In 1978, a skinny leather-clad biker was prowling the floor of the canteen at Havelock House, a Newcastle University residence hall. Marcus Milton had temporarily severed his relationship with the University (code for cocked up his exams) and was displaying his early entrepreneurial tendencies by talking his way into free meal and board from a naive, unsuspecting first year student (code for me).
From these inauspicious beginnings via dispatch riding, authoring computer books and writing adverts for Triumph Motorcycles (Marcus), and coal mining, round the world cycling and plundering exotic markets in the Far East (me), a lifetime of friendship found us 30 years later in shorts and T-shirts in a baking hot mid-November, quaffing Retsina and picking olives from bountiful trees in our very own olive groves in Western Crete. The reason? We are now ‘Accidental Olive Farmers’.
I have to give credit to Marcus and his wife Kirsty for the enviable position we found ourselves in. If not for their decision some 10 years ago to ditch the pressure-cooker existence of running their successful advertising agency for the comparative leisure of owning half of the Peak District (well, a couple of large holiday homes anyway), I would still be flogging my way around Asia selling semiconductor equipment instead of taking a relaxing lunch of fresh bread and feta surrounded by the aforementioned trees in the shadows of the beautiful White Mountains of Crete.
In 2004, Marcus and Kirsty had decided to expand their UK holiday homes business overseas and Crete was their choice of location. I am not sure why they asked me and my wife Tina to join the venture, I like to think it was my renowned business skill and entrepreneurial flair and Tina’s cooking but it was probably that they were short a few quid. After suckering me out of a plate of chips in 1978, Marcus thought he would have no problem suckering me out of a few grand in 2004.
In the beginning, olive oil was the furthest thing from our minds: we find a nice parcel of land, we buy the land, we build some lovely villas and Babis is your Uncle.
We now had four beautiful rental villas plus a fifth we kept private for ourselves. Each with their own swimming pool, nestled in an olive grove with spectacular mountains surrounding them and the Mediterranean sea just a short stagger down the road. A holiday haven now populated with relaxed, contented guests, enjoying a little bit of paradise we had created for them.
Things were working out but with the success of the villas and the pleasure of frequent trips to Crete for maintenance work and family holidays, we were not seeing the wood for the olive trees. The 200 odd trees on our land were for us a marketing bonus. How much easier to attract people for a holiday to the villas if we could encourage them with images of verdant olive trees providing shade on beautiful summer days. We had something to stick a table and chairs under for a nice lunch in the sun, a selling point and we left it at that.
At the end of our first renting season the heavily laden trees had to be harvested. Our good friend Christos, son of a local sheep farmer and waiter in our favourite restaurant, was more than happy to do the job in return for 50% of the resulting oil. As for the other 50%? Bung a few litres to friends and family as a Christmas gift and use the remainder ourselves. The ‘remainder’ turned out to be about 300 litres! I pour a lot on my salads, but that is going some!
Still the light didn’t go on. But then we tasted the oil. Wow! I have tasted a lot of olive oil in my travels around the world – from plastic sachets in American fast food joints to the finest oil at upmarket restaurants in Rome – but this was something special. The look, the taste, the glorious pepper kick. This oil was fantastic and not to be wasted. I was reconciled to eating about 50 bowls of salad a day and force feeding the neighbour’s dog when someone put their hand up with an idea. Whether it was Marcus, Kirsty or Tina is still disputed but it was certainly not me (I was on my 9th bowl of salad at the time). “We could start an olive oil business,” someone said.
An olive oil business! The other 3 of us jumped at the idea. We had the trees so we had the product and we had the team. Marcus (an expert advertising writer to promote the business and build the websites), Kirsty (a top-notch graphic designer to create the labels and the look of the bottle), Tina (with a great network of contacts in our target market area) and … someone to make the tea. I put the kettle on and we started to plan.