` The Olive Merchant - Olive Oil Times

The Olive Merchant

Jun. 17, 2011
Charlie Higgins

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In the days before the mod­ern super­mar­ket adopted a one-size-fits-all approach to food dis­tri­b­u­tion, con­sumers pur­chased their cheese, meat, veg­eta­bles and other goods from indi­vid­ual busi­nesses spe­cial­iz­ing in one or two prod­ucts at most. What they sac­ri­ficed in con­ve­nience by not hav­ing every­thing under one roof they gained in the qual­ity of ser­vice and exper­tise they received at these smaller, fam­ily-run operations.

Situated on a sunny street cor­ner in the his­toric neigh­bor­hood of Almagro in Buenos Aires, La Casa de Las Aceitunas (The Olive House) is one of those rare places that main­tain the age-old tra­di­tion of the neigh­bor­hood shop, its iden­tity inex­tri­ca­bly tied to the past. Even in a city rife with nos­tal­gia, where crum­bling European-style hacien­das offer con­stant reminders of its glory days, this unique locale is a dusty gem you’d be hard-pressed to find any­where else.

Upon enter­ing, the pal­pa­ble aroma of fresh olives ema­nat­ing from the dozen 40-gal­lon bar­rels that crowd the floor imme­di­ately draws you in. Dusty jars filled with pick­led this and that line the shelves, from which old por­traits of Argentine celebri­ties hang, mod­est tes­ta­ments to the store’s local pres­tige. One shelf is ded­i­cated entirely to olive oil, which is sold accord­ing to size in bot­tles bear­ing the fam­ily name.

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Liliana Katsaounis rep­re­sents the third gen­er­a­tion and first female in a line of devoted own­ers at La Casa de Las Aceitunas, which has occu­pied the same build­ing since its found­ing. Her great-uncle Constantino, a Greek immi­grant who had sold Cointreau and wine in the old coun­try, opened the store in August of 1958 and soon part­nered up with Liliana’s father. Together they worked year in year out to estab­lish a loyal clien­tele of olive lovers until their near-simul­ta­ne­ous deaths in 1995.

At that time in 58,” Liliana told us one morn­ing before busy hours, you had the cen­tral mar­ket of Abasto on Avenida Corrientes, and each busi­ness in the neigh­bor­hood spe­cial­ized in cer­tain prod­ucts. You had places that sold cheese, olives, wine, any­thing really. In the case of my great-uncle, he decided to sell olives exclu­sively. And it stayed that way until my hus­band and I offi­cially took over in 2000. We had to adapt to the times a lit­tle to fit changes in con­sumer habits and the eco­nomic real­i­ties in this coun­try. That’s why we started sell­ing kosher products.”

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Almagro is home to one of the largest Jewish pop­u­la­tions in Buenos Aires, and La Casa de Las Aceitunas hap­pens to be one of the only places in the city where you can find the big, juicy black olives cen­tral to Israeli and Mediterranean cuisine.

Our olives come from two main provinces in Argentina,” she explains. 80 per­cent come from Mendoza; these are the stan­dard green olives we offer. The remain­ing 20 per cent are black olives from La Rioja province, where they flour­ish. This has to do with cli­matic dif­fer­ences between the two regions. It’s these black olives, called negras nat­u­rales, that attract so many Jewish con­sumers.” In addi­tion, La Casa de Las Aceitunas imports hum­mus, tab­bouleh, cous­cous and other regional prod­ucts pop­u­lar among this group.

Green olives, a ubiq­ui­tous pizza top­ping in a city of pizza addicts, are also big sell­ers, along with extra vir­gin olive oil. They form the heart of the busi­ness, says Liliana, and the Katsaounis have been buy­ing them both from the same fam­ily-run olive vine­yard in Mendoza since 1958. Both local pizze­rias and neigh­bor­hood fam­i­lies pur­chase the prod­ucts in bulk on a reg­u­lar basis. Some par­tic­u­larly loyal cus­tomers have been com­ing each week to fill up their two-gal­lon jugs with olive oil for over twenty years.

The oil we sell here is first press extra vir­gin; it’s so fla­vor­ful and pure because it’s not mixed with any­thing. You go to the super­mar­ket and grab a bot­tle of olive oil and say wow that’s so cheap,’ but you don’t read the fine print. Maybe it’s mixed with sun­flower oil or other things you don’t want. Our oil is some­thing spe­cial, though it does have its cost.”

Running a tra­di­tional busi­ness like La Casa de Las Aceitunas is not always a walk in the park, and a vari­ety of fac­tors have caused set­backs and chal­lenges for the Katsaounis over the years, Liliana points out.

One fac­tor affect­ing the busi­ness is the high cost of impor­ta­tion because we sell a lot of imported prod­ucts from the Mediterranean. Another fac­tor has to do with cli­mate change and man’s exploita­tion of the nat­ural world. Near Mendoza, for exam­ple, they’ve built these mines in the glac­i­ers, which affects the water qual­ity and in turn the olive har­vest. Maybe not today or tomor­row but the prob­lem is there.”

Despite these set­backs, the own­ers of La Casa de Las Aceitunas have man­aged to main­tain the store’s iden­tity over the years and stick to what they do best. Liliana has tried to instill this com­mit­ment to tra­di­tion in her two sons, who will even­tu­ally take over the fam­ily busi­ness to become the fourth gen­er­a­tion. Recently the Katsaounis pur­chased prop­erty around the cor­ner, which will serve as the point of dis­tri­b­u­tion for bulk orders.

The spirit of the place is not going to change,” she says with cer­ti­tude. We can offer new prod­ucts accord­ing to what cus­tomers want. But in terms of the struc­ture and pre­sen­ta­tion of the place, let’s just say I’m con­ser­v­a­tive in the best sense of the word. When I close my eyes, I can still smell the aroma of my child­hood. It brings back mem­o­ries and reminds me of what we’ve fought to hold on to. Terrible things have hap­pened in this coun­try over the years but the store’s always been here. That’s really what it’s about.”


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