Kid friendly olive oil tour in Ancient Messene with the Messenian Gulf as backdrop and olive groves of “Koroneiki” and “Kalamata” olive variety spreading out before us.
«If Greece had one symbol, it would be an olive branch» I read somewhere and that is how I began a journey into the silver of the Messenian olive groves and the gold of its olive oil in a tour with my kids.
Heading to an olive oil tour with our kids, we found ourselves on a hillside 10 minutes from Ancient Messene, one of the most impressive ruins of an ancient city, at the castle of Princess Izambo in Androusa. Spread out below us was an endless sea of olive trees and far in the distance Kalamata and the Messenian Gulf.
It is here that we searched out for the roots of the olive tree. We let our senses carry us freely through the Greek varieties and the amazing extra virgin olive oil while also looking towards the future and the need to nourish wellness in the next generations and the importance of the Mediterranean diet.
If you are in Greece with kids, immersing them in the wonder of this Greek ‘gold’ and taking an olive oil tour is almost a must.
Looking for the hidden ‘treasure’
We reach Androusa late afternoon after an instructive tour of Ancient Messene and a filling meal at the village square. Dimitra and Stathis were waiting for us at Androusa, a young couple who spread their roots where the fruit of the olive can be found. With a ‘papyrus’ in one hand they welcomed the kids and challenged them to a treasure hunt in the olive grove and the castle of Princess Izambo. What would Athens be called if there wasn’t the olive tree? What was the prize for champions in the ancient Olympics? What does a can of olive oil, soap, wax and a towel remind us of? And what is Greece’s real ‘gold’?
Walking towards Stathis’ oil mill, we tried to distinguish the Koroneiki variety of olive trees from which olive oil is mostly extracted, to the “Hondrolia” that produces the eatable Kalamon (or Kalamata) olives. At the mill, Stathis gave us a personal olive oil tour, where we learned all the secrets of how the oil is processed. Stathis is an olive oil producer from his great-great-great grandfather and back, fifth generation olive oil mill owner who believes that olive oil now runs in his DNA. He owns the historical, yet modernized, mill that has been at the same spot since 1904 and constantly seeks ways to improve the quality of his products. Today, he has managed to export the “Messiniako” olive oil, which is 100% exclusively one variety extra virgin olive oil, to more the 10 countries.
While we, adults, asked Stathis questions to find out more details about the processing of the olive oil, Dimitra took the kids to show them where the olives were selected, washed, crushed and how they can give us this amazing oil that smells fresh, slightly spicy and bitter and yet with a fruity aroma to it.
Dimitra might have studied Economics and Business Management, and worked in so many different fields – but now she has given herself body and soul, except for her love for Stathis and their kids, to olive oil. She considers this Greek ‘gold’ not only as a vital element of a healthy Mediterranean diet but as an indispensable part of Greece’s healthy economy, of its national identity and its ability to stay competitive in the global economy.
Olive oil tasting with kids
None of us in the group knew that extra virgin olive oil can only be distinguished organoleptically, meaning through the use of the human senses. That means that there is no process known today chemical or mechanical that can analyze the olive oil and certify it as extra virgin olive oil – it can only be done through the human senses of taste and smell!
And in fact, extra virgin and virgin olive oil, which are the only two categories of olive oil that have healthy nutritional benefits, are distinguished by sampling from expert and certified olive oil tasters who use special blue (or sometimes red) drinking glasses so that the color of the oil can be hidden in order to avoid misleading the taster!
And this is what it is all about. Olive oil is a natural juice that must be preserved under specific conditions so that it does not become “lambande” (an oil with high levels of acidity and an unpleasant smell, that was used in old times as fuel for oil lamps) or become rancid.
“We warm our glass and we approach it from the level of our stomach up to our face. And depending on what point its aroma will catch us, we can measure its intensity and its fruitiness,” Dimitra explains who is a certified olive oil sommelier, olive oil taster and member of the certification panel of Kalamata’s olive oil tasters.
“This is a 5!” shouts my youngest. “I smell a 4! It caught me higher up!” disagrees my middle child. “Children have a natural advantage in tasting. They are free from preconceptions and prejudices. That is why they are almost always on target!” observes Dimitra who daily hosts many families in big or small groups of Greeks or foreigners who travel in the Peloponnese with kids and who are interested in Greek gastronomy and at the same time want a kids’ friendly activity.
As if in an experiential game of the senses, we all loose ourselves, kids and adults, in smells, aromas, fruits, the spicy taste of olive oils that the combination with fruit, cheeses, vegetables and even chocolate. “But how is it possible that this dark chocolate can become milk chocolate with this olive oil from northern Greece that smells like… tomato?!” said the youngest amongst us in shock. After, all of us literally lunged to sample the olives, salads, lalaggia (a traditional fried dough strip made locally), sfela (another local product also known as ‘cheese of fire’ due to its intense and peppery taste) and pasto (pork meat that has been boiled and then smoked with local herbs).
When coming to Messenia with kids and participating in this olive oil tasting tour, we never expected that we would get such a wealth of knowledge and tastes to fill our senses. Olive oil is deeply rooted in Greek culture and is a central part of the Mediterranean diet, with its nutritional properties known since the time of Hippocrates, but it also plays such an important role in the Greek economy and the identity and branding of the country itself.
As Takis Dimitrakopoulos, an expert olive oil taster said at the end of his speech to olive oil producers in Messenia, “it is our responsibility to improve continually the quality of the olive oil as much as it is to also teach our children the value of olive oil so that we can look forward towards the future optimistically.”
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