Harvesting Liquid Gold
I had the opportunity recently to talk with Niki Tsourounakis of Amphora, a family-owned company that produces and imports its own high quality extra virgin olive oil. She is passionate about healthy, fantastic tasting food and argues that unadulterated olive oil is what makes a good dining experience great. Personally speaking, I’d say that enjoying fresh food in warm and sunny Greece helps too. But, I digress.
Niki explains that the idea to develop Amphora emerged from a family trip to her father’s hometown in Vlatos. Located in Chania, Crete, Niki was feasting on fresh, delicious food drizzled with the family’s own organic extra virgin olive oil, she says, when she realized that people beyond her family would truly love to experience food the way she always has. Not just for frying or drizzling over salad greens, high quality extra virgin olive oil is great on popcorn and in baked goods (instead of butter).
Read on to find out how Niki and her family produce olive oil in its purest form.
Tell me about how Amphora came into being?
I asked myself why we were selling the olive oil to larger companies who were then compromising the quality by blending it with lower quality oils, and sometimes not even olive oil. The idea of exporting the olive oil to Canada as is, and marketing it as 100% extra virgin, and certified organic really appealed to me. After all, it’s the way I love to eat and I knew it was important to make great food products available to people here, especially quality olive oil.
The Vlatos olive trees are completely family owned and run. We oversee everything from the harvest, picking, production, and bottling of the olive oil. This way we can ensure we know exactly what is inside the bottle.
My mother is from the mainland, a beautiful town called Mavromati, and my father was born and raised in the town of Vlatos. This is where the olive trees are and have been in our family for centuries.
Why do you use only olives grown in the village of Vlatos?
We only use olives from the village of Vlatos because these are the only ones we can attest great quality to. Our goal is not to mass produce oil, but to share our harvest. We want as many people as possible to experience this delicious and nutritious olive oil. Also, we wanted to keep it single estate, which is important to us, as we are very proud of our harvest.
Vlatos olive oil only uses Tsounati olives. How would you describe the taste of Tsounati olives vs other kinds of olives used to make oil?
The Tsounati olive is described as producing an olive oil that is very light and fruity, with a buttery finish. Olive oil is like wine and will produce very different flavours depending on which variety is chosen.
Your olive oil is extracted using mechanical means without the use of heat. What does that entail and how heat affects the olives?
Once heat is used to extract oil from the olive, it destroys a lot of the nutrients that are present in the olive oil. Using mechanical means simply means we don’t use heat, or chemicals to extract the oil from the fruit. This yields a much more nutritious olive oil that is rich is many nutrients, including a high level of antioxidants. What happens is a much lower quantity of olive oil is produced, but it is much higher in nutrients, the very reason we seek olive oil in the first place, other than its wonderful taste!
Does calling olive oil “extra virgin” also mean that it’s “cold-pressed”?
To label an olive oil extra-virgin, it must be produced in a way that yields an oil having an acidity level of less than 0.8. To achieve this, one must definitely not use heat. However, the term cold-pressed is dated, and refers to an old method of extracting the oil from the fruit. Most producers use centrifugation, which also doesn’t use heat and apparently yields a fantastic tasting and high quality olive oil. The term cold-pressed is still used because producers are concerned that consumers still look for this terminology on the bottle to distinguish the good olive oils from the bad.
The process of turning olives into oil is incredibly labour intensive and the financial return isn’t huge. So, why do you bother hand-picking the olives?
Although hand-picking the olives is very labour intensive, it drastically reduces the amount of bruising that occurs on the olives, therefore leading to a higher quality of olive oil. Using bruised olives can affect the flavour of the final result.
An individual walking into a store sees an array of olive oil – some of it is EVOO, some is virgin, some is olive oil with pomace – from Greece, Spain and Italy. How can the consumer understand how these oils are different and choose a favourite?
I am very adamant that consumers do their research on anything they are purchasing. It is very important to know what you are putting into your mouth! There is so much fraud that goes on with olive oil, and sometimes what you are buying isn’t even olive oil, even when it blatantly says that it is on the label. Reading the nutritional label, researching the company and their background/ethics is important also. Just a heads up: it is impossible from farm to table to produce an extra virgin olive oil for under $10. Also, there aren’t even enough olive trees in the world to produce the amount of extra virgin olive oil that exists on the market. Pretty scary!
Olive oil should always be stored in a dark and cool space. Light and heat are enemies of olive oil. Also, it should be stored in an airtight container.
I buy extra virgin olive oil in 1 litre bottles and use it in practically everything. Some people would argue that I’m throwing money away by cooking with it. Does cooking with evoo make sense?
Personally, I use olive oil as my main oil for cooking because of the taste. Also, the higher the quality of olive oil, the higher the smoke point. This means that you are able to cook with olive oil at a higher temperature without having the nutrients break down, more specifically the omegas. High quality olive oil should ideally be kept for salads and garnishes, but it will retain a lot of its nutrients and taste if you cook with it, as long as you aren’t deep-frying.
Greeks use olive oil in practically everything; it’s true! Olive oil can be used on bread in the morning, to salads, soups, stews, cakes, cookies and yes, I do put it on my ice cream!
Why did you become involved with 1% For The Planet?
1% FTP “for the planet” is a great organization I became involved with last year. Basically, we donate 1% of our sales to an organization within FTP. The organizations are all devoted to helping the environment so it is a great cause to join. Also, I can donate to different organizations each year, and I am confident that FTP has done their research and each one is doing a fantastic job in helping our planet.
Any final thoughts?
It’s very important to me that people become aware that there is a lot of fraud that goes on with olive oil. Most of the time, consumers are buying what they think is olive oil, when really it isn’t at all. Companies have been known to blend their olive oil with sunflower oil, hazelnut oil, and sometimes even dye! These olive oils are then fraudulently sold as extra virgin olive oil at a discounted price, leaving the real 100% olive oils competing for a market that is impossible to match. It is impossible to sell 100% extra virgin olive oil for the price these companies are selling them for. You can’t even pay the farmer some of these prices, let alone the cost to process, bottle and import it! Consumers need to educate themselves and be aware that they are paying for what they get, which also means the quality is also on par with the price.
How to taste olive oil
To properly taste olive oil, place the oil in a tapered wine glass. Lift the glass to your nose and inhale. Note what you smell. Then take a sip of the olive oil while inhaling air at the same time. (Make a slurping noise!) This allows the oil to emulsify in your mouth, allowing it to coat and also allowing you to properly taste the oil. Write down what you taste. Is it bitter, fruity or grassy?
Characteristics you should be noting are whether the olive oil is grassy or more on the fruity side, pleasant or unpleasant, whether the oil leaves a sting at the back of your throat or not. (It should, that means the antioxidants are still present in the oil!). Olive oil is like wine; one characteristic doesn’t trump another, it just depends on what you like. Those characteristics help you decide which olive oils are better for heavier dishes and which are better for light ones. Regardless though, always make sure you are buying 100% extra virgin olive oil!
For purchasing information, visit Vlatos at www.vlatos.com.