Last month, Greek officials, international investors, and key olive oil producers from Crete’s eastern province of Lassithi were on hand to reassert Sitia oil production to its rightful place in the industry. But the broader picture holds vast potential for Crete as a whole if only producers could see eye to eye.
For those unfamiliar, Sitia has been well known for many generations for its high-quality Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) extra virgin olive oil. Once a perennial winner of awards for EVOO, the Union of Agricultural Cooperatives of Sitia fell on hard times more recently. Today, a new company, LASITIA, seeks to return the best Sitia olive oil to its rightful place in global markets.
Sitia, which is registered as “PDO Sitia Lasithiou Kritis,” is in the far-east of Crete island, a region unique in its climate and culture, while being kindred in spirit to other island regions culturally and historically. Now, the company LASITIA – Sitia Olive Oil S.A. aims to create a collaboration with the Union of Agricultural Cooperatives of Sitia with three large private companies: Inspiring Earth; Raidestos S.A., which is part of K & N Efthymiadis; and Gaia Epicheirein. The goal is to recapture “some of the old glory of the Union and the old glory of the olive oil.” According to Sitia Olive Oil S.A. CEO George Kondylis, his company will undertake the management of the facilities, bottling, branding, warehousing, distribution, promotion, and sales, while the Union’s cooperatives will remain responsible for production of PDO Sitia olive oil in their mills.
Legend says it was the guardians of the baby Zeus, the Curetes who brought the gift of the olive tree to Greece, from where it was shared with the rest of Europe.
Many are unaware, but Crete olive oil production, branding, and marketing are in a kind of infancy compared to regions in Spain, Italy, and especially in Tunisia, where the world’s finest olive oil is currently produced. The financial struggles of the Cretans are part of the problem, but the status quo of quality and pricing variables play an ever bigger role. Ironically, Crete has the oldest olive oil tradition in Europe.
So, justifiably, many here are in a quandary as to why the island’s role is minimized. For decades, Crete producers have had to settle for bulk oil prices, which many of them have become accustomed to. This new venture seeks to reverse this trend. Kondylis says he wants to return Sitia to its rightful place. This is very important since 70% of the money generated in Sitia comes from olive oil.
On October 1, LASITIA – Sitia Olive Oil S.A. was officially announced in Sitia at an event attended by the Minister of Rural Development and Food Mavroudis Voridis, Minister of Maritime Affairs and Insular Policy Ioannis Plakiotakis, and Governor of Crete Stavros Arnaoutakis. The day after this inaugural event, key stakeholders met to further discuss how the cooperation would go. Gaia Epicheirein CEO John Mavroudis offered his company’s support for the “historic cooperative” in order to help in “the repositioning of Sitia olive oil on the market.”
Sitia olive oils are certified by the European Union as a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), but unfortunately, the region has not benefited from the potential. This is true of the rest of Crete as well since the PDO distinction has not brought with it standards regulations and quality control, nor has there been any real effort to promote the finest of Crete’s oils. Individual efforts have been made by some producers and notable Cretan agriculture celebrities like Alexandra Manousakis and others.
A Heraklion Prefecture producer named Stelios Kanakis is trying to create a center for testing and education for Crete olive oil producers. A huge part of the problem for Crete’s re-emergence as a center for fine olive oils is the disparity between practices among producers. Quality standards have, more or less, been put in place so that producers can meet the demand for bulk sales for cheap oil. This situation does not lend itself to Crete becoming a hub like it was during Minoan times. The capacity to grow the finest EVOO in the world is here, but the landscape needed to do so does not extend past perfect climate and soils. An EVOO school of thought and practice is needed. This is what Kanakis and several of his colleagues want to create. A Crete University of Olive Oil, as it were.
Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten – Aldo Gucci
The knowledge is here, in the traditions and expertise of a legion of Cretan producers. No aspect of fine olive oil production is missing. The only thing preventing Crete from becoming the olive oil capital of the world is effort. Too many have resigned themselves to doing things the way they’ve always been done. But Cretans accepting bulk prices and living on subsistence has not “always” been the way. Cretans were cultivating olive trees 6,000 years ago. The Minoan Civilization thrived for more than a thousand years based on the production and export of olive oil and other Cretan products. Olive oil production techniques were exported to Spain and Italy from Crete and Greece. Now Spain produces half of the world’s olive oil, and boasts of the world’s first online university dedicated to olive oil training and assessment. Greece is the second-biggest producer, and Italy is third. The International Olive Council (IOC), which establishes all the standards for olive oil production, is in Madrid, Spain.
What needs to take place for olive oil producers and the market, is the same thing that took place for Crete wine producers. The geographical indication and protected designation of origin for agricultural products were established by EU regulation (EEC 2081/92) to encourage diversified agricultural production and support integrated rural development via substantial and high–quality local production.
Winegrowers took up the gauntlet, and now some Crete wineries are some of the most acclaimed in Europe. Ironically, the EU has also established olive oil PDO and PDI designations. Only producers have not fully indoctrinated themselves as to the procedure and benefits. The good news is, Crete’s new olive oil dominance would seem to be halfway there.
If only the olive growers could grasp this potential.
Source: Greek Liquid Gold