Charmed. My one-word description of our recent adventure. We spent four glorious days in the Greek Peloponnese and six soulful nights along the Turkish Mediterranean. Our trip included visits to two of The Olive Orchard’s award-winning growers. The Dimarakis family in Ermioni, Greece produces our Greek Extra Virgin Olive Oil and our Organic Greek Extra Virgin Olive Oil. The Laleli family in Edremit, Turkey produces our naturally flavored olive oils. While abroad, we also splurged on additional stops in Ephesus and Istanbul. Be sure to view our complete slideshows at the bottom!
Upon our arrival at the Athens airport, we were met by Evangelos Dimarakis. During the 2.5 hour curvy drive to Ermioni, we enjoyed hearing updates about his farm and family while watching beautiful scenery out the window. Olive trees were plentiful, of course, but also pine trees. Closer to Ermioni we noticed other crops: pomegranate trees, citrus trees and pepper plants.
In Ermioni we were welcomed by the proprietor of Mourayio Bed & Breakfast. Pamela Stamatiou, an American who married one of Evangelos’ childhood friends, was a gracious and helpful host. In the design and construction of her immaculate B&B, she truly left no detail unattended. Even though a power outage occurred during our first morning, a large generator hidden behind a beautiful bank of landscaped fencing ensured barely a blip in the gourmet breakfast.
Ermioni is a small town on a narrow peninsula in the Peloponnese, yet this region alone has 1,500 olive farms, 11 mills and 2 factories. Our time with Evangelos Dimarakis was spent viewing his 6,500 organically cultivated trees, his family chapel, his cousin’s mill, his storage/bottling factory and his testing lab. Most of his trees are of the manaki variety, which are indigenous to the Peloponnese. Evangelos also cultivates koroneiki olives which are relatively new to the area, introduced within the past 20 years. At the time of our visit, the fruit was green and small (about the size of a coffee bean); harvest does not begin until October. Even fully ripened olives are not edible right off the tree. Knowing this full well, I still wanted to experience the just-picked taste. So I plucked one tiny manaki olive from its branch. Bitter! No pit yet.
Evangelos, an agronomist by trade, typically expects 1 kg of oil from 5 kg of olives. Which means that one olive contains about 20% oil; however, this is dependent on cultivar and growing conditions. From his own trees Evangelos produced 30,000 liters of extra virgin olive oil for the 2010/11 season – a very good year. He expects a smaller yield this year. His factory, one of only two in the area, has a storage capacity of 650,000 liters so Evangelos is able to bottle oil from his tight-knit community of friends and family. The second floor of the factory is a dedicated laboratory with more than $250,000 of equipment. A full-time chemist ensures the utmost quality of each drop of liquid gold.
We capped off our day of orchard exploration with a light snack at a little restaurant on the water. Just a few hours later we were fortunate guests at a farm-to-table dinner hosted by the Stamatiou family. Our dinner included olives, olive oil, wine, fruits and vegetables from their land. Evangelos and Dimitris were determined to show us how they fry garden potatoes – in a gallon of olive oil over an open flame.
Before departing for Turkey, we enjoyed a day trip to Hydra. No cars are allowed on the island; residents and tourists get around by foot or by donkey. Steep stone paths lead up and outwards from the harbor area. Photos of lovely Hydra are included in our Greece slideshow.
Evangelos was kind enough to drive us back to Athens for our short flight to Izmir, Turkey. Due to the economic climate in Greece, we were somewhat concerned about airport strikes. Although many flights were cancelled that day, ours was unaffected. The ticket agent said, “You got lucky.”
We landed in Izmir without complication – until we reached the car rental counter. Here we experienced our second power outage. It did not seem to surprise anyone around us. After the slight delay and with our English-speaking GPS firmly in hand, it was time for Jeff to re-acquaint himself with a manual transmission. With feelings of anxiety and excitement, we set off amongst fearless drivers and pedestrians. Thankfully, our confidence was soon bolstered by the spacious, well-maintained toll road leading out of the city.
Our next hotel was in Şirince, near the famous ruins of Ephesus. To find the hotel, we were told, “Once you get to town, stop at the small store on your left for directions.” No address, no road names, no exit numbers. But we found the little store! After a refreshing glass of elderflower juice from the friendly shopkeeper, we made our way up a steep, winding dirt road to the peaceful retreat that is Nişanyan Hotel. Rustic and natural, this sprawling paradise was filled with wildlife (peacocks, donkeys, birds, bees, butterflies, ducks, geese) and fruits (blackberries, strawberries, peaches, figs, lemons, limes, pomegranates, apricots, cherries). We were instructed to pick and eat as much as we wanted.
After settling into our cottage for an evening, we were rested and ready for Ephesus. Awed by its sheer age, size and historical significance, we spent several hours touring these ancient ruins. Then we briefly shopped Selçuk and Şirince before a once-in-a-lifetime dinner experience at the top of Nişanyan Hotel’s small tower. See more photos in our Turkey slideshow.
Although a little sad to leave the Nişanyan Hotel, we were eager to drive to Edremit, home to the Laleli estate and origin of our popular flavored olive oils. After 4+ hours and a directional misstep due to over-reliance on the GPS, we arrived at our third hotel, Zeytinbagi.
Our time on the Laleli estate was led by Dr. Yahya Laleli – an indisputable lover of olive oil and a Johns Hopkins University trained physician. Beyond his passion for olive oil, he is also founder and director of Duzen Laboratories, Turkey’s largest diagnostic research firm, and Duzen-Norwest, an international food and environmental laboratory.
We started our tour at the Laleli store in Edremit (they also have stores in Ankara and Istanbul), then we continued to the mills and orchards. Along the way, we were privileged to view their operations for soap, vinegar and wine production. The Laleli family owns more than 50,000 adremittion olive trees, some dating to antiquity. In a good year, they produce 280 tons of premium extra virgin olive oil. Within hours of hand-harvesting, olives are carefully washed, sorted and crushed using modern machinery. To protect from oxidation, the olive oil is stored in nitrogen-topped tanks, organized by the hill from which the olives were grown. The oil is then bottled and labeled by hand.
As an expert in the chemical composition and properties of olive oil, Dr. Laleli emphasized the difference between infused and flavored. Infused olive oils have aromatic essences added to the oil by a heat process, which diminishes healthful properties. In many cases, the essences are used to disguise inferior olive oils. Flavored olive oils actually have the aromatics (garlic, basil, lemon, orange, thyme, hot red pepper) pressed with the olives. After a settling period the organic debris is removed with the olive pulp, leaving behind the fresh scent and taste of the aromatic ingredient. The Laleli family crafts only naturally flavored olive oils, co-pressing the aromatics with delicate adremittion olives.
After a fabulous day with Dr. Yahya Laleli, it was time for us to return to the Zeytinbagi Hotel and plan the next day’s trek to Istanbul. We settled on a route that included driving to the northern coast and crossing the Sea of Marmara by ferry. Fortunately, we submitted our online ferry reservations just seconds prior to another power outage (!). Although this outage was pretty long, it was late in the day and we were able to sleep through the majority of it.
At one point we had considered eliminating our stay in Istanbul, knowing it would be brief. But Mehmet Laleli advised us, “You must get a taste of her.” We are glad we did! We stayed at Hotellino in the heart of old Istanbul, a boutique hotel only a short walk from many famous sites: The Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern, Haghia Sophia, The Grand Bazaar, The Spice Bazaar, the Taksim district. Even though our time in Istanbul was short, it was well spent and we would love to return. See more photos in our slideshow.
Despite power outages, airport strikes and a GPS that did not always give the best advice, our trip to Greece and Turkey was most definitely charmed. We are grateful for how it enriched our lives and we extend sincere gratitude to friends, family and business partners for such generosity and hospitality.
We snapped almost 1,000 pictures on our journey, but selected only a fraction for these slideshows. Our photos were taken quickly and with only a simple camera (sometimes even an iPhone). We are far from professional photographers, but we hope you enjoy this glimpse into our summer adventure.
SLIDESHOW #1: GREECE. Includes photos of the Dimarakis estate, producer of our Greek Extra Virgin Olive Oil and our Organic Greek Extra Virgin Olive Oil. To view captions, click the full screen icon and then hit the up arrow button on your keyboard. For the best resolution, run the slideshow from within Flickr.
SLIDESHOW #2: TURKEY. Includes photos of the Laleli estate, producer of our naturally flavored olive oils. To view captions, click the full screen icon and then hit the up arrow button on your keyboard. For the best resolution, run the slideshow from within Flickr.
SLIDESHOW #3: FOOD. I was thrilled to eat Mediterranean style for 10 days – without any cooking or cleanup. So thrilled that I actually took pictures of everything we ate! To view captions, click the full screen icon and then hit the up arrow button on your keyboard. For the best resolution, run the slideshow from within Flickr.