The health benefits of olive oil are unquestionable. It forms the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet and is an essential nutritional mainstay for the world’s longest-living cultures. Many of the health-promoting effects of the Mediterranean diet have been attributed to olive oil consumption.
In an area of astonishing natural beauty, nestling in the foothills of the Menikio Mountains in northern Greece, there thrives an olive grove of noble provenance. Home to a rare collection of legendary Greek olive varieties, the grove has been painstakingly rejuvenated by a daughter and her English fiancée, in honour of her father’s dream.
In this idyllic, tranquil setting, olives are tended with reverence using time-honoured, organic methods. Fresh olives are harvested by hand and quickly extracted to produce Eliris, a signature field-blend of unrivalled quality, aroma and flavour.
Eliris pitches itself as one of the finest, most distinctive organic olive oils in the world. The Efthimiadi Estate is managed ‘with meraki’ by Iris & Sam, who met while enjoying successful careers in London.
I caught up with Iris to find out a little more about the business she gave up everything to pursue.
The first thing I wanted to identify was the meaning behind “meraki”.
“Meraki (μεράκι) is when you do something from the soul, for creativity or out of love. It’s about investing something of yourself into your work.”
So when did you decide to take the plunge and make that investment by starting the company?
“The Efthimiadi Estate was founded by my father in 1974 and together with my fiancée, Sam, we created Eliris in 2011 with “meraki” as one of its core principals.”
“For us Eliris is a personal story of love, rejuvenation - a home coming. A love for the family land that was abandoned since my Dad died and the will to rejuvenate and bring it back to life, in a way to cherish his memory. It was also love for nature and a love for creating something that benefits and contributes to this world.”
Where is the company based?
“We are based in the area of Drama town in Northern Greece. The Estate is located outside a village called Haritomeni (which in Greek means cute!) nestled in the foothills of the Menikio mountains, famous for the greenery, wildlife and exceptional products. The facility and our home is also located within the grove! We live and breathe olives every day!
“We are a Greek company that mainly exports to both private and trade clients worldwide. Currently, we export to UK, France, Germany, Singapore, Australia, Russia, Africa, Taiwan and also available in a couple of very selective places within Greece.
“We employ a small team of people seasonally. For example, we have a team of 5 people to help with harvest and a couple of people who help with pruning and general agriculture jobs. Sam & myself are involved in all stages of the process, from cultivating, pruning, spraying etc, to the bottling, selling and marketing of the product. Saying that, as we grow, more permanent employees will be needed.”
Have you always been focused on a career in business?
“Yes, I guess so. I was happily working in the media sector in London but always felt there was something missing, that I was meant to be doing something else. I really wanted to create and somehow make a difference to the world in my own unique way.
“It’s a long way off my early ambitions. I always wanted to help and contribute. As a kid, I wanted to be a doctor who saves kids lives. Then, I wanted to be a vet to save animals....and eventually I studied philosophy in UCL London looking for a meaning in life. I always felt the need of a purpose and meaning, to have a positive impact.
“Eliris is a joint venture with Sam, my fiancée. We met while working in London and decided to give up our comfortable salaries back in 2008 and move to Greece to rejuvenate the family olive grove. We share the same dream but we had no idea what to expect and the life change from the city has been massive.”
We’ve heard a lot about the benefits of olive oil? What are the key ones you can tell us about?
“Olive oil is awesome! Authentic extra virgin olive oil is the most valuable juice you can have in your daily routine and please make it organic! (To avoid all the toxins that conventional oils hide).
“Sam and I drink a shot everyday with a bit of freshly squeezed lemon juice. The benefits - apart from being delicious and that it makes your food tastier - are endless. The best olive oil, which is the freshly pressed juice of olives has endless benefits.
“It has been found to be effective against cancer, heart disease, blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis. It can help prevent strokes, keeps the heart young, protects from depression, can reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease.
“Also, it’s very important to dress your salad and vegetables in olive oil in order to get the nutrients from them. It has been found that olive oil is the best choice of salad dressing for absorbing the nutrients from vegetables.”
So that’s the benefits of olive oil clarified – but what makes your product “extraordinary”?
“Eliris is an extremely rare olive oil – a unique field-blend of many Greek varieties planted by my father in an area unknown for olive oil (until now) where vines were always flourishing. The varieties come from the four corners of Greece and include mainly koroneiki, megaritiki, manaki, tsounati, chalkidikis, amfisas and kalamon.
“This unique recipe creates a very distinctive, aromatic oil with a complex character. A depth of flavor that elevates the product above the norm. This is a very different Greek oil.
“It is an exclusive single estate oil with a limited number of bottles released annually. This means that the oil comes exclusively from one olive grove of 2,500 olive trees.”
And are Sam and Iris both intimately involved in all the steps of the process?
“Absolutely! This is an artisan-crafted product, pruned, harvested and bottled by hand. We apply fastidious care and attention in all stages where we are both involved and controlling it, avoiding some old bad technics associated with mass production. For instance, we harvest olives directly from the tree, never from the ground and we harvest early in the season (Oct-Nov) for greater aroma, flavour and nutritional benefits.
“It is authentic – the real thing! Product supplied fresh from the current season with all its organoleptic & nutritional value intact. Never mixed with previous harvests or other oils.
“It has an exceptionally low peroxide value indicating the degree of oxidation in the oil. Eliris will stay fresh longer than oils with higher scores. All this is due to healthy olives and fastidious product handling in all stages. Eliris has received awards for three consecutive years for the quality, with the most recent one being the UK Great Taste Award 2015.
“Our packaging is focused on aesthetics, use, convenience and most importantly, preservation of product quality. Olive oil rapidly oxidises with exposure to light and air, so we only use premium dark glass of 100ml and 250ml, which absorb 99% UV light to preserve the aroma, flavour and quality.
“Currently, we offer a limited release of up to 4000 numbered bottles, highlighting the harvest date (as opposed to bottling date), quality and best before information. Reservation is advised as once it's gone, it's gone!”
How big is the production line every year?
“This is a small production but of a very high quality. Currently we produce around 2 tonnes of oil but with the rejuvenation of the grove, we expect this to easily double in the near future. It will, however, still be small and limited to maintain it's rare and unique qualities.”
Has the volatility in the European market posed challenges for you?
“We moved to Greece at the beginning of the crisis. There have been lots of challenges but I believe opportunities as well. The system here is very different and you need to have patience, a lot of it.....
“This is my main challenge...I must admit in the current climate, we feel even more crazy than we do normally – but I do have a good instinct – especially the more I learn about the wonders of fresh organic estate olive oil! Every year, my belief in the value of what we are doing gets stronger. That being said, the current capital controls are proving difficult as we source some of our materials from abroad, such as our premium Italian glass bottles.”
Do you face any unique obstacles as a woman in business?
“Mainly in the agriculture world which is male dominated, which is – dare I say it – quite wild from what I'm used to. You hardly see women on tractors or on trees pruning! And if you do, you are looked at differently. Some people question it; they are surprised, as they expect you to be in the kitchen! As for the business world, no problem there yet!”
What are your plans for the business over the next 12 months?
“We are investing in our own olive press, hopefully ready for this coming season. This is very exciting news for us, as it will enable us to have even more control of quality because from now on everything will be produced in-house. We cannot wait for the results of our first pressed olive oil on our premises. We will be able to press the olives immediately after they are picked.
“We are also working to extend the product range, to enter new territories and strengthen our presence in existing ones. In addition, the grove will be open for visitors and arranged tastings.”
Do you have a family? If so is it difficult to perfect that work/life balance?
“It’s just Sam & I - oh, yes and our dog Fox. To be honest, it is very difficult to get that balance at least for now, as we are establishing the company. I am sure, as we grow and hire more people, it will get easier but at the moment our job is very demanding and has no office hours. Saying that, I have to admit, that most of the time we do not feel deprived, as we totally love what we are doing and therefore the sacrifices are totally worth it!”
What are your interests outside of the business?
“I love reading, writing, spending time with my dog, bird watching, gardening, sea walks, decorating, cooking.”
How do you relax?
“Gardening sometimes helps and running with Fox to the other side of the grove!”
What are your pet-hates (if any)?
“Lack of politeness. Selfishness. Injustice. Cheapness. Instant coffee!”
When I reflected on the story behind Eliris I realized that this was as much about connecting with nature and family as it was creating a new product.
It was about making good on Iris’ late father’s legacy.
Euripides Efthimiadis chose the estate for its stunning position and specifically for its perfect growing conditions for olive & nut trees. His passion for good food & nature, led him to plant the estate with olive, almond, fig, walnut & many fruit trees. He fully believed in an organic approach to cultivating olives, but unfortunately didn’t get to live his dream of sharing the fruits of the grove with others.
And that left me reflecting on one final thing Iris said to me.
“It is this legacy that we have returned to fulfill, embracing his passion & work ethic, to create something extraordinary. The joy of working with nature and producing a natural, healthy product that people really enjoy is a thrilling experience.”
If you would like more information on Eliris then visit their website at www.elirisgreece.com
George R Vaughan