A Sweet, Buttery, Artisanal Olive Oil of the Future

By Ari Weinzweig
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lisamurray/flickr


No one, least of all me, needs another olive oil. We've got loads of good ones that seriously are all pretty excellent. But the Biolea oil has gotten my attention for a couple of reasons, which I'm guessing will make it worth others' attention as well.

The most obvious and most important is that it tastes really good. It's not one of those hit-you-over-the-head flavors but it's really quite delicious. It's just really ... I was going to say "refined" but that's not a good word to use in the olive oil world. Let's say ... elegant? "Mature," maybe, but that sounds "old." "Majestic" could work but I don't want it to sound too elitist because that's the opposite of George Dimitriadis's style.

Grounded. Good. Sustainable. Holistic. Balanced. Those are sounding better to me. Anyway, the point is that it's really a great-tasting oil. And like Shawn Askinosie's Tanzanian chocolate, although it's well within the framework of flavors that one associates with others of its ilk, the truth is it's actually an excellent set of flavors that's very different.

The Biolea is lighter than a lot of our oils—don't let the stereotype of Greek oils being "heavy" fool you.

The Biolea is lighter than a lot of our oils—don't let the stereotype of Greek oils being "heavy" fool you. This one's anything but. It is a bit buttery. Very surprisingly sweet, actually. George wanted to make sure I understood that this lighter flavor was true to the region—this is the way people in the area like their oil. I don't want to get too wonky on you, but it's got a touch of some spice I can't yet nail ... maybe mace, or even a hint of vanilla? George says it has hints of salad greens and lettuces and sorrels and it is slightly citrusy. It's got a touch of pepper at the end, but not too much.

Like the Tanzanian chocolate bars, the Biolea is also interesting for the story. It's taken me a bit of time to get my brain around what's actually going on over at the Astrikas Estate. When I first started learning about the oil some of it was pretty straightforward—the copy has all sorts of good stuff about ecology and the land and acting in environmentally sound ways. The oil is organic. The olives are handpicked. Which is all, of course, excellent, but also not all that different from what a number of our other suppliers seem to be doing. Happily there's a lot more to the story.

The Biolea is one of the few single-estate Greek oils out there—most are from coops (though the Kokoriko from Daphne's sister, Amalia, and brother-in-law, Stathis, is also from only one farm on the island of Zakynthos). The Astrikas Estate is located on the northwest part of Crete, about 20 something miles west of the town of Chania, the fourth village up into the hills after you turn inland from the coastal road. The farm has been in the family for a long time now—George is the fifth generation to run it. The oil is made from Koroneiki olives, the small olive that's most commonly used in Greece, handpicked a bit later in the year than say, the oils of Tuscany, hence the relative sweetness and softness of the oil (which I guess might move it more in line with traditional Ligurian oils) that the people of the area like so much.

But there's more to it that than. Somewhat unintentionally, I got into a long and very interesting dialogue with George, who's clearly providing much of the vision and passion behind the project. I first "met" (on email) George through Aglaia Kremezi, who writes beautifully about the traditional foods of Greece and whom I've known now for many years. Magically we managed to get the oil here in less than a year (it can take two or three sometimes), a credit in part, I sense, to George's determination and focus. He's not a man of small or soft opinions.

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Biolea

When I first started to read about Biolea, I was intrigued because it seems at first glance that they're still using stones to press the oil. While this old traditional method is certainly tried and true and still has its adherents, the newer generation has pretty much passed by the stone. After all our emails though I finally figured out that what George and crew have done is to actually redesign the old stone methods to make them work in a more modern, cleaner, more closely managed, and more sustainable way. "If anyone has to know about Biolea," George began explaining, "they should know that it is not just the tail end of a traditional oil factory from the past. It is a modern, young and very optimistic company that is based on principles of self-reliance, innovation, and environmental consciousness."

"The old stone mills that still operate and produce olive oil are of very old technology," he told me. "They cannot be licensed or certified for HACCP or any other reliable food quality standard. Also they are made of carbon steel—not stainless steel—that can introduce heavy metals to the olive oil." Makes sense to me. George went on, "Biolea was determined to show that the old method can be brought up to today's standards, able to be certified by the most strict food standards." This new system design is not the norm. "Biolea's attempt," he said, "is to show that it is possible."

George has big concerns with the modern production methods that most everyone else is using. The two- and three-phase enclosed systems that most every producer now relies on use a lot of water and produce large quantities of waste, which are generally not effectively re-assimilated into the environment. And because everyone has moved to them they've left behind not just the old methods for the actual pressing but also all of the connection and community that usually went along with it. "We witnessed the disappearance of the small stone olive mills," George wrote me. "Every village in Crete had one or two," he explained, "where the olive producers themselves took part in the milling of their olives. The millings lasted for almost six months. Olive oil producing was a cultural and a social event." This, he said, is now almost completely gone.

The same theme, interestingly, has come up for me regularly of late, both in discussing the ideas in Zingerman's Guide to Good Leading, and in now working on Part 2. Check this quote from Murray Bookchin from his essay "Self Management and the New Society":

Consider concretely, indeed utopistically, the alternatives that may turn arduous work into festive play: a harvest that is marked by dancing, feasting, singing, and loving contrasted with the monotony of gang labour or deadening mechanization.

Clearly George is working to sustain and support and protect the former, in the belief that most of the oil world has moved to more of the latter, while all the while still working to use ever more modern technology in the process to help maintain quality.

Unlike the commercial equipment makers, George is committed to being what Bo Burlingham would probably be happy to call a "Small Giant." "We never dreamed that we are going to grow and become a player in the olive oil market and we do not want to be one," he said. "Our outlook is to produce the best sustainable quality. There is an art to producing olive oil in the traditional way that offers a personal fulfillment of creating, and for those who have felt it, it counts a lot," he explained. "Our system is special. First, it produces an olive oil with all its health benefit intact. Since this system does not use water—nor heat—the oil's antioxidants, which are water-soluble, do not end up at the olive mill wastes like they do with a lot of commercial production. Also our approach is the most sustainable method of producing olive oil. We conserve water by not using it (other than for cleaning up)."

Long story short, from what I can tell, Biolea is working to be the olive oil mill of the future—technologically sound, food safe, environmentally aware, nutritionally intact, and community-oriented, producing a really delicious, single-estate olive oil that's true to the region in which it's produced. Hard to argue with that, though I know enough to know that other producers will. I haven't been to Biolea yet so at this point I'm only telling the story I've heard from afar, and from tasting. I've more to learn. But still, part of the proof is in the flavor of the oil. And Biolea does taste remarkably good!

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/02/a-sweet-buttery-artisanal-olive-oil-of-the-future/70747/