Part II– "I have this beautiful bottle of olive oil, now what?"
By Sean Mathews
Having studied in Italy and honed her olive oil tasting skills there, Cristina is well placed to reflect on the differences between the Greek and Italian olive oil industries.
“I believe Messinia is the Tuscany of Greece so I tell people this story,” she says setting the scene for her lesson, “In the 15th century, Lorenzo de Medici did an agreement that established the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) for olive oil and wine products from Tuscany. In Kalamata, we did the PDO 5 years ago.” She concluded, “We are competing with centuries of branding!”
If that is so, LIÁ Olive Oil is learning fast. I ask Cristina about the beautifully designed and distinctive all white bottle her oil comes in.
With her childhood memories of picnicking in the family’s groves, she said white was a natural choice. “In the olive garden we would have a basket with food and oil. My mother would say, ‘protect the olive oil from the light,’ because the light kills the quality of the olive oil. I wanted to share with people an olive oil completely protected from the light,” Cristina reflected.
During the planning stage she worked intimately with a design studio in Athens. She took inspiration for the geometric pattern from the designs of the Palace of Nestor, the Mycenaean Palace described by Homer and close to her family farm.
The initial design phase was hard work, but only the beginning. Afterwards she went on a steep learning curve about business and selling her product in a global market place. This is another reason why many Greek producers choose to sell their olive oil in bulk, “You need to make sales and have your business organized in a modern way,” she says.
Cristina sent out countless samples and emailed hundreds of shops throughout Europe. One of her first customers was La Grande Épicerie de Paris, the specialty food branch of Le Bon Marché.
Today she works with over 300 shops. “Everyone wants to be in Bon Marché, but for me I succeeded by communicating my family’s treasure with the rest of the world.”
Cristina is adamant that the young Greek generation is capable of juggling the worlds of familial village life and boutique Parisian food store.
As part of a country tied to eastern values and tradition young Greeks are also globally minded. “These last years young people are really making an effort. We have studied abroad, we speak many languages,” she says before clarifying, “They say that Greeks don't work. That is the biggest misunderstanding that exists. My generation works very hard today in Greece.”
30,000 Euros in Samples
Spilidias certainly exudes this work ethic. “Whenever I travel, I have in my mind the thought, ‘Okay I need to check out the best department stores in Tokyo, say hello to buyers and leave some samples. I am always traveling with samples,” he told Levendeia.
He believes much of promoting Greek brands lies in educating consumers about olive oil, a product which he says warrants comparisons with wine.
“Most people know that a two dollar bottle of wine is not going to be good, not only for the taste, but for themselves. We need to invest and educate people about what a good bottle of extra virgin olive oil should cost,” he said.
He tells Levendeia that even in Greece people don't understand the basics of what makes quality olive oil. Clearly frustrated with the situation, he shares a story about his uncle who doesn't like the taste of fresh olive oil on his throat, so he trades the oil in for last year’s. “He believes it is better to give away fresh olive oil to get old oil. Even though the best time for olive oil is when you have first produced it.”
Spilidias precedes to run through a list of what he believes distinguishes Greek olive oil from others in the region, “Over 70% of Greek olive oil is extra virgin, it is high in anti-oxidants, and it has a very full taste, fruity and aromatic.”
He also says the industry needs to do more to educate consumers about what labeling means, particularly when it comes to estates.
Much like wine, single estate olive oil comes from one estate where the olives are grown in the same manner and the groves are harvested at the same time. This compares with mixed estate, which combines olives picked at different times and grown in different regions.
”Blend versus single estate is a huge difference. It’s like a Bordeaux versus a box wine,” he says. This he believes is lost on consumers, “When people go to the supermarket they look at a bunch of bottles and pick one with a nice label and average price.”
While education is certainly a factor I ask why Greek brands of similar price points still find it difficult to get noticed, or even placed on the shelf.
He feels this can be partially attributed to the lack of traditional Greek cuisine available to people globally. “Italian cuisine is simple and widely available, so it is also easy to communicate to consumers, think of how popular a pizza margarita is,” he states.
But with its emphasis on higher priced seafood and unique mezes, the most many people know about Greek food is Greek salad and souvlaki.
In addition, Spiliadis is very frank about the challenges and cost of entering the global market where he admits it can be extremely difficult to define your brand. When he first started he says a large part of his business was getting out in the public and speaking with people about his Greek brand. He continues to spend roughly EU 30,000 on samples alone and normally travels once a month.
As Eléia has demonstrated, the effort can pay off. “People will follow a brand, and olive oil has a feel good effect. People are happy to buy something from a certain producer, a certain land, or a farm with environmental values,” Spiliadis said.
Old Traditions and New Strengths in a Global World
This is the approach Frangiskos has taken at his agrotourism hotel by forgoing the use of fertilizer, pesticides and the practice of monoculture. Instead, he embraces diverse planting, or polyculture, which means less space is available for more olive trees because of interspacing them with other varieties like cypress trees, pine trees, and grape vines.
Although this reduces the crop yield, it means more nutrients are left in the soil, so less fertilizer is needed, and the biodiversity makes the trees more resilient. Larger trees can shade smaller ones from the sun and protect from wind, while a myriad of plants attract a wider variety of insects that can help repel others more dangerous to the olive trees.
With an elderly generation still active in farming Frangiskos says many of the harmful techniques practiced today, like tilling, monoculture, and the use of large amounts of fertilizer have not fully caught on in Greece.
He sees the generation in-between as the culprits. “The 55 to 60 year olds may have been the ones who bought into chemical farming the most. They said, ‘why spend an hour in the field when you can go spray the chemical?’ Greece is lucky because of the terrain, the microclimates, and the older generation who never went into pesticide or mechanized farming,” he tells Levendeia.
In this way, it is the very fragmentation of Greece’s olive oil industry that makes it unique and can define it in a global market place. "This is a mountainous country with thousands of islands. Each has something to say. It is richness," he said.
Where Spain has taken the lead as the world’s largest olive oil producer with massive economies of scale, Greece could find its niche by filling the desire of consumers, especially millennials, for special individualized products made with care for the land and environment.
Similar to Cristina and Alexandros who moved back to their villages, against the flow of previous years of rapid urbanization, Frangiskos believes Greece should reevaluate its priorities in promoting the olive oil industry.
“We always compare Greece to Northern and Western Europe, but maybe it is time we stop comparing ourselves. We need to value each other for what we are,” he told Levendeia.
Frangiskos says there is hope in the post-crisis Greek generation, “I see a lot of young people coming into Greek olive oil and children going back to their parents farm.”
It is reasons like this that he is opposed to ideas that are circulating and calling for a large consolidation in the Greek olive oil industry. He thinks the solution should entail a greater emphasis on connecting small producers in Greece with the global market place instead of laying the ground work for massive economies of scale.
“I tell people who are educated and have worked in marketing and big business to use those tools to be a connector,” he explains. “You can make money doing this. Imagine a company that sees the techniques of thousands of small producers but creates a unique story for each one.”
Whether it is in brand awareness or production, Greece’s olive oil industry is often described as decades if not centuries behind those in other countries. Yet, that very well could be its greatest advantage. It is fortunate to be in a position to learn from other countries' mistakes, just as Greece's younger generation seems to have used the crisis they lived through to reconnect with their roots.
In a world rapidly changing and looking for bridges between tradition and modernity, city and village, east and west, Greece may be able to find its own voice in this ancient Mediterranean craft.
Read Part I here.