On a sunny Tuesday morning I made an appointment with Marianna (34), olive sommelier and proud founder of Oleosophia. A big-city physicist who quit her job a few years ago to relaunch her husband's family business. She invited me to her holiday home on the coast in Vrahati, a lively seaside resort 100 kilometers from the city of Athens.
Marianna started her day with a refreshing dip in the sea and welcomed me with a big smile in her paradise. She asks me how I like my coffee and immediately admits that she is not a real coffee drinker herself: she adds a lot of hot milk to her mug and does the same with me. Still, she could use some caffeine this morning; she came back late last night from a fair in Athens.
The faces behind Oleosophia
She starts talking about the inspiring days she has had: "The food expo was fantastic. Many people in the industry know our brand, but now I was able to show who the face is behind Oleosophia." Hubby George left early this morning for Bucharest; he has a job there as an IT engineer. For the self-employed businesswoman Marianna, this is no big deal; he hops back and forth between Romania and Greece and has been doing well for years.
However, it is not always easy to combine entrepreneurship with parenthood. Fortunately, her mother is there today to look after her daughter. Ariadni is almost one and a half and, according to Grandma, you can't lose sight of her for a second. I can't wait to get to know the family better so we settle down on the porch with our lattes and I get a big slice of homemade orange cake fresh out of the oven. Marianna's mother tells me that she baked the cake with olive oil; no butter was used.
A city girl on the olive farm
Marianna tells me she's a real city girl. She was born and raised in Athens. She bought her groceries at the supermarket for years. "I'm ashamed to admit this, but I even bought olive oil in the supermarket, and then I bought – she looks around and whispers…- the plastic bottles. As cheap as possible, I didn't even think about it." Her view on olive oil changed when she met her husband George on a Russian language course in 2016: "We clicked right away, but first became friends. When Marianna and George start dating, he takes her to his village of Kalentzi, the foundation of his family for three generations.
The village turns out to be a fifteen minute drive from Marianna's holiday home in Vrahati. And there, among the olive trees, at the foot of the impressive Fokas mountain, Marianna's eyes open: "He showed me his family's business and for the first time in my life I saw how olive oil is made. I saw what it takes to grow olives, harvest them at the perfect time and what an incredibly complicated and beautiful process follows." She calls the moment life-changing and feels that she wants to do something with this feeling.
Tradition, culture, technology and science
According to her, making a perfect olive oil is something magical: "History, tradition, technology, everything comes together in a natural product that is also good for your health." Marianna is currently researching self-driving cars for a large international project. With her scientific background and entrepreneurial spirit, she immediately knows that she wants to breathe new life into her in-laws' business. George's family resells the oil they produce to different brands, but Marianna wants to produce and sell the oil under her own brand name.
Marianna's in-laws grow and press the special green Manaki olives. They do this in a traditional way and only harvest once a year. As Marianna delves into the age-old tradition of making olive oil, Oleosophia is born; a combination of the Latin word 'oleo' (oil) and the Greek word 'Sophia', meaning wisdom. Because she wants to market the new olive oil brand in a big way, she quits her full-time job to fully go for her new adventure.
Certified olive oil sommelier
Marianna marries George and when he is offered a good job in Romania, they move to Bucharest together. It is only an hour's flight from Athens and that distance is no obstacle for Marianna to continue her work in the olive oil industry. Marianna is going to study for her new career: she studies in New York and London, among other places, and becomes a certified olive oil sommelier. At the beginning of 2020, she discovers that she is pregnant with her daughter.
Marianna and I leave her mother and daughter to get in the car and travel to the place where it all happens: Kalentzi! Along the way, Marianna tells us that it will be the summer of 2020 when she will really get Oleosophia off the ground: "During my pregnancy, I gave myself completely to the business. I want to tell our story to the whole world, so I started with live sessions via Zoom to reach as many people as possible."
Marianna creates a website and plans how to expand her business, including olive oil tours, tastings, workshops and seminars. She focuses on retailers, consumers, but also on tourists. The relationship between her and her in-laws has been good from day one. “Everyone has their own role and tasks within the company and there is no overlap. This ensures that there is a lot of mutual respect. I am still impressed every day with the work on the farm and George's family is happy that they can now sell the oil they make under their own brand name, and no longer have to resell it to other brands.
In Kalentzi I meet Marianna's in-laws. The parents of George and his brother, who is in charge of the farm work. Marianna shows me the olive grove and tells me that they harvest every year in October. She tells me about the rare Manaki variety, a hypersensitive olive that grows nowhere else in the world than in two Greek regions. She tells about the care of the trees, the secrets of cultivation and there really isn't a question Marianna can't answer.
According to Marianna, the pandemic has shown the world the importance of staying healthy. This makes extra virgin olive oil even more useful. "I used to be that person from the city who wasn't willing to pay a lot of money for a good bottle of olive oil. Now that I know all the health benefits, I think fifteen euros for a bottle of olive oil with your family for a month is no longer expensive. Health is more important than ever, so now is the time to convince the world of the need to choose good products."
We have arrived at Marianna's favorite place: the unique location of her olive oil tastings. In the middle of a large field is a large table with a breathtaking view of the olive grove. In April, olive oil tourism starts again and Marianna starts her tastings. In the meantime my mouth is watering; Marianna has put several oils in small colored bottles on the family table. She also did a great job in the kitchen.
Two families brought together
Her mother, sister and daughter have now also arrived in Kalentzi. Marianna's family and George's family sit down for a lunch together under the shade of the umbrella. Marianna raises a toast and emphasizes how valuable it is that the ancient Manaki olive trees have brought two families together. When I ask her how big she wants to get with her business, her eyes twinkle and she says, "The sky's the limit. If I could go to Mars with Oleosophia, I would!" Dear Marianna, your enthusiasm and love for the product are contagious, I'm sure you will succeed!