ExperiencePlus! Blog

Unripe Olive Oil: Less is More

Agoureleo or unripe olive oil

ExperiencePlus! tour leader Yorgos Paraskevopoulos, hails from Kalamata, Greece and has been leading tours with us since 1999. He lives in Kalamata, Greece where he harvests and cares for his family’s olive trees.  In this article he tells us about a little known type of oil Agoureleo – a delicacy many of us may never experience, but we can dream…

“Sacrificing quantity for quality” a common phrase that we’ve heard countless times before, in several aspects of human life, and yet maintaining quality remains a challenge. Whether in business, education, or health care, there is something that forces individuals, businesses and organizations to strive for greater numbers,. Often this results in a lower quality product, an inferior service or a less beneficial choice or lifestyle. Fortunately there are several exceptions (like ExperiencePlus!)

In agriculture we see this with the mass production of foods which is ever more dependent on fewer, large-scale producers, where success is measured in weight, revenue and annual increase in sales. This business model has also affected olive oil throughout Europe, but here in the Southern Peloponnese, we have a product that defies the rule of greater yields.

Agoureleo,  unripe oil, is highly regarded for its medicinal and culinary properties. If you have had the pleasure of tasting some, you are among a fortunate few. The reason is, with the exception of a few small producers that have started bottling their awarded “early oils”, most of the annual production is mysteriously lost in the distribution channels (mixed perhaps with more ripe and conventional tasting oil) or sold in high-end specialty food stores (we found a few bottles once in Manhattan selling for $60 per liter!?) It could also be that producers simply keep this stuff for themselves.

In early-mid November, at a time when the region’s dominant Koroneiki variety is still a bright green, tough skinned and several weeks away from turning yellow, then a mauve-red, and finally black (all olives follow a cycle from green to black), the word goes out that the first olive mills have started pressing. Several local producers will begin harvesting prematurely, knowingly sacrificing a greater yield (if they were to wait another month or so, they could achieve at least 20% higher oil yields) for their first oil, their pride, the prized agoureleo. It is a tradition that likely started generations ago, when harvesting olives was more time consuming and labor-intensive, so it would begin as early in the season as possible, minimizing the risk of losing part of the crop if December and especially January which brought strong winds or hail. I remember my grandfather never sold any of the early oil, but would keep it separate from the “later oil”, in our cellar. And if he asked one of us to go and refill bottles from the vats, where the oil was stored, he would always specify which oil he preferred, depending on the occasion. If his drinking buddy was there, it would always be “the new oil”… “and more wine”.

If you are a producer, within the first few days of the harvest, you call over friends and family for a first tasting. If you are not a producer, you hope that someone calls you over! There is usually not much cooking involved in these impromptu gatherings; meals tend to be simple. A head of cabbage, quartered into crisp chunks and sprinkled with lemon and sea salt, olives, last summer’s pickled baby eggplants, stuffed with garlic and wrapped with a local celery, a few slices of the local smoke cured pork (“siglino”) or smoked mackerel, feta or the more regional sfela cheese, and wine. If there is an open fire or, as in our case, a wood burning stove, you would also grill thick slices of rustic-style sourdough bread, which guests would enjoy with copious amounts of olive oil. Between all the discussion and laughter, you almost expect the necessary pauses, when somebody will comment on how special the olive oil is (if you don’t get several compliments throughout the evening, there is something wrong with your guests). The dinner is a success when you notice that within 2 hours, a group of four to six has consumed over 3 liters of olive oil!

If we happen to have non-Greek friends helping with the harvest (a common occurrence), the task of organizing an impressive meal is easy. Those that try the oil for the first time are amazed by the color and the intense aroma and flavor. Some say it resembles eating freshly cut grass, while others detect hints of green apple. We locals tend to keep any such analyses to a minimum. Having grown up with a product helps in appreciating the uniqueness of every year’s oil, without any descriptions and references to anything else.

Many are so amazed by the color (a vivid green) that they try to capture it with photographs.  There is a shade of green that is named after the olive, however, on certain years, the color resembles more a “pickle green” or even a “basil green”. The vibrant color contrasts beautifully with other ingredients of soups, a homemade margherita pizza, or a fresh cut tomato salad.

This may be the essence of the olive.

The April 2015 Edition of the ExperiencePlus! Rambler Newsletter will feature some of Yorgos’ favorite recipes for flavoring olive oils. Look for it in your inbox Thursday, April 5th!

When Yorgos is not leading bicycle tours, in the off-season he organizes Olive Harvest-Culinary-Hiking tours near his home, and produces some of the best olive oil we’ve ever tasted. If you have questions about his oil or trips email him at: yorgos.paraskos at hotmail.com.