I said to myself when I started this blog that there were two things I would not write about: extra-virgin olive oil and wine. Both products are well-served by an array of highly informative and engaging blogs and websites written by persons far more knowledgeable than I am.
But in the end it didn’t seem very authentic to talk about good Greek stuff and not present wine and olive oil, both of which are an inextricable key part of the art of Greek living and the Greek art of living well. They also account for a good share of the awards and marks of distinction earned by Greek products abroad. Not talking about them would be like being at a party with a bevy of celebrities and pretending they weren’t there.
But the question was, how would I decide which particular product to present? Whereas only a very small number of companies cultivate snails or manufacture dragees, there are an astonishingly large number of firms producing exceptionally good wine and olive oil. Any selection would seem highly arbitrary… except if I didn’t present a particular olive oil as the quintessence of quality, though an exemplar it would certainly be, but rather as an instance of an inspired entrepreneurial strategy or inventive export approach or just a very good story.
Ninety percent of all Greek olive oil, much of which is extra-virgin olive oil, is exported to the European Union, nearly all but 10% in bulk, where it may wind up being blended with other oils under an Italian label. The majority of Greek oil producers produce too small a harvest to justify launching their own oils abroad, at least in terms of the broader market, in which price is the determining factor and which is dominated by Spanish and Italian mass-producers. However, the high-end, super-premium market is precisely an area where of single-estate, organic and early harvest Greek extra -virgin olive oils can compete. But it is still a costly undertaking to break into this market. Consolidating production among growers in the same region and blending the oils is not a solution, since it sacrifices the very qualities that made the oil exceptional in the first place. (For an interesting discussion of the challenges and opportunities of this high-end market, see Diana Kochilas’ insightful piece on Beyond Extra-Virgin: Greek Olive Oil and the Super Premium Trend).
But what if you could ensure a harvest of specific varietals of olives from local growers that would be subject to rigorous quality controls and follow stringent practices for organic farming, traditional harvesting, and, importantly, pressing the olives on the day of harvest? This is precisely what the Protoulis brothers—Georgios, Panayiotis and Kostas—have done on the island of Mytilene. They collaborate with over 1200 small-grove producers in the region of Plomari and produce extra-virgin olive oils, Aegean Gold and Aegean Gold Bio, that have won numerous international and Greek awards, including a gold prize at the Mario Solinas International Competition in Madrid.
There are certainly some Greek premium oils that are marketed under their own label and sold abroad (and now that I started on olive oil, I’ll be writing about some of these in future posts). The Protoulis oil has found its way to consumers abroad through a different route, which I discovered during a recent trip to Brussels, where I came across a speciality shop that sells super premium olive oils. Oliviers & Co., which has stores in Western Europe, the United States and Australia, obviously caters to this small but growing niche market that is prepared to pay upwards of €30 for half of liter of what it calls grand cru extra-virgin olive oil. These extraordinary finishing oils are produced in limited edition for Oliviers by olive oil estates in Tuscany, Umbria, Provence, Spain and elsewhere; Oliviers then bottles it under its own label. There is one Greek oil in this ‘bevy of celebrities’ of grands crus: a Protoulis floral extra-virgin olive oil pressed from Kolovi and Adramytiani olives.