olive groves, sea, and sky

An hour’s drive southeast of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, the regional unit of Halkidiki (Chalkidiki) draws visitors to its beaches, forested mountains, religious and archaeological sites, and olive groves. Those groves produce the area’s famous big green table olives. For a decade they have also yielded high quality extra virgin olive oil.

The most common type of large green olives in the area is called Hondroelia Halkidikis (with several spelling variations: Hondrolia, Chondrolia, and Chondroelia). Meaning “big fat olive of Halkidiki,” “Hondroelia Halkidikis” is well named: with six times as much fleshy fruit as pit, this is the fleshiest olive in Greece. That makes it ideal for its main purpose as table olives. Ten years ago, Yanni’s Olive Grove also started using it to make flavorful, healthy early harvest extra virgin olive oil (EVOO).

A handful of other quality-oriented companies have followed suit, aiming “to put our Halkidiki variety olive oil on the global olive oil map,” Dimitris Garofallos of Marmaro olive oil company explained to Greek Liquid Gold. In the past, he says, “everybody in Halkidiki used waste olives that were not very perfect for olive oil.” Now some companies, including his, “use the best olives for olive oil.”

Table olives still bring the area much more income, with 55% of Greece’s total table olive production coming from Halkidiki, according to Olympia Boudioukou of the Chamber of Halkidiki. But the early harvest extra virgin olive oil called Agoureleo Chalkidikis, which has its own Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) since 2013, has drawn more attention to the region’s EVOO.

Olive Oil (and) Tourism

Evi Psounou Prodromou of Yanni’s Olive Grove / Propharco considers green table olives and early harvest extra virgin olive oil “the crown jewels of Halkidiki’s food products.” She believes “every tourist enjoys tasting them and learning about their production process.”

Garofallos agrees that olive oil is “very important” for tourism. That is one reason he perseveres, although 10 kg of Halkidiki olives yield just 1 liter of olive oil, while 3 to 4 kg of other olives may produce a liter of oil. This makes Halkidiki olive oil more expensive, and thus harder to sell. Even so, some dedicated producers keep trying, according to Garofallos, “because we are romantic and want to create the best for visitors in Halkidiki.”

There is some debate about the current importance of olive oil for tourism there. Dimitrios Psathas of the Krinos Olive Center at Perrotis College, American Farm School, suggests that “olive oil is not important for tourism yet, because the region is famous for the table olives, and no coordinated effort to promote extra virgin olive oil has been made” there.

On the other hand, Irini Kokolaki of Elia Quality Group believes olive oil tourism may be developing in Halkidiki. Boudioukou also told Greek Liquid Gold that the area is “just now starting to open mills and farms to tourists, for olive picking” and other activities. Beginning in 2020 with the Taste Halkidiki program to promote the area’s gastronomy, more production areas for products such as olive oil, olives, honey, cheese, beer, wine, and herbs have been welcoming visitors.

The Cuisine of Halkidiki

These visitors can enjoy a wealth of traditional food based on a “rich gastronomic tradition which is a mixture of nations and cultures” that were brought to the area by a large number of refugees from Asia Minor (now part of Turkey) after the 1922 Greco-Turkish war, as the Taste Halkidiki website explains.  

According to the site, which also features recipes, “the traditional cuisine of Halkidiki has many characteristics coming from Greeks of Constantinople, like food with fresh and quality ingredients, spiced in balance and cooked in a simple way.” The Orthodox Christian monastic tradition of the neighboring Mount Athos, Greece’s Holy Mountain, has also influenced the area’s gastronomy.

Characterized by a wide variety of ingredients, the cuisine of Halkidiki is rich in olive oil, as Greek food generally is. “I don’t think there’s one food without olive oil in the Greek kitchen; you just start with olive oil if you’re cooking,” explains Boudioukou. “We use it like water,” adds Garofallos.

Olive Oil Flavors and Aromas

Of course, Halkidiki’s extra virgin olive oil is far more flavorful than water. Kokolaki often finds that Hondroelia Halkidikis EVOO has “an intense organoleptic profile with tomato aromas and the taste of intense bitterness and pungency.” Psathas adds that in the early harvest oils he notices “in the mouthfeel black pepper and herbs.”

Galani, another olive variety found in Halkidiki, yields “a unique early harvest extra virgin olive oil” with a “smooth taste, low acidity, and the fruity aromas of freshly cut grass,” as Prodromou explains.

The Health Benefits of Halkidiki’s Olive Oil

In addition to its striking flavor, Halkidiki’s EVOO offers important health benefits. For example, as Prodromou reveals, “multiple clinical and laboratory studies that have been published in major international medical journals” have demonstrated that Halkidiki’s early harvest high phenolic EVOO can help patients fight off mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s

As Prodromou told Greek Liquid Gold, “a Halkidiki company has already created one of the top functional foods based on this high quality olive oil, which is now being recommended by Greek neurologists, psychiatrists,” and family doctors. This product, MICOIL, can be found in pharmacies in Greece “and very soon in the USA.” 

Halkidiki Olive and Olive Oil Data

Olive trees occupy one third of the cultivated land in Halkidiki, according to the Regional Administration of Central Macedonia - Regional Unit of Halkidiki, covering more than 360,000,000 square meters with over 6,000,000 olive trees tended by 62,000 olive producers. In an average year, 80,000 to 120,000 metric tons of table olives are produced from trees on 225,000,000 square meters of that land and processed in 110 factories.

In a typical year, the remaining 135,000,000 square meters of land yield 7,000 metric tons of olive oil, which is extracted in more than 40 olive oil mills each year. Prodromou explains that early harvest EVOO is produced from green olives (before they ripen and turn black) from the middle of September to the end of October. The rest of the harvest may continue until the end of December, depending on the weather and the quantity.

The Regional Administration notes that the green olives of Halkidiki are a national product, with 95% of the trees’ production exported either as table olives or early harvest EVOO. Kokolaki pointed out that research about olive oil production in Greece mentions northern Greece as the only part of the country where olive cultivation is expanding, with a promise of “more olive oil production in the future.”

OIive Oil through the Generations

Boudioukou suggests that olive oil has been important in Halkidiki as long as olives have been grown there, at least for home cooking.

Olive oil has featured prominently in the home and family life of many Halkidiki families for generations. For instance, after emigrating to Halkidiki from a village near Istanbul, the grandfather of the namesake of Yanni’s Olive Grove joined many others in planting olive trees in the groves donated to them by the Greek monasteries of Mount Athos.

“Our family’s past and future are bonded with our olive groves,” Prodromou told Greek Liquid Gold. “We are very proud that the fourth generation of our family, our son Nikos, decided to continue this tradition after his graduation from Thessaloniki’s university. Moreover, Nikos started to plant more trees with his father Yanni’s help, because he understands that the university gave him valuable knowledge, but the olive trees are his true power in life.”

Thanks to Yanni’s Olive Grove for the photos that appear with this article. This is the third in a series of articles providing overviews of olive oil producing areas in Greece. The first was Olive Oil in Messinia, Greece: Economy, Gastronomy, Tourism; the second in the series was Olive Oil in Laconia, Greece: Tradition, Food, and Family

All businesses, organizations, and competitions involved with Greek olive oil, the Mediterranean diet, and/or agrotourism or food tourism in Greece, as well as others interested in supporting Greeks working in these sectors, are invited to consider the advertising and sponsorship opportunities on the Greek Liquid Gold: Authentic Extra Virgin Olive Oil website.  The only wide-ranging English-language site focused on news and information from the Greek olive oil world, it has helped companies reach consumers in more than 220 countries around the globe.

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