By Lisa Radinovsky
As Nikos Sakellaropoulos says, olives have been cultivated in Laconia, Peloponnese “for thousands of years. Between the Taygetus and Parnonas mountain ranges, you can find olive trees hundreds of years old. Here, our grandfathers passed along the notion that the olive tree is considered sacred and beneficial for everyone and everything around us.”
Legendary Sparta (or Sparti) is the capital of Laconia, which is a regional unit in the southeastern part of the Peloponnese peninsula in Greece. Laconia’s 12 million olive trees cover 32% of its land and 54% of its cultivated land, according to the Agricultural Cooperatives’ Union – Laconia Greece S.A. Estimates from Olivenews.gr suggest that Laconia may produce about 10% of Greek olive oil in the 2019-20 crop year.
Laconia has produced an average of 28,000 metric tons of olive oil annually during the last ten years, estimates Nikolaos Prokovakis, President and CEO of the Agricultural Cooperatives’ Union – Laconia Greece S.A. Olive oil plays a key role in the Laconian economy, providing crucial income for many families.
The most common olive variety in Laconia (and in much of Greece) is Koroneiki. There are also many Kalamon, Athinoelia (or Athinolia), and Koutsouroelia olives in the area. Harilaos Apostolakos, a chemist at the Agricultural Cooperatives’ Union, points out that Laconian olive oil has an intensely bitter and pungent taste, a fruity aroma, and low acidity. The Koroneiki variety provides most of the bitterness and pungency, while the Athinoelia olives offer more fruitiness.
The Koroneiki olive oil of Laconia has “an aroma which distinguishes it from all the rest,” placing it among the top olive oils in the world “where it rightfully belongs,” concludes Athanasios Katsetos of Loutraki Oil Company. Prokovakis suggests that such high quality comes from the olive groves’ location in a mountainous area surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, with a perfect amount of sunshine.
Giorgos Karitsiotis of KASELL S.A. believes many tourists who visit the area look forward to tasting Laconia’s olive oil, as well as visiting the historic city of Sparta and the impressive medieval castle of Monemvasia. In recent years, says Karitsiotis, many hotels have offered olive oil packages that enable tourists to harvest olives, taste olive oil, and visit olive oil mills (including KASELL’s).
Katsetos and Prokovakis agree that olive oil is important for Laconian tourism. Katsetos mentions that many tourists enjoy such agrotourism attractions as the Museum of the Olive and Greek Olive Oil in Sparta. Prokovakis considers olive oil significant for tourists because it is a key ingredient in the Mediterranean diet, which he equates with the Greek diet.
Katsetos says “every family in Laconia uses olive oil readily in their daily cuisine. I was first introduced to olive oil at a very young age. I remember my aunt making me and my cousins fried omelet with smoked ham and tomatoes with feta cheese, of course applying olive oil everywhere.” Karitsiotis considers olive oil “the main ingredient in every traditional dish in Laconia,” for example their savory saitia pie, which resembles spanakopita (spinach pie) but uses a thinner dough to enclose wild greens and feta or goat cheese in fried “envelopes” of crust.
Given its importance to Laconian cuisine, it is not surprising that olive oil is central to family life in the area. As Dino Pierrakos of Laconiko emphasizes, “Laconian olive oil has been very important to our family, as it is part of who we are. It represents where we come from. Producing a flavorful olive oil, sharing it with all our extended family and friends, and seeing their faces light up when they taste that fresh new harvest is what it is all about.”
Athanasios Katsetos highlights the importance of olive oil in Laconian history, sharing the example of his own ancestors in the village of Krokees. In 1860, during the Ottoman occupation, he says, “my great grandfather Giannis Katsetos and three other friends scavenged the mountains of Taygetus and Parnon [or Parnonas] for wild olive trees which they uprooted and planted on rich people’s land, then grafted with a variety which at the time was unknown.” It turned out to be the Koroneiki variety.
Later, Giannis’s son Christos went to the USA to work and earn money to buy land in Krokees. Around 1930, he planted more olive trees there. “Think for a moment how much hard work my grandfather and many others put in back then, walking behind a horse or a cow, tilling so much land” with their old plows. Since then, “the olive oil tradition has been carried from generation to generation. I am proud that my wife and I were blessed to be part of it, and so are my children, who were introduced to olive oil at a very young age and hopefully will continue on with the family tradition.”
As Nikos Sakellaropoulos of Sakellaropoulos Organic Farming explains, his family has also been “involved in organic olive cultivation in the area of Sparta in Laconia for many generations. Many of our trees have been gazing upon Mount Taygetus for decades now, and we take care of them the best way we can. From generation to generation, we learn, experiment, evolve, and try to give our natural, local top quality products the place they deserve in the international markets. That is our legacy, and we intend to pass it on for years to come.”
Thanks to KASELL for the photo at the top of this page, and to Loutraki Oil Company for the photo of the ancient olive tree in their olive grove. This is the second in a series of articles providing overviews of important olive oil producing areas in Greece. The first was Olive Oil in Messinia, Greece: Economy, Gastronomy, Tourism.
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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, and olive oil news and information.