Even though the Peloponnese is only an hour's drive away from Athens, it's as if you're entering another world, or at least another country. Concrete boxes are replaced with olive groves, and the words "traffic jam" tend to mean that a group of goats have convened, gathering and blocking the road. Needless to say, I greatly enjoy the small villages of the Peloponnese. So when George Papageorgiou, the owner of Esti Olive Oil, asked me if I wanted to go to Kalamata to see how they harvest the olives and turn them into olive oil, I jumped at the chance. To me this was kind of like winning the lottery. I was going to the Peloponnese and getting a chance to enjoy some "liquid gold."
Being Greek, I grew up eating olive oil. I know others might disagree with me, but I will take a good quality olive oil over butter any day! I love using it to make popcorn. I drizzle it on fresh tomatoes and slices of bread. I use it to fry fish and as an ingredient in cakes. Before there were rules for the amount of liquid you could carrying on a plane, my mother and I would bring half-gallon containers of olive oil back from our trips to Greece.
The best olive oils come from Greece. I say this with objectivity as a chef, and would like to think that this overrides any bias that my Greek heritage holds. In Greece it is said that the best of Greek olive oils come from the Peloponnese. For years I have wished that Greeks would be more like the Italians. The Italians do a fantastic job of exporting and promoting their products to other countries. With the booming introduction of Greek yogurt into the U.S., I'm hoping that Greek olive oil will soon follow suit. George Papageorgiou is trying to make that happen.
The Esti olive grove in Kalamata is located in a beautiful sunlit valley. The grove of mature olive trees look as if they belong in Greek mythology. The olives must be harvested at a specific time during the ripening process. Like Goldilocks searching amongst the belongings of the three bears, George is in constant search for the olives that are "just right." If the olives are too green the olive oil produced will taste bitter. If the olives are too black, the quality of the olive oil will be lost. It's a constant balancing act.
As we headed into the olive grove, numerous fine mesh nets were being laid down to gather and catch all the olives. Workers set up ladders to reach the tall branches. The lower hanging branches were gently being shaken, taking care not to wound the trees. I began to collect olives in my little basket. As my hands turned a reddish-brown, I reminisced about the days I used to spend as a child, collecting olives with my yiayia.
We took the gathered olives back to the production plant where George had them ground into paste using large millstones. "This," he explained "is the traditional method used for making olive oil." After grinding, the paste then gets slowly stirred in a separate container for 20 to 40 minutes. This is a process known as malaxation. With malaxation the slow churning action allows the small droplets of oil that were released in the milling process to aggregate, forming large droplets of oil which facilitates mechanical extraction. I was a bit overwhelmed during the whole process. I looked around the manufacturing facility, much like a child the first time they visit Disneyland. I snapped pictures. I wanted to see what was behind every door. I asked George if the oil we had witnessed being made was virgin or extra virgin. I had always assumed that the grading of "extra virgin" denoted a different process or different stage in the olive's ripeness. George shook his head. This was not correct. In fact, all olive oil produced by physical (mechanical) means is virgin. The differentiation of "extra virgin" is the virgin olive oil that satisfies specific high chemical and organoleptic criteria. In layman's terms it is the virgin olive oil that has low free acidity and no quality defects.
The final room we visited that day was lined with shiny steel tanks, much like a winery. The storage of the olive oil in steel tanks helps to preserve it and keep it from oxidizing. It's the final resting place for the olive oil before it is bottled.
In Greek, the word theoxenia comes from mythology and relates to hospitality; how hosts treat guests or even strangers. It's an important part of Greek culture. This was something George clearly keeps in mind. Before leaving the facility that day, George sent me home with a box filled with bottles of olive oil: virgin, extra virgin, organic extra virgin. That night, and many nights since, I have enjoyed his olive oils. In each bite I can taste the olive grove and its bright sun-kissed fruit. I can't help but think that everyone, even the French, might fall in love with olive oil if they had a chance to taste the Greek rendition.
(Note to readers -- One of my favorite ways to enjoy a good quality Greek olive oil is Eggs ala Dimosthenis. To make this dish simply fill a small frying pan with 1/4" of olive oil. Heat the oil over medium heat. Fry two farmers' market eggs in the oil, spooning the olive oil over the top the eggs as they cook. Once the eggs are cooked, transfer them to a serving plate and drizzle a couple of spoonfuls of the warm olive oil on top. Season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Serve immediately.)