KALAMATA, Greece - “The most beautiful olive tree valley that exists on earth,” suggests Cristina Stribacu, is in Messinia, a regional unit in southwest Peloponnese, Greece. Archaeological finds show that olive oil has been important there for millennia. Now, estimates Vasileios Stournaras, 15 million olive trees cover almost 29% of Messinia and 80% of its cultivated land.
Katerina Bougatsou says her family has produced olive oil there for seven generations, recently developing the Stalia Olive Oil brand. “Today we continue the tradition that we learned from our grandfathers, adding some new techniques. Of course we depend on that economically, but it is not just a job for us. Cultivating our trees brings our family together and gives us happiness, wellness, and strength for the future.”
Bougatsou’s family is not unusual; Makaria Terra’s Evgenia Andriopoulou thinks olive trees provide income “for almost all families in Messinia.” George Kokkinos of the Nileas Producers Group agrees that “the economy of the Messinian countryside is to a significant degree supported by olive cultivation.” Stournaras* suggests that olive oil brings the area about 150 million euros annually.
In recent years, Messinia has produced between 36,000 and 67,000 metric tons of olive oil per year (mean production: 55,000), according to Antonis Paraskevopoulos.** That is two to four times as much as the USA produces (judging by International Olive Council, or IOC, provisional figures for 2017-19). It may be one sixth to one fourth of Greek production (looking at 2017-19 IOC estimates for Greece), or possibly a bit less (considering Olivenews.gr predictions for this year).
Production levels have increased over time, but archaeologists have shown that olive oil was important to the area’s economy as far back as the Mycenaean period (3,200-3,600 years ago). For example, excavations at the 13th century BC Palace of Nestor revealed that many jars of olive oil and perfumed olive oil were kept in storerooms in the palace. Olive oil was also mentioned on clay tablets in the Linear B script--some of the world’s oldest records of olive oil.
Over the centuries, olive oil’s importance varied. According to one account, Messinia was “the most significant olive-growing region in the Peloponnese” by the 14th century. By the 18th century, olive oil exports expanded to reach more of Europe, especially England and France, in some cases for soap production.
At least one ancient olive tree lived through these historical developments. Experts estimate that a monumental Kalamon olive tree in Kalamata is 800 to 1700 years old. As Panagiotis Katsaris indicates, this may be the only tree that survived the destruction of Messinia during the Greek Revolutionary War in 1821. It is considered the mother of the Kalamata variety: most of the Kalamon olive trees in the Peloponnese, and many in other parts of Greece, are believed to be its offspring. With a trunk 3 meters in diameter, a 9-meter perimeter, and a height of 14 meters, it remains productive, attracting hundreds of visitors each year.
In the 19th century, as that tree grew, grape cultivation became more important than olive growing in Messinia. Only after the world wars did olive oil again begin to dominate the Messinian landscape and economy. By the 1980s, European subsidies had turned farmers away from grapes and toward olives, so that olive trees gradually replaced grapevines. George Kokkinos concludes, “today we have reached the point that olive-growing is a monoculture for Messinia.”
Now Mavrolia (also called Choraitiki) and Mastoeidis (Matsolia, Athinolia) variety olives are used to make some of the olive oil in Messinia. The famous Kalamon olives named after Kalamata, Messinia’s capital and largest city, are enjoyed as table olives. PDO Kalamata olive oil also comes from this area, made from the Koroneiki olive variety used for 95% of Messinian olive oil and the majority of Greek olive oil overall.
Koroneiki olives were named after the town of Koroni in Messinia. The Maniatakeion Foundation website explains that Koroni was “chosen to represent Greece in the cross-border candidacy for inclusion of the Mediterranean Diet in the UNESCO Representative List [of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity] … because it harmoniously blends the three significant factors of local [agricultural] produce, tradition and history.” The Foundation considers Koroni “a model local community where the Mediterranean Diet and traditional cooking methods have remained part of the day-to-day life of local residents.”
As Katerina Bougatsou confirms, “olive oil is a basic ingredient in traditional Messinian cuisine and is usually used in large amounts” in salads and traditional dishes. Indeed, agrees Cristina Stribacu, “extra virgin olive oil is everywhere!” Recommending a website with many traditional Messinian recipes in both Greek and English, she emphasizes, “the secret is the EVOO!”
According to agronomist and competition judge Kostas Liris, the Koroneiki extra virgin olive oil of Messinia tends to have a medium intense fruitiness and be “more pungent than bitter, but well balanced.” It is especially noteworthy, says Liris, as “a full bodied olive oil that can stand by itself,” as well as blending perfectly with other flavors. The predominant aroma may be tomato or herbs. Of course, adds Liris, there is “enormous organoleptic variation,” with different flavors and aromas depending on the exact location of the olive groves and the maturity of the olives.
Stribacu emphasizes that a very high percentage of Messinian olive oil tends to be extra virgin. She loves to share olive oil with people from all over the world. “Many visitors every year enjoy the olive oil tasting event at Costa Navarino, and also more and more visitors want to see our olive garden, where we offer them a beautiful olive oil and culinary experience.”
Messinians have varied perceptions of the role olive oil plays for vacationers in their area. Evgenia Andriopoulou wishes the touristic infrastructure was better developed, both “to promote olive oil and to use olive oil as a boost for tourism in Messinia.”
George Kokkinos agrees that there is room for improvement, “since the opportunities for this thematic tourism in Messinia are inexhaustible,” but he looks on the bright side. “The olive groves of Messinia are visible everywhere and in harmony with the rest of the environment. Olive oil accompanies food and salads in restaurants.”
Noticing crowds of tourists in certain parts of Messinia each summer, Peter Liokareas views Messinia as an increasingly appealing holiday destination. “Many of these visitors love to take a piece of the region home with them, and this has created a small boutique market for premium olive oil,” especially at shops featuring local products. Liokareas Olive Oil and other producers and partners also offer traditional olive harvest experiences in the region, enabling tourists to work alongside local farmers “to produce some of the world's best olive oil,” as Liokareas says.
From ancient times to the present, Stribacu tells Greek Liquid Gold, Messinian olive oil has played “a key role not only in the economy but also in gastronomy and tourism.” So “the olive tree is our life.”
This is the first in a projected series of articles providing overviews of important olive oil producing areas in Greece. Thanks to Cristina Stribacu for sharing photos of LIA olive groves taken by Margarita Nikitaki, and to Vasileios Stournaras for sharing a photo of the monumental Kalamon olive tree.
*Dr. Vasileios Stournaras is a researcher at the Institute of Olive Tree, Subtropical Crops and Viticulture (Department of Olive and Horticultural Crops in Kalamata) of the Hellenic Agricultural Organization DΕMETER.
**Antonis Paraskevopoulos is the Director of the Agricultural Economy and Veterinary Department in the Municipality of Trifilia, Messinia.
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“Originally published on Greek Liquid Gold: Authentic Extra Virgin Olive Oil (greekliquidgold.com). See that site for recipes with olive oil, photos from Greece, agrotourism and food tourism suggestions, and olive oil news and information.”