Alexandra Devarenne in front of the Acropolis in Athens

A good Greek extra virgin olive oil is “an amazing value for the quality of the product; it’s really well priced in the American market,” says American olive oil expert Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne. With a “great fondness for Greece” and an interest in Greek culture, Devarenne argues that “Greek olive oil hasn’t made the mark it deserves in the US market.”

Devarenne hopes that is changing now, so Americans can realize “this is a great product.” When I discussed the olive oil world with Devarenne in Heraklion, Crete recently, she told me she is “always happy to see Greek olive oil getting positive attention. It still amazes me that most Americans are barely aware of Greek olive oil,” although they may be able to name some Italian brands.

In contrast, Greek olive oil has always been “the brand that’s sold at the delior in the Greek-American community, mostly in an “ethnic niche” in the US, “and occasionally in supermarkets, depending on the region.” It may also show up in a specialty store, but “no one’s been able to plant a flag” for Greek olive oil on a larger scale. That may be changing soon, since Cook’s Illustrated, companion of America’s Test Kitchen, recently selected Gaea Fresh as its “Crowd Pleaser” favorite in a tasting of premium extra virgin olive oils (EVOOs).

Currently a consultant and educator at CalAthena, “a company dedicated to educating consumers and improving the quality of olive oil by working with producers” during all phases of the production, evaluation, sales, and marketing processes, Devarenne also writes about and judges olive oils, serves on the advisory board of the UC Davis Olive Center, and volunteers with the non-profit Extra Virgin Alliance, an international group she co-founded with Paul Miller to inform consumers and celebrate wonderful olive oil and extra conscientious companies.

Devarenne’s interest in olive oil was inspired decades ago during “a stay with my sister in the suburbs of Rome,” as she wrote on the CalAthena site. “There the importance of olive oil as a flavoring -- as a condiment -- not just as a cooking medium or salad dressing ingredient -- became clear. I learned that putting olive oil on, well, almost anything, made it taste better. That sensibility came back to the States with me, and things have never been the same since.”

When Devarenne tastes olive oils, she told me, she tries “to be as fair as possible to each oil, asking how well it expresses that particular variety,” whichever variety it may be. For her, olive oil is all “about naturalness, flavor, culture, making healthy foods taste delicious, pleasure -- the whole EVOO experience. No other product can beat us if we keep that whole picture in mind.” Devoted to “this wonderful world” of olive oil, she adds that its “story is really beautiful; it has roots that go back millennia, and it has roots in the land.” So much of Greek culture, for example, “is steeped in olive oil.”

For Devarenne, “part of what makes olive oil important in the world is knowing the producer and the culture.” For that reason, she laments that “many restaurants’ olive oil is anonymous” and hopes that “one outcome of the interest in food and sources of food is for olive oil to be honored as an ingredient – spring fava with XYZ olive oil – and the producer gets the credit for it. That’s where it really starts to click.” She would like to see restaurant menus discuss the key features and backgrounds of the different types of olive oil they select for different dishes.

“The truth is there is no one best olive oil.As with wine, it depends on “what’s for dinner. What’s the best wine in the world? What do you want? Strong, fruity, Italian, Greek? What flavor notes, pairing?” For a restaurant with a global menu, she says, “why not have a Greek olive oil, an Italian olive oil, a Spanish olive oil – because they’re so different – and pair them with dishes they fit, and say it on the menu. It’s part of the story – people are really interested in olive oil.” So “let’s seize the moment and give them that extra bit of information” about the olive oil in their food: “where does it come from, what is it made of, what is it like?” Menus and waiters can explain the special qualities and origins of olive oils, and chefs can offer creations that highlight them.
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Alexandra Devarenne was the keynote speaker (with a Greek translator) at a free event on "Quality as a Factor in the Economic Value of Olive Products" organized by the Society of Olive and Olive Oil Products of Certified Quality (EL3P) in Athens in March 2017. Thanks to Devarenne for sharing the photo of her in front of the Acropolis.

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