It is rare for a first-time entry at the 2020 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition, the world’s largest and most prestigious olive oil contest, to receive gold.
The 2020 competition attracted 1,000 entries from every olive oil-producing corner of the world. Through a blend of hard work, resourcefulness and nature’s co-operation, Pillar Grove Estate, a Greek company founded in St. Albert, Alta., took home the highest honour for its Daphnis and Chloe medium selection.
With COVID-19 running rampant across the world, names were posted on the website in May. On the day of posted results, St. Albert resident and company founder George Pananos woke up early to check the listings.
“I screamed when I saw my name. I shouted, ‘We won!’ My youngest son asked if we had won the lottery,” laughed Pananos. “I couldn’t believe it. I was on Cloud 9 for six months and I’m still on Cloud 9.”
Born and raised in Thessaloniki, Greece, he grew up in a family that cultivated olives. But at the age of 18, he itched to travel and flew to Canada.
“For me, developing, education, seeing another part of the world and pushing my boundaries was more important than what I had. Greece had always been there. It wasn’t going anywhere,” Pananos remarked.
Landing in Toronto on June 24, 1978, he moved to Belleville to study English as a second language. After six months of intensive study, the young adventurer enrolled at Peterborough’s Trent University, acquiring a three-year chemistry degree and later a chemical engineering degree from the University of Ottawa.
Hired by Shell as a chemical engineer, he was transferred to Alberta 19 years ago. Satisfied with his career, Pananos was also searching for a recreational outlet.
“I was looking for a hobby. I was on a trip to Greece and I was standing in an olive farm and I was so happy with mild wind blowing in my face. It was peaceful and I knew that’s what I wanted.”
His father had left him a 2.5-hectare plot of land that Pananos dubbed a “weed farm.” Land-wise, the farm is about the same size as St. Albert’s Canadian Tire, parking lot included.
Pananos hired a local farmer who encouraged him to plant the Galani of Chalkidiki olive cultivar, one grown in the area for several hundred years. The Galani aroma distinguishes itself from the rest. The light fruity flavour boasts a blend of buttery, almost grassy traces with a hint of bitter, spicy accents.
Although turning the weed farm into rows of trees required serious soil preparation, it was less challenging than securing irrigation rights.
“All the paperwork was a long and complicated process.”
Pananos now travels to the Halkidiki region twice a year during planting season in March and harvest season in October. He explains that a tree grows seven years before it begins producing olives and takes 15 years to reach its full height. Last year, Pillar Grove Estate produced 4,000 bottles of olive oil marketed exclusively in Canada; this year, the production is at 6,000 bottles.
“There’s a lot of chemistry involved in olive oil production. You have to know when the olives are ready to be harvested. It is half science, half art. We go mostly by experience.”
At the harvest, olives are checked for the colour of their skin, picked, squeezed and cut.
“They are green until the end of September when they take on a brownish colour. We harvest them just as they begin to turn brown. They have begun to mature and at this time they have the maximum amount of antioxidents, the maximum aromas and best flavour.”
No longer cold-pressed, Pananos uses modern centrifuges to extract a purer, cleaner oil.
In recent years, the olive oil industry has reported fraud as some importers cut the more expensive olive oil with cheaper canola, sunflower and peanut oil. Labels are a minefield of uncertainty.
“Look at the bottle. You have to be able to read the story. If you can’t read the story, don’t buy it.”
By way of story, Pillar Grove Estate bottles state all the specifics of the olive oil from where the trees are grown to how the fruit is cultivated and extracted..
“And we are the only ones to include a chemical analysis.”
Shelley Gallant of Seasons Gift Shop, who carries the olive oil, said, “I can’t seem to keep it in stock. I’ll order 40 bottles and it’s gone.”
St. Albert’s Mercato and Edmonton’s Italian Centre Shop also carry the line. For more information, visit pillargroveestate.ca