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Olive Branch
A trip to Greece gives deli managers an up-close and personal look at the olive production process.


By John Stueland , Deli Category Manager

On a small picturesque estate in the foothills of the Parnonas Mountain just outside Sparta, Greece, a small team of our deli managers and I had the opportunity to meet some of the farmers who grow the Kalamon (Kah-la-moan) olives you’ll find in the deli at all of our Lunds and Byerly’s stores.

Panagiotis Alexis and his son, George Alexis, are second and third generation olive growers on the Kefalas Estate. When we arrived, we were immediately impressed by the incredible amount of care and pride Panagiotis and George showed for their grove of nearly 3,000 olive trees. The entire grove was covered in a bed of lush wild clover, and each tree was well pruned to allow for ample sunlight and room to breathe.

 


It was early November, and the first harvest of the season had just begun. We watched as five workers, along with Panagiotis and George, went from tree to tree using just a ladder and their hands to pick only those Kalamons (also commonly referred to as Kalamatas) that had reached perfect ripeness. It’s a process they will repeat on three occasions throughout the 40- to 50-day harvesting season.

These same time-tested harvesting methods are used by all of the small family growers in Greece, Italy, France, and Morocco who produce the olives you’ll find in our deli cases and in our olive bars—or as I like to call them, our “ingredient bars.” (See our olive bar guide for a variety of ways to enjoy our premium olives.)

In contrast, most commercial olives are harvested by beating the branches with large bamboo sticks or even by shaking the tree with a mechanical device. Not all olives reach ripeness at the same time, so these other harvesting methods mean that many of the olives may be under or overripe.

That’s not so when the olives are handpicked.

For Panagiotis, George, and the other 20 olive growers in the Kefalas Estate, the much more labor-intensive, centuries-old method of annually pruning each tree and picking each olive by hand helps ensure the trees will continue to produce high-quality olives every other year.

Olive Branch
RIPENING PROCESS: Here are a group of Kalamon olives at different stages of ripeness. Hand-picking the olives ensures only those that have reached perfect ripeness are harvested.

MEETING THE GROWERS (above left): Our deli managers spent a day with some of the olive growers on the Kefalas Estate just outside Sparta, Greece. Pictured are Katie Swenson (second from left), deli manager at Lunds Central; Janice Johnson (third from right), deli manager at Byerly’s St. Cloud; and Jeff Zierden (fourth from right), deli manager at Lunds Ford Parkway.

“If you give the fruit love, the fruit will give the love back to you,” says Panagiotis, who personally planted most of the trees on his grove nearly three decades ago.

While on the estate, we learned that as the olives ripen on the trees the oil content increases, which changes the texture of the fruit from firm and crisp to tender and buttery to—finally—smooth and velvety.

We also learned that every olive starts out green. Depending on the variety, it will either be harvested earlier in the ripening process when it’s still green or when it’s fully ripened and has turned deep purple or black. Young and green olives, such as the Picholine (Peesho- lean), will have a fresh and grassy flavor while the more mature, mossy green olives like the Halkidiki (Hal-kee-dah-kee) will have a more mellow and herbal flavor. Those varieties that stay on the tree until they are fully ripened, such as the Kalamon, will have a complex flavor that is rich, dense, fruity, and smoky.


“I was really impressed with the care these farmers showed for their olives,” says Jeff Zierden, deli manager at the Lunds on Ford Parkway in St. Paul. “I come from a farming family and I am proud to be part of a process where farmers can continue to use traditional methods that create the best product.”

Following our visit to Kefalas, we headed north to the curing facility in Larissa, Greece, to get an up-close look at the brining and packaging process. As we toured the facility, we witnessed firsthand the attention that goes into making sure only the best olives are shipped to our stores.

When the olives arrive at the plant, they are inspected twice for blemishes, color, and size before being cured. After the olives have gone through this rigorous sorting process they are ready for the months-long curing process.

PRIDE AND PASSION: “If you give the fruit love, the fruit will give the love back to you,” says Panagiotis Alexis, who, along with his son, George, owns an olive grove in the Kefalas Estate. It’s here where some of our Kalamon (Kalamata) olives are grown.


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  • The olives are placed in a brine along with floating bags of sea salt. The bags are punctured to allow the salt to slowly seep into the brine until it has reached the desired salinity. The end result is aromatic and flavorful olives. This same facility is where they also create our stuffed olives. On this particular day, we watched as the fresh, new crop of Mt. Athos green olives were being stuffed by hand with a Danish blue cheese.

    Using the demanding palates of our deli managers, the plant owners asked us to be among the first to sample this year’s crop. We were unanimous in our response—the overall appearance, texture, and flavor was even better than last year’s crop. “These olives had a wonderful crispness and hint of lemon that really complements the blue cheese,” says Janice Johnson, deli
    manager at the Byerly’s in St. Cloud.

    While reflecting on this experience, it strikes me that except for pottery containers being replaced by plastic jugs, nothing has
    fundamentally changed in olive production during the past 3,000
    years. That’s because the only way to guarantee consistently highquality olives is by carefully tending to every step of the olive production process.

    “This trip was such an amazing opportunity,” says Katie Swenson, deli manager at the Lunds on Central Avenue in Minneapolis. “When you see all of the work that goes into producing these olives, it really gives you a true appreciation for what you see in our olive bars.”