An 83 year-old grandfather, a former ship captain, and an agronomist walk into a room in a Greek olive oil factory in the Kolymvari area in northwestern Crete. What do they have in common? Greek extra virgin olive oil, and a success story based on respect. Respect for farmers and the environment, consumers and olive oil, knowledge, innovation, cooperation, and quality. That respect helped Terra Creta capture three of just six top awards at the 5th Cretan Olive Oil Competition (COOC).
The grandfather, Giorgos Glentousakis, and the captain, Kyriakos Makratzis, are members of Terra Creta’s special team of 40 large-scale contract farmers. The company’s agronomist tells them about best practices in olive tree fertilization, pest control, irrigation, and harvesting, both during meetings at Terra Creta and on visits to each of their olive groves. This team produces the extremely high quality olives used for the premium olive oils that have been winning awards at one competition after another this year, both in and beyond Greece.
Terra Creta’s brand new production line, unique quality control starting when the olives are dropped off, analyzed, and separated, and careful production and storage practices also contribute to great results. This year, their Grand Cru and Terra Creta Organic extra virgin olive oils (EVOOs) won Gold Elea awards at the COOC, while their conventional EVOO won a Bronze.
Terra Creta’s general manager, Fotis Sousalis, believes “in the next few years this quality will be translated to the other product lines,” as other products “benefit from this knowledge and these procedures” and their farmers’ team grows. After all, “if you make a Ferrari, you can also make a Fiat from the systems you developed for the Ferrari.”
While Terra Creta is a small to medium size enterprise by Greek standards, with 40 year-round employees plus the farmers, Eftychios Androulakis’s Pamako is almost a one-man show. He does have some help with the harvest and emphasizes his crucial partnership with Michalis Marakas in the mill, but much of the time Androulakis works alone in his passionate quest for the most flavorful, healthiest high phenolic extra virgin olive oil he can create. These efforts have been rewarded with prizes for both flavor and health benefits. At this year’s Cretan Competition, Androulakis took home a Silver Elea for his Pamako Mountain Blend and an honorable mention for his Organic Monovarietal.
Androulakis and Marakas perform dozens of experiments in the mill each year. They invent, adjust, and rebuild machines, remove pits, sort and dry olives, and play with temperatures and times, among other things. Although he must hike up a mountainside to reach them, Androulakis is proud of the Cretan Tsounati trees that provide the olives for his monovarietal olive oil. Once considered incapable of producing extra virgin olive oil, the Tsounati olives are far less common than the Koroneiki he mixes in for his blend.
George Balirakis is proud that his team at Bio Balirakis has brought honor to the small village of Episkopi, near Rethymno. Their Diva organic EVOO won a Silver Elea this year. Balirakis believes “what’s most important is that we have a very good team.” He adds that “it’s difficult for other people near us to understand why we change some methods for better quality,” but the awards they have won at the COOC each year have inspired other villagers to ask them for advice.
Balirakis emphasizes that for olive oil every little step is important, twelve months a year, including an early harvest using clean crates rather than bags, mill machinery run with electricity rather than gas or oil, and chemical analyses to be sure there are no traces of pesticide contamination from surrounding non-organic farms.
From Lab to Field to Award Winning Oils
While Balirakis shares knowledge with his neighbors, the Organoleptic (tasting) Laboratory of the Agricultural Cooperative of Rethymno offers Cretan olive oil producers informative seminars throughout the year, as well as analyzing samples for the COOC. Terra Creta’s marketing and area exports manager Emmanouil Karpadakis, who is also Vice President of the Cretan Exporters’ Association, points out that the laboratory plays a crucial supportive role for producers “by providing guidelines, analyzing olive oil samples, and giving producers feedback on how to elevate their EVOO quality.”
Headed by COOC director and international judge Eleftheria Germanaki, the laboratory has helped producers understand the importance of the organoleptic profile of their extra virgin olive oil (its aroma and flavor).
“That’s why we see fantastic EVOOs produced on the island. This is why the Cretan Olive Oil Competition was born” in 2015, suggests Karpadakis. “The ground was ready to accept such a challenge.” One of the COOC panel leaders, internationally recognized olive oil tasting expert and chemist Efi Christopoulou, reports that the samples submitted to the competition have improved each year. Swiss judge Philipp Notter agrees: “It’s really a development of the Cretan people, thanks to this competition—a development in their way of thinking, to pay attention to rules that have an important place in the olive oil business—more attention to good production.”
Although the 2018/19 crop year was difficult for many in Greece, Eftychios Androulakis does not complain about the uncertainties of weather and pests that all farmers face. He welcomes the challenges: “every year you have different conditions, so you must adjust the temperatures and times” during olive oil production in order to make a better oil each year. “You don’t know what the olives are going to give. This is the most beautiful thing; you have to adjust.”