVOO pro­duc­tion are being rewarded. Bulk prices for EVOO across Greece are hold­ing steady above €3 per kilo and it is becom­ing dif­fi­cult to find anyone will­ing to sell at these prices.

Prices are expected to rise rapidly from here. Recent high winds, snow and rain across Greece have caused severe losses to the remain­ing har­vest pro­duc­tion and the losses are not yet reflected in the latest prices for Greek EVOO in bulk. Truth is, if the farm­ers had more sup­port from the banks to finance har­vest­ing costs, none of them would have sold at low prices so early to cover their imme­di­ate expenses.