George Pananos, founder of Me Agapi Ltd. and St. Albert’s only producer of artisanal extra virgin olive oil, has plenty to brag about.
His family-owned business won two prestigious international awards this spring: a silver at the 2021 New York International Olive Oil Competition, and a gold at the 2021 Berlin Global Olive Oil Awards.
Both of the coveted awards are for Pillar Estates’ signature extra virgin olive oil – Daphnis and Chloe Selection. Although the awards were presented this year, the olive fruit was produced and harvested in the Greek region of Halkidiki on the shores of the Aegean Sea in 2020.
“For me it’s indicative we’re on to something nice. I needed this kind of feedback. It comes from people with experience trained to evaluate and recognize good olive oil when they taste it,” said Pananos at a sit-down with The Gazette.
Despite a year marked by challenges stemming from a global pandemic, climate change, and market headwinds, producers in every olive-oil-producing region turned out in record numbers to compete with their products on the world stage.
Berlin’s awards event received 764 entries, whereas the New York event, one of the most competitive yet, handled 1,171 entries.
The New York awards' website describes Daphnis and Chloe as a, “fruity oil with aromas of fresh fruit, fresh-cut grass, and herbs. It is harvested early in the season and leaves a peppery sensation. It has very low acidity and a high concentration of antioxidants.”
Born and raised in Thessaloniki, Greece, Pananos grew up in a family of olive growers. Choosing to leave Greece at 18, the young adventurer travelled to Canada, first studying English, followed by a three-year chemistry degree at Peterborough’s Trent University and a chemical engineering degree from the University of Ottawa.
Shell hired the animated chemical engineer and transferred him to Alberta 20 years ago. In planning for his retirement, he searched for a satisfying recreational outlet. When his father left him 2.5 hectares (10 acres) of land, Pananos fulfilled his dream of owning an olive grove.
“I saw this type of artisan oil missing from our market. You find it in Toronto with large ethnic communities. But none in Alberta. When people go on agri-tours in Europe, they taste good quality olive oil and then they come back here and can’t find it,” Pananos said.
He hired a Greek farmer who encouraged him to plant the Galani of Chalkidiki olive, a hardy, long-lived cultivar grown in northern Greece for several hundred years.
It took several years to obtain water and irrigation rights and turn what was once a “weed farm” into stately tree-lined rows of olive trees. Prior to COVID’s worldwide border closures, Pananos traveled to the farm in Greece twice a year for the March planting and October’s harvest.
Currently, he directs traffic through a computer, and has successfully imported 4,000 litres of the 2019 olive oil harvest to St. Albert and Edmonton, and another 5,500 litres of the 2020 yield. His olive oil can be purchased in St. Albert at Mercato and Seasons.
During the growing process, olive trees start to bud in May. The fruit develops through the summer months, and by the end of September, olives are hand-plucked while still green.
“They are picked just before they turn brown. That is when they have reached the maximum amount of antioxidants and the maximum amount of aroma,” said Pananos. “Once harvested, they are pressed the same day. The fruit contains an enzyme, and if you let it sit in the sun, the enzyme goes to work and destroys the fruit.”
No longer cold-pressed, the farm uses modern centrifuges to extract a purer, cleaner oil labeled as premium extra virgin olive oil early harvest. Throughout the process the liquid gold is tested and retested for quality control.
Interestingly, weather plays a large part in the colour and taste of the oil. Greece’s hot summer of 2019 produced a greenish-tinged oil with a spicy, robust flavour. Instead, the rainy months of 2020 brought out a gold colour with a less pungent taste.
“Both were equally aromatic and that had to do with the variety. Ours is an artisanal oil. You take it the way Mother Nature gives it to you. It’s like making cheese and wine.”
Despite the success in production, the farm continues to be a hobby.
“It’s far from becoming a business. I’m not sure I want it to become a business. When you turn something you love into a business, it becomes something different. The requirements are different and you become more profit-minded. We'll see how it goes. If it grows, it grows.”