Little is known about the Greek immigrant named Michalis Georgalos, who made life in Argentina sweeter with his confections, building an empire that lasted for decades.
Nevertheless, the famous Mantecol, made of peanut butter and peanuts, that has become a staple in Argentinian cuisine, is the creation of a man who left the island of Chios in his early twenties to try his luck in South America.
Born in 1915, the oldest of five brothers, Georgalos left his village on Chios with a suitcase, bravely heading into the unknown, as the threat of war was looming menacingly over Europe.
He arrived first in Poland, where he learned the art of making halvah. Soon after, however, World War II began, and he was forced to flee Poland. On the advice of his uncle, he boarded the first ship he could find.
It was a ship to Argentina.
Georgalos’ arrival in Argentina
When the Greek man arrived in Argentina in 1939, in those frenetic days at the outbreak of the War, he didn’t even have a passport.
What he did have, however, was a recipe for halva with which he hoped to make a living in a completely new world.
At the time, the wonderfully hospitable Greeks of Argentina were ready and waiting at the port of Buenos Aires to see if any Greeks were disembarking and needed help. Luckily for Georgalos, he found Michalis Orfanos, another Greek man who later became like a second father to him.
Orfanos gave the Greek man who had just arrived on the continent a little room to stay in. Before long, the Chian started making halvah in a pot in his room and selling it on the streets of Buenos Aires.
Since sesame — the main ingredient of halva — could not be found in his new homeland, Georgalos experimented with peanuts, which were abundant in Argentina.
With a recipe variation, Georgalos made a soft nougat based on peanut butter which he named mantecol, taking the name from the word “manteca,” which means butter in Spanish.
Marries Argentinian wife, sets up shop
Three years after his arrival in Buenos Aires, the Greek immigrant met Marcela, the love of his life. They got married and started, step by step, to build a family and construct a building to house his small business.
Marcela, who loved Michalis deeply, learned not only the Greek language but how to cook Greek food as well. Soon the Georgalos household became a Greek home in faraway Argentina.
When the war ended, Georgalos was eager to find out if his parents and siblings on Chios were alive, since he desperately wanted to be reunited with his family.
When he found out that all his family members were still alive, he was overjoyed and with the support of his wife he decided to do everything possible to bring his parents, siblings — and even some of his cousins – to Argentina.
Slowly but steadily, one by one, his brothers Sophocles, Timoleon, Constantinos and Odysseas arrived in Argentina, followed later by cousins and other relatives and village compatriots.
The Greek immigrant family became a large one once again — and they were all involved in the confectionery business, making the popular Mantecol until the “Georgalos Hermanos” company became so large that other employees were added to the mix.
In the late 1950s, Georgalos decided to move his business to Cordoba, since 98 percent of all of Argentina’s peanut production is located there.
Georgalos purchased an old brewery in order to house part of the company’s factory, which he then set up for making chocolates and a variety of other confectionery products, which soon became famous.
The Greek immigrant’s brand becomes synonymous with candy
From the 1960s and onward, the firm called “Georgalos Hermanos” followed an upward trajectory and Mantecol became synonymous with the sweet daily enjoyment of Argentinians.
That was until 2001. It was then that the unstable economic situation in the country brought deep recession, generating serious financial problems inside the company.
The Georgalos Hermanos firm was forced to sell Mantecol, their favorite product, which accounted for 35 percent of the company’s profit, to multinational Cadbury, in a transaction with a strong emotional charge for the Georgalos family.
The hole which as left in their product line after the company sold Mantecol was filled in 2009, however, with a variant of it called Nucrem.
“Nucrem” continues to sweeten Argentinians’ lives
Cleopatra Georgalou, the daughter of Michalis Georgalos, says that 70 years after her father started making sweets, the company continues to be strong and remains a sweet part of Argentinians’ everyday life.
Speaking to the Athenian – Macedonian News Agency (AMNA) from Cordoba, Georgalou says that the company is even close to an agreement to recover the Mantecol brand name.
“The company was on the rise. Then some brothers started other businesses and left. The one who tried very hard to keep the company strong was my little brother, Yiannis, who sadly died four years ago,” Georgalou said.
The Georgalos family continues to work for Georgalos Hermanos, despite the weak economy in the country, says Georgalou.
But as her youngest son is currently president of the company, she says she is very optimistic about the future and very proud of the continuation of the family business tradition.
“I am very proud because the whole family works here, each in a different position. The name of my father and grandfather of our children is the most important thing we have.
“Georgalos is synonymous with Argentina of sweets, chocolate, and other confections.”