In April, the Zappeion Exhibition Hall in Athens hosted a unique tasting event featuring the 242 extra virgin olive oils that won medals at the Athena International Olive Oil Competition (ATHIOOC). Prominent chefs, diplomats, olive oil producers and exporters, consumers, writers, and foodies from five continents sampled the premium oils judges in Delphi had selected as among the world’s best.
Chefs and dignitaries tasted olive oils alongside an international mix of consumers, journalists, olive oil buyers, an ambassador, and Italian, Turkish, and Greek olive oil producers on April 28. Preceding the ATHIOOC’s evening awards ceremony, the tasting day offered the opportunity to sample a wide variety of premium extra virgin olive oils (EVOOs) made from scores of different olive varieties from 11 countries in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and South America.
This was an unusual chance for both Greek and foreign consumers, chefs, and producers to begin to comprehend the vast variety of excellent choices now available on the international olive oil market. Producers could consider what to aim for as they create their olive oil, and consumers and chefs could think about which types of olive oil might best suit particular cooking, baking, finishing, and dressing needs.
Gabriel Malet, chef for the Spanish Embassy in Athens, said he believes “events like this one are so important to reach a certain level of quality Mediterranean-wise, and that promotes the possibility of Mediterranean countries achieving better and better quality.” He was tasting olive oils alongside Dominique Perrot, the former chef for François Mitterrand, who emphasized the differences among Greek olive oils and recommended trying them raw to fully appreciate the attraction of each one.
Tammy Karambelas of the Exports Department at Olympian Green found it “very nice to see all these different varieties,” which she was “so curious to taste”; she also admired the “amazing” packaging and the wide range of different bottle designs. Another Greek olive oil producer tasted almost all the olive oils available as a first step toward learning to make better EVOO himself, with plans to continue his education through seminars.
Many other Greek olive oil producers at the Athena competition’s tasting day joined a Greek South African starting a food and wine blog, a Canadian who is trying to learn more about olive oil, and two Japanese women living in Athens whose family and friends always request Greek olive oil when they head back to Japan.
American olive oil judge Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne, a member of the ATHIOOC jury, was unable to return to Greece for the event, but she told Greek Liquid Gold she considered it important, because “tasting is an essential part of promoting high quality extra virgin olive oil; without that sensory experience it’s like trying to describe a color in the dark!”
Devarenne also appreciated the way the ATHIOOC “organizers mix a high degree of experience and professionalism with an open-minded and creative approach” that included several unusual accompaniments to this olive oil competition, including the art installation by architect Elena Stavropoulou that was part of the competition environment in both Delphi and Athens.
According to Devarenne, “the atmosphere on a tasting jury is a seldom discussed but critical element of good judging—a serious yet relaxed and harmonious tone allows for good discussion between equals. A wonderful program of after-judging activities allowed the judges to get to know each other through shared activities that celebrated the rich culture of the area. And it is spiritual inspiration to do things like hike in the steps of the pilgrims to Delphi through ancient olive groves!”
ATHIOOC judges did just that. Tasting no more than 35 olive oils each day to avoid fatigue and ensure well-considered evaluation, the judges spent one afternoon walking along the ancient pathway from the site of the Delphic oracle, which Greeks considered the center of the ancient world, to the seaside village of Kirra.
Delphi, home of the most extensive continuous land mass covered with olive groves in Greece, was chosen as this year’s ATHIOOC judging location for a reason. ATHIOOC is organized by Vinetum; Constantine Stergides is the competition chairman, and Maria Katsouli is the competition manager. They hold the Athena competition in a different olive growing region in Greece each year in order to highlight the diverse olive cultures in various regions of Greece, and to help attract some of the best olive oil judges in the world.
Before leaving Delphi, each judge planted a different variety of Greek olive tree in “the most fantastic locality you can ever imagine,” according to Stergides: the wildflower garden of the Museum of Delphic Festivals, which is next to the archaeological site of Delphi, on a hilltop overlooking the valley and the sea. Each judge’s name was engraved under the name of the olive cultivar on a marble plaque that would go next to the tree. As Stergides pointed out, the judges will be able to return in 20 or 30 years to show their grandchildren the mature olive trees near ancient Delphi.
The first version of this article appeared on Greek Reporter’s associate GreekLiquidGold.com, which provides news, information, recipes, agrotourism suggestions, and photos from the Greek olive oil world.