While Italy and Spain remain the major producers of extra virgin olive oils, Greece is also a significant supplier, not least to its own people who are the world’s biggest per capita consumers. Not that you’d know it from glancing at supermarket shelves.
“Consumers are aware of other Mediterranean producers but olive oil continues to be perceived as an Italian product,” says Panos Manuelides, MD of importer Odysea, which has been promoting Greek extra virgin olive oil in the UK since 1993.“It doesn’t help that two of the leading brands, Filippo Berio and the Unilever-owned Bertolli, have huge marketing budgets.”
He points out that most ads for olive oil focus on the ‘Italian lifestyle’ and that the product is portrayed as a core ingredient in the country’s cuisine. Italian meal solutions are an all-year-round feature of most stores, whereas Greek products are treated as seasonal, ‘al fresco dining’ purchases.
Combine this with the price-competitiveness of Spanish oils, and Greek products face substantial barriers to entry. “And up until recently Greek suppliers did little to market their oils as premium products,” adds Manuelides.
Odysea has tried to address this with the Iliada brand - a premium Kalamata
PDO extra virgin olive oil (Kalamata is the region where the oil is produced, not, as many think, a type of olive). It is stocked in Tesco and in Sainsbury’s Special Selection section, and Manuelides says retail sales rose 12% year-on-year in the first half of 2005. Sales of Iliada organic, listed by Sainsbury, were up 21%.
Most Greek extra virgin olive oil continues to be sold in bulk to Italy and Spain, says Manuelides, but he adds: “Odysea is committed to promoting the use of authentic Greek olive oils, not blends, and we encourage our customers to have their oil bottled in Greece.”
Mediterranean importer Bevelynn, which sells its Bevelini brand through Makro and direct to independents, has also added a supreme quality estate extra virgin Greek oil from Kalamata to its range. It also distributes single estate oils from Kolymvari, Crete, and Sita Gold from nearby Sita.
Another newcomer is Terra Rossa, the only UK importer of extra virgin olive oil from Jordan. Set up by partners Hanan Samara and Chris James, Terra Rossa is bringing in two distinctive grades of oil. Sinolea is extracted using a ‘natural cold drip’ method and is unfiltered; Evoo is produced using a centrifugal system, and filtered. Both are packed in premium bottles, ceramic jars and presentation boxes, with retail prices starting at £4.95 for Evoo and £5.95 for Sinolea (both 250ml). Samara claims to have had an “excellent” response from buyers. “They see it as a refreshing change from Italian, Spanish and Greek oils,” she says.
So far Terra Rossa only has listings in independent delis and garden centres. But Samara says supermarkets should consider removing some “cheap, mass-produced, blended varieties” to make room for oils that, thanks to a natural, cold extraction process, are high in antioxidants and nutrients.