Olive oil enthusiasts in St. Louis are saving Greece's Olea Estates

Aug 11, 2011 at 4:00 am
A single olive branch can hold fruit at varied stages of development.
A single olive branch can hold fruit at varied stages of development. George Chronis

The olive trees growing on Olea Estates in Sparta, Greece, are a youthful 150 years old. By comparison, some trees in the Mediterranean are still producing fruit after a couple thousand years. But like their ancient counterparts, the young trees have thick, rough trunks that give way to leafy branches that stay green all year, and the black olives — specifically, Koutsourelias — that hang from them.

Nicholas Chronis purchased the 25 acres of land that comprise Olea Estates in 1856, after the Greeks regained their independence following nearly 400 years of Turkish occupation. He planted a couple hundred trees; today, that number is closer to 1,200.

"We all bled in the fields," George Chronis, Nicholas' great-grandson, says of the four generations of his family who cultivated, maintained and harvested the grove's olives and oranges. He still has his great-grandfather's pocketknife, the one he used to cut olives from the trees, and his father, a retired Oxford-trained cardiologist, continues to tend the fields today.

But three years ago, the Chronis family nearly sold the land they've owned for more than a century: The price of olive oil plummeted, and the grove's profits were lower than the cost of its upkeep. George asked for one last chance to salvage the fields by trying to carve out a market for the oil in St. Louis. "Give me a year or two," he told his father in 2009. If he failed, the fields would be history.

George Chronis, 37, lives in Town & Country with his wife, Lauren. He was born and raised in Sparta but came to the United States for school at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where he earned a PhD in artificial intelligence.

The groves were a constant throughout his life in Greece, and by the time he was ten, his weekends were spent pruning trees under the distant, snow-capped specter of Mount Taygetus. Workdays and nights were long, and breakfast typically meant a slice of bread dipped in oil. "We didn't have to do that. My family had enough money to eat a good breakfast. But my dad wanted to show us how money is made," he says.

Not that it was such a terrible way to grow up. "At that time, I didn't have a problem with the trees so much. I never said, 'I'm not going to drink orange juice because it kicked my ass working the orange fields,' or, 'I'm never going to eat another olive,'" he says. "I didn't have it against nature, but I did have it against my dad who made me do it."

To Chronis, the perfect olive is deep brown, maybe black. Greek olives are firm like apples. Once they turn black, they become softer, taking on the consistency of a grape: crisp on the outside, soft on the inside. The window to pick the olives is a short one. Wait more than a few days, and that perfect black olive begins to turn soft and wrinkly.

At Olea Estates the olives are harvested from mid-October through the end of November the old-fashioned way: tediously. Only the black olives are used for oil; the less ripe green ones are more acidic. And because the same branch can hold olives at varied stages of development, the workers — about five in the fields on any given day — pick every olive by hand, branch by branch, for each of the 1,200 trees. As more olives reach their peak, workers can use a comb — which resembles a child's plastic sand rake — to go through the branches and snag plump, ripe olives between its tines, plucking them from the branches while leaving most of the leaves intact. Then the olives fall onto a fine-mesh tarp that provides a soft landing place (olives easily bruise). The workers fold the tarp with the olives into a bucket and drag everything to the next tree.

And so it goes, branch by branch, tree by tree. But that's just the first pass; typically, each tree gets ten passes per season. Using a tractor to shake olives loose from a tree would get them to drop more quickly, but with that comes leaves, sticks and the risk of damaging the tree itself.

Chemicals aren't used at Olea Estates, either: no need, when the Chronis' neighbor has hundreds of goats. "Our deal with him is that he can graze his goats in the grass under the trees, and in return, we get the manure from the goats, and that's our fertilizer," Chronis says. The olives are certified organic by both the USDA and the European Union.

After the olives are harvested, they are washed with river water, cold pressed between thick linen-like sheets and left to sit undisturbed in stainless-steel tanks. There, the tiny bits of skin settle at the bottom. Two months later the first-press olive oil — the highest-quality oil that's extracted when the olives are pressed for the first time — is taken from the top of the tanks. The second and third presses, not used for Olea Estates' oil, can bring pieces of pit and skin.

"Other farmers, out of 100 pounds of olives, they'll make 70 pounds of oil. We'll make 30. The rest is not going to waste, but it's going to be industrial oil; it's going to be pomace. In Greece we don't consider pomace oil to be human food."

Though it's commonly on tables in restaurants and found alongside olive oil in supermarkets in the United States, in Greece, it's illegal to sell pomace oil in restaurants. There, it's used for fuel or to fatten up cattle. Even the word "pomace" translates to "kernel" or "pit."

"It's not illegal here," Chronis says of pomace, "and really, you're not going to die. You're probably not going to die if you eat a lot of things. But it doesn't taste the same."

Nor did any of the olive oil he found in the United States. Even the expensive stuff. Most commercial olive oil comes from a blend of olives that are culled from a couple hundred groves, sometimes not even located in the same country, let alone from the same fields, Chronis says.

And yet, Chronis estimates, the price of the oil on U.S. shelves is up to fifteen times higher than prices in Greece. Overseas shipping costs can be prohibitive, and much of the olive oil that finds its way to the United States isn't first-press to begin with — or processed the same year it hits the shelves. But because it's bottled when the acidity is just below 1 percent, it's allowed to be labeled "extra virgin," even though it might not be in a matter of weeks.

That realization led him to believe there was a market in St. Louis for his family's product.

Chronis' first stop was grocery stores, where he'd arrive armed with samples of olive oil, hoping to convince managers to carry his product on the shelves. (Though ultimately unsuccessful, a Schnucks manager did ask to buy a bottle from Chronis — for his own use.)

During a trip to Kirkwood Farmers' Market in June 2009, Chronis met Karl Burgart, a retired cop turned backyard organic farmer and the proprietor of Healthy Harvest Gardens.

Chronis told Burgart his vegetables reminded him of home. "So I asked him where home was," Burgart recalls. The two developed a fast friendship, and Burgart offered to sell Chronis' product in his stall alongside his vegetables. Burgart tore through the twelve-bottle case on the first day and wiped Chronis out of the rest of his stock on the second. Within three weeks he became the exclusive distributor of Olea Estates products; shoppers can find the oil and whole olives at the Ellisville and Kirkwood farmers' markets, and at a handful of wine and gift stores.

Even as the oil is catching the attention of local chefs and home cooks alike — so far, about 20,000 pounds of it has been shipped here this year — Burgart tries to maintain an accessible price: The 250 milliliter bottle sells for less than $15, and three-liter tins cost around $60. "It's part of the process of being fair and exposing people to something they've never been exposed to before. They're surprised by the aftertaste and by how pure it is," Burgart says.

Buoyed by the St. Louis sales, two years ago the Chronis family began leasing property adjacent to Olea Estates, with plans to buy it in 2012. The purchase would more than double the original size of the groves. Plus they want to renovate the century-old 6,000-square-foot stone building on the property to house their own press and bottling facility, which will run on solar energy.

And that's just the beginning.

"I want everything," Chronis says. "I want the press; I want the equipment to deal with the byproducts after they're pressed. I want to make soap. I want my own bottling company. I want to take it from the field in the morning, press it and bottle it in the evening. If I could, I'd have bought my own ship to bring it over here."

Mostly, though, Chronis wants to tread softly on his family's ground, keeping Olea Estates' carbon footprint as light as possible.

"I shared this idea with a lot of people, and they're like, 'You're crazy.' Even the bottlers say, 'Why are you doing all of this? You can still sell it, just increase your quantity, drop your price, and you can still make all this money.' They don't understand that it's not about the money. They don't understand what the whole point of this is."

He continues, "The joy of growing things is something you cannot replace. From a little seed you get a big tree to feed your whole family."

And, he says, "it tastes a lot better."