Mother nature goes gourmet

Is it time for some beetroot marmalade and a little bit of Kalamata olive confit? Authentic Greek meze is the mission of Gaea, an open-minded company aiming to celebrate the gifts of mother nature and the importance of being a gourmet with a taste for style. «Gaea’s mission is to become a leading, international authentic Greek brand,» says Aris Kefalogiannis, chief executive officer of the company he established together with Dimitris Paraskevopoulos in 1995. At the time, the two men were looking at a country where though a number of local products were of relatively high quality, these were never to be seen on the shelves of local and foreign supermarkets, hardly ever to be found next to similar Italian or Spanish ones, for instance. According to Kefalogiannis, this was due to two basic problems: a lack of understanding the importance of investing in good packaging and presentation, on the one hand, and recurring inconsistencies in quality and supply on the other. «In the past, most Greek exporters thought that a photo of the Parthenon would do it,» says Kefalogiannis, adding that local business tends to look at short-term results, rather than planning on the basis of long-term returns. In the early days, Gaea’s business was primarily based on olive oil and olives. And though the company now boasts a palette of 40 products (and two production plants) luxurious extra virgin olive oil (featuring protected designation of origin, DOP) still reigns supreme: There’s the world champion Sitia, Crete, DOP – winner of the International Olive Oil Council Quality Award for Intense Fruitiness in 2001 and 2002 – and the Kalamata DOP. Everybody knows what a difference good olive oil can make and Gaea suggests adding its signature products in the last few minutes of preparation and cooking of any dish cooked with olive oil. Besides the olive oils, Gaea’s existing products include a variety of olives, tapenades, dips and sauces such as sweet pepper and goat cheese pesto, Santorini fava, smoked aubergine relish, green olive and lentil spread and sun-dried tomato pesto, among others; In the Greek specialties department, offerings include salad toppings (such as feta cheese, green olives, sun-dried tomato flakes and wild oregano) as well as appetizers (think popular dolmades). The company also suggests an organic collection which includes extra virgin olive oil (produced in Laconia), Kalamata and green olives, mixed marinated olives and olives and anchovy pate. With 90 percent of its business conducted outside Greece’s boundaries, a variety of product assortments are tailor-made for various markets. In some cases, special relationships have been built; for example, the company has particularly close ties with Waitrose, the British upscale grocery store chain. The chain was the Gaea’s first international customer and continues to be its most important client on a global scale, carrying the biggest assortment of products. Also in Britain, the Tesco chain is the company’s major client for olive oil. Overall, olives are best sellers in Britain, olive oil tops the charts in Germany, while the United States offers a balanced view. Meze products have now been introduced to the Scandinavian and British markets, while Gaea has also taken its first steps in Japan. What kind of competition does the company face in foreign markets? «Gaea’s niche market for excellent olive oil is highly specialized,» says Kefalogiannis. «At the same time, if Greek cuisine is promoted, this will give a push to the idea of the Mediterranean diet as a whole; and that helps others too.» When it comes to developing new, original products, Gaea relies on the experience of leading Greek culinary experts: Lefteris Lazarou, owner of Michelin star-awarded Varoulko, for instance, is behind the beetroot marmalade and a tuna sauce; Stelios Parliaros of Fresh fame combined sugar with olive paste to create the Kalamata olive confit as well as mastic custard; food expert Maria Harami suggests a Smyrna eggplant puree, while prominent food author Aglaia Kremezi offers an alternative idea with her lentil and olive spread. The most recent addition to Gaea’s high-profile collaborations is popular chef and television presenter Ilias Mamalakis, who has just come up with a succulent Santorini tomato sauce for pasta dishes. Besides offering quality products, the experts are moving a step ahead: alongside and beyond traditional recipes, their high-flying culinary imagination ultimately takes local cuisine forward. Given its continuous efforts to develop upscale products, could Gaea be targeting more high-end distribution points? «We are aiming at as wide a distribution as possible and considering our value-for-money policy, this creates variety and interest to the consumer,» says Kefalogiannis. «You have to be everywhere.» While Gaea and other local companies have been promoting a fresh profile of Greece in the last few years, how did this past Olympic summer improve the country’s profile abroad? «Things are improving, but do a few isolated examples create a momentum? I would like it to be so,» says Kelafogiannis. «The Olympics could have been a boost but the Greek government is doing nothing to take advantage of the good climate following the success in organizing the Games.» So if it’s back to business as usual, in the case of Gaea, «the vision and mission are still intact,» says Kefalogiannis. Novel flavors built on solid raw materials will continue offering a taste and an image of Greece which has long existed, but which up to now, not everybody had a chance to see.