13 Jul

Greek olive oil comes out of the shade

By Christine Pirovolakis,

Tassos Golemis can be found every evening tending to his olive grove in the fertile valley of the Taygetos mountain where the ancient Spartans once hunted and trained.

For the first time, Golemis, together with his fellow olive-oil producers in the Mani peninsula, soft-pressed the region’s ripened olives of the Koroneiki variety and packaged the product under their own label.

With an annual production of more than 400,000 tons, Greece is the world’s third largest producer of olive oil after Spain and Italy, but consumers would hardly know given the country’s history of selling its product in bulk to its Mediterranean neighbours who treat and package the brand as their own.

‘The problem with Greek olive oil is that only 6 per cent reaches foreign stores as a Greek bottled product. The remainder is sold to the Italians in bulk at lower prices who end up mixing it with their own olive oil,’ said Nikos Prokovakis, president of the Laconia Agricultural Association which represents 16,500 small and medium- sized olive growers.

‘This of course results in a massive loss of revenue for Greek olive-oil producers,’ Prokovakis added.

Greece, with its approximately 120 million olive trees, ‘is the world’s biggest exporter of extra virgin oil – the top category, which is made from the first pressing of freshly picked olives,’ Golemis said.

Lower grades, such as ‘extra light’ are made from olives that are older, bruised or have fallen on the ground.

Blessed by the gods with one of the best-suited climates in the world for growing olives and the promises of a demand surge in the Far East – namely from Japan and China – now calling, Greek producers, the majority of whom still hand-pick their harvest, are determined to begin aggressively marketing their product.

The Greek olive-oil industry now spends 10 million euros (12.75 million dollars) a year on marketing, and the Greek government has launched a 5-million-euro programme to promote Greece’s largely untapped export potential of olive oil.

It has dedicated 2006 as the ‘Year of the Olive Oil,’ with food and dance festivals taking place across the country.

Greek Tourism Ministry officials also claim that following the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, it has been easier to focus on olive oil’s relationship with Ancient Greece.

Olives were already part of the main diet in the prehistoric period and were considered a relatively widespread foodstuff in antiquity and throughout the Byzantine and Ottoman periods in Greece.

According to Ancient Greek philosopher Homer, the olive tree had been thriving in Greece for over 10,000 years and was considered a symbol of peace, wisdom and triumph.

Anyone who uprooted or destroyed an olive tree was judged in court, and if found guilty, was sentenced to death.

Today, small and organic producers like Golemis are seeking to use the link with their ancient ancestors and their traditional methods to promote their product abroad and to reach gourmet and organic markets.

‘One of the major stumbling blocks already facing the Greek industry is that it is made up of hundreds of small operators who are no match for large foreign companies competing on their own turf,’ Prokovakis said. ‘Quality alone is not enough to enter a foreign market.’

‘The Italians have been at this for years: they know how to properly package and label their product which is why Italian olive oil is found on the shelf of every super market.

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