The 1960’s have seen thousands of Greek citizens migrate to every angle of the earth and longing for a better life. No matter if their sons and daughters were carrying with them romantic feelings and images about the lands of their ancestors or if they had more realistic stances, at a certain point, some of them feel the urge to confront the reality with their memories. Such is the story of Andreas who just wanted to rediscover the lands of his grandparents and got passionate with high quality olive oil production.
How did a history teacher in Switzerland cοme to be a producer of a fine olive oil in Crete?
This is a long story that goes back to my childhood. On summer holidays, we used to visit my grandparents in Crete. Of all the days we spent there, one afternoon was always kept for a tour to our olive orchards. Nothing has been more boring to me than that. No doubt, if you asked me at that time to find my way to the orchard, I would not have been able to do so. I had no interest in our trees, or in agricultural work in general.
Later, my grandparents passed away and my parents grew older. It was not before 2001 when I had quit my job as a first level PC-supporter at the University of Zurich when I realised that there would be no one to tell me about our trees if my parents one day would die. At that time, a cousin of mine had been doing the harvest of our olive trees, so I decided to join him.
My first impression had been that harvesting olives is a tough job and the remuneration very low. I suggested that my cousin export part of his production to Switzerland but became suddenly aware that the quality of our oil at that time was not sufficient. So, I started improving step by step what seemed to me had been going wrong during the harvest and the production of olive oil. For instance, we replaced plastic harvesting bags that are known to accelerate fermentation of the olive fruits with boxes, had infinite talks with the mill owner to lower processing temperatures, better anticipated harvesting time etc.
What were the most important steps you had to take in order to create this olive oil?
ONE MAJOR LESSON HAD BEEN THE LESSON OF PATIENCE, HUMILITY AND RESPECT
The most important insight has been to recognise that the rhythm of nature can’t be changed significantly without detrimental effects to both soil and trees. Therefore, one major lesson had been the lesson of patience, humility and respect: We had to learn to wait, observe and see; we had to accept that our olive trees can’t produce the same amount of oil every year nor the same quality of fruits. Unless, of course, if you give them a significant amount of synthetic fertilizers and other substances which was exactly the opposite of what we intended to do.
On a more practical level, major improvements had been:
● Anticipation of the harvesting to the first half of October
● Manual selection of the olives. No matter what method is used to pick the olives from the trees, there are and always will be defective fruits that have to be separated by hand (as one would do with grapes for a good wine).
● Mill processing of no more than 6 hours after the harvest.
Asecond important insight has been to acknowledge the outmost necessity of collaboration between small-size olive oil producers. These producers are in no way competitors between themselves. Their common competitor is the olive oil industry that has been selling doctored olive oils as Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO). Mind you, I hold nothing against simple virgin olive oils or refined oils. There are reasonable grounds to use them. But there is no excuse to label such oils as extra virgin olive oil when they are not. This is just selling a mule as a horse.
AN EVOO IS AN OIL THAT HAS BEEN PRODUCED BY MECHANICAL MEANS ONLY AND THAT CONTAINS NOTHING ELSE THAN THE “JUICE” OBTAINED DIRECTLY BY CRUSHING (HEALTHY) OLIVES.
An EVOO is an oil that has been produced by mechanical means only and that contains nothing else than the “juice” obtained directly by crushing (healthy) olives. For instance, a refined oil is the product of dehydrated pomace of olives which is the waste of every milling process be it pomace of an EVOO or a simple VOO. So, if you add one single drop of such a refined oil into a tank with EVOO, strictly speaking, this EVOO cannot be called an EVOO anymore.
On the other hand, not every olive “juice” is an EVOO. In order to merit this label, it must have a fresh grassy smell and a certain amount of bitterness and pungency. It has to have no organoleptic defect and an acidity below 0.8% for the whole duration of its shelf life. Even the lightest off odour or taste of such a product means a declassification to VOO or lampante olive oil.
Big business is able to eliminate such off odours in huge quantities of refined olive oils, of lampante oils and of other low categories. Again: This is not an illegal practice. According to specialists of the field, these products are not detrimental to our health but, for sure, they don’t contribute to it either. It’s just fat with no culinary value. Therefore, they can’t and should not be labelled EVOO.
In recent years, the growing amount of small and medium scale producers of EVOO has led the olive oil industry to polish their image in the public. Quite a few well-known Italian and Greek companies have started selling single variety olive oils from 2014 or so in order to have their share of the cake…
So, the efforts of small-scale producers have had their impact on the industry, even if these efforts have not been coordinated or collaborative. If small-scale producers want to be at least a step ahead of the industry they need to intensify collaboration. The more they exchange their know how, the more people will get used to real EVOO. Once you taste a high quality olive oil, you can’t downgrade to simple virgin oils! And this is important both in terms of health benefits and gastronomic pleasure.
What does it take to produce an olive oil of this quality? Are there any secrets you would like to share with us?
THE FASTER THE VEGETABLES GET FROM THE FIELD TO OUR DISH AND THE MORE GENTLY WE TREAT THEM, THE BETTER THE QUALITY.
There is no secret. What applies for cooking applies for harvesting and processing olives as well: The faster the vegetables get from the field to our dish and the more gently we treat them, the better the quality. This means: quick harvesting and processing at environmental temperatures (max. 27 °C). It means also to avoid as much as possible that the crushed olives get exposed to oxygen. It means to minimize the use of water.
And of course, it means to filter the olive oil as soon as possible. Nevertheless, there are still producers advertising the fact that their oil has not gone through a filter. Have they ever left a piece of butter exposed in the fridge? Don’t they know that after only a couple of hours the butter is going to absorb all of the odours of its closed environment? Something similar happens with the sediment in the olive oil stored in this way: It starts fermenting. Subsequently, these fermentation odours are immediately absorbed by the olive oil.
And finally, one of the most difficult responsabilities to take is to discard batches that are not good enough. Last year, we had bottled only 30% of the overall production because of the effect of the unusual high temperatures during harvest time.
There are of course several technical requirements that need to be respected and scientific findings that provide guidance. But intuition plays an important role as well. Producing a high quality olive oil is maybe also an art.
Finaly, respecting the rythms of nature is very important in our case even if it translates into higher production costs.
Every producer claims their olive is the best. What would you say makes EFKRATO unique?
This is a huge tragedy and a big misunderstanding! Before a producer can claim that his or her oil is the best, they should make sure that their product is flawless in terms of smell, taste and harmony. Unfortunately, the quest for quality has an environmental impact that more often than not we overlook. Before we decide any improvement, we ask ourselves this question: What is the environmental price we are willing to pay for a flawless product? For example, how can we protect the fruits from the olive fruit fly and other enemies? With chemistry or by selection and removal of damaged fruits? For sure, pesticides would be more efficient and convenient. Nevertheless, we always opt for the least environmentally detrimental method. Let me give you two other examples: Are we willing to improve the quality of the fruits by irrigating and hence to exhaust our groundwater? No, we don’t want to do that. Or, shall we let heavy machinesplough the soil in order to eliminate any competitors of the trees? No, we do not. Instead, we let flocks of sheep or sometimes horses into our orchards. For sure, sometimes they will chew some leaves from the trees, but at the same time they gently fertilize the soil with their manure.
To come back to your question: EFKRATO is certainly one of only a handful of monovarietal Tsounato olive oils. In the last 30 years or so, a lot of the Tsounati olive trees have been cut and replaced by the ubiquitous Koroneiki.What an irony! For most of the elderly people, Tsounato olive oil was and still is their favourite because it has a unique smell and taste. And still, many of our ancestors fell pray to the promise that substituting the Tsounati trees with Koroneiki would improve their income and their standard of living because the Koroneiki is more productive and needs less care.
WE CONSIDER IT OUR DUTY AND HONOR TO STICK TO THIS TRADITION AND DEVELOP IT FURTHER.
Luckily, our family and a few others did not follow this trend of the 1980s even though they were promised better and more stable crops with the Koroneiki. We consider it our duty and honor to stick to this tradition and develop it further. Tradition without evolution becomes simply folklore. Tradition combined with innovation becomes EFKRATO.
There is no “best” olive oil as there is no best wine but given the above mentioned premises, I do know that it is an oil that takes the meaning of quality and environmental-friendly agriculture to a new and more comprehensive level.
As a result EFKRATO offers a unique combination of health benefits & gastronomic pleasure! EFKRATO contains 4 times more polyphenols than the limit allowing for a health claim to be made (according to regulation 432/2012 of the European Union). Moreover, EFKRATO’s value in free acids is very low (<0.3).
At the same time one can enjoy aromas of artichokes, green fruits, green pepper, freshly cut grass in harmony with the characteristic bitterness and pungency of the early harvest olive oil.
How did you choose this name and label artwork?
Efkarto can be seen as the result of the joined influence of the microclimate in the area of northern Rethymno, the wind that reaches from the Cretan sea, the clay soil and the abundant sunshine that ensures the location of the olive grove on the slope of a coastal hill at an altitude of about 55 meters.
The above in combination with the abstract form of the olive leaf and fruit provide the inspiration and comprise the synthesis of our label.
The ideal combination of factors such as the geographical location, the climate, the Tsounati variety but also our treatment and care, is concentrated in the name EFKRATO.
This ancient Greek word (“εύκρατο”) consists of the components “εὖ” + “κεράννυμι” where the second means to mix, to combine, to regulate the temperature, and “εὖ” indicates the good property of the other synthetic.
We find it interesting that in Greek the word “wine” (κρασί), with which olive oil has so much in common, is a related word.
Please allow me to thank our friends at www.island12.com for all their help regarding our label!
Who would you say EFKRATO is for?
Efkrato is made for people who are interested in a product that year after year aims at perfection. For foodies who take pleasure both from its richness in aromas and its taste. For anyone who is fond of experiencing olive oils of different origins. Also for people who are sensitive to the way their food is produced and can appriciate slow living. And of course, people who are interested in maintaining their health and fitness. In EFKRATO polyphenols can be found in abundance. These well known antioxydants are linked to a series of positive effects to our health (anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, cardioprotective and neuroprotective etc).
We believe EFKRATO is a worthy ambassador of Cretan culture and gastronomy and therefore the ideal enrichment for all who prefer diversity to monοculture.
As already mentioned earlier, the vast majority of Greek olive oil is made from a variety called “Koroneiki.” EFKRATO reflects its origin in a quite splendid manner. It is made exclusively from the Cretan variety “Tsounati.”
In what dishes do you personally prefer to use EFKRATO?
I wouldn’t use Efkrato for french fries, unless money is not an issue… Besides that, pour it over any dish and you will get an immediate enhancement of smell and taste. This is even true for sweet stuff. One of my favourites is this: Boiled fennel or broccoli, add lemon juice, salt, and olive oil of course. As simple as that. Another favourite: Cut potatoes lengthwise into two halves. Put them with the flat side on backing paper in the oven for about 30 minutes. For the last five minutes turn them and let the cut side become golden before you take the baked potatoes out. With a fork pierce the flat and golden surface in order to make the oil trickle down when poured over it. Add ground oregano, salt, and/or feta cheese.
Respecting nature is of great importance to you. Do you think that it would be feasible for more producers in Crete and elsewhere to follow your example?
IN MY VIEW, IF THERE IS A CHANCE TO SAFEGUARD WHAT TRADITION HAS HANDED OVER TO US, WE MUST FOCUS FIRST ON ENVIRONMENT, SECOND ON QUALITY AND THIRD ON TERROIR.
Modern economy and the modern food industry are not a very friendly habitat for small landholders, as Cretans usually are. For historic reasons, the Greek soil (especially that which belonged to the monasteries) has been split into small pieces and given to the people. At the beginning of the 20th century, this made perfect sense because it allowed many households to be self-sufficient.
Today, this situation is different and is not in favor of Greek producers because it does not allow them to compete in economic terms with the big olive farms in Spain and elsewhere. Spain produces almost ten times more olive oil than Greece, and five times as much as Greece and Italy together. As a small landholder, you must look for alternatives. I know a guy in the sourroundings of Chania who owns hundreds of tsounati trees. Many of them are secular trees. For economic reasons he is cutting them and planting avocado trees. This is a tragedy!
In my view, if there is a chance to safeguard what tradition has handed over to us, we must focus first on environment, second on quality and third on terroir. So, the question is not if it is feasible but if we want it to happen. In my view, it is an imminent socio-political question. Do we want an agriculture that follows the trend of the day or a longterm vision thattakes into account the future of the next generation?
Unfortunately, good intentions are very often inhibited by practical problems. Assume a farmer decides to harvest early in October in order to prevent the heavy attacks of the olive fruit fly, which occurs usually in the second half of that month. He needs at least four people to harvest the minimum quantity of 800 kilos of olive fruits: Where does this farmer get his workers from? A lot of local people are still working with the tourist industry because the tourist season goes on well beyond the end of October. This might be true even for the family members of the farmer.
Working migrants from Pakistan and other countries of this planet could be a solution to this impasse but they bear a risk: Usually, these groups do not have a working permission let alone a residence permit. If the farmer gets caught by the authorities employing them, he will be fined 10,000 euros for every single employee!
Therefore, one must explore new ways of recruiting staff. Hiring students or young people from the nearby cities via Facebook or hosting helping hands from WWOOF (https://wwoofinternational.org/) could be a creative way to deal with this problem.
This new path of “headhunting” has allowed us last year to start a new project: A lot of olives are being damaged by a bacterium called Gloeosporium. It is transmitted in spring on the blossom and later on to the fruits from the leaves and olives that have been left on the ground the previous season. The above-mentioned helping hands have cleaned the trees and put this organic waste in the rows between our trees in order to have them exposed to sunlight and later plowed into the ground. This is a time-consuming task but it allows us to abstain from using copper sulphate, which also eliminates the Gloeosporium, but has the downside of containing a heavy metal you would not want to find in your soil.
Considered all we have said above: What is the significance of this project?
EVERY DROP OF EFKRATO ENCLOSES THIS TRADITION AND TAKES YOU IN A CULINARY JOURNEY TO MEET IT.
On a individualistic level, EFKRATO is the proof that dedication and passion can lead to a fantastic result. Moreover, this project has brought together two branches of a family which had been separated by migration many years ago. EFKRATO is now a joined endavour and enterprise together with my cousin Emmanuel Vantarakis.
On a more collective level, EFKRATO is part of a global movement that aims at adding value to our culinary habits and wellbeing in accordance to environmental constraints. Therefore, I very much support the youth driven movement that worries about the environmental impact of modern life (Fridays for future). I’m sure that our food habits are going to changesooner than expected from experts. Not everyone will become vegetarian, forsure. Instead of some hundred thousand people reducing their meat consumption to zero, I’d prefer some million people reducing their meat consumption to 50%. An excellent olive oil makes this choice much easier! Take any vegetable, pure some oil on it and here you are with a delicious dish!
Historically speaking, the cultivation of olives in Crete began 4000 BC while the consumption of olives even earlier. Especially the ancient varieties of Crete such as Tsounati are in their ideal and natural environment. No wonder the olive tree and olive oil are important elements of the Cretan identity, as well as an essential element of the Cretan diet and culture.
Every drop of EFKRATO encloses this tradition and takes you in a culinary journey to meet it.