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From the Mediterranean, a Sea of Organics

Laurie Budgar

April 24, 2008

6 Min Read
From the Mediterranean, a Sea of Organics

Maybe it?s the sun, using its heat to sear an unapologetic fusion of sweetness and tartness into the land. Maybe it?s the land itself, granting earthy, pungent delight to the fruits. It?s hard to say exactly what gives olives, sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, capers and roasted peppers their appeal. But aficionados of these foods have long despaired at their lack of availability in organic lines.

?It?s never been a real scintillating category,? says Thomas May, Western regional sales manager for Mediterranean Organic. Few manufacturers, it seems, were willing to invest the money on the front end to develop an organic line. But now, devotees can take heart: These staples of the Mediterranean diet are available and ripe for the picking in natural foods stores, thanks to a smattering of national brands and the passion of local growers.

Mediterranean Organic is the only national brand that offers organic canned and bottled versions of all five items—olives, sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, roasted peppers and capers. Some brands, like Peloponnese, Racconto and Napoleon, may be ?natural,? but not organic. And other brands, like Santa Barbara and Native Forest, have organic olives or artichoke hearts, but don?t venture into the full line of Mediterranean foods.

?Shelf-stable specialty condiment items like this are never going to sell like soymilk and cereal,? May notes. Perhaps not, but the margin to be made on such products makes up for that lack of volume. ?While you can sell 150 cases of, say, organic juice in a weekend, you gotta put it at $1.49 and you?re only making 35 or 40 cents [on each sale],? May says. ?On $4.99 tomatoes, you make two or three bucks every time.?

Still, sourcing organic Mediterranean foods hasn?t been easy for Mediterranean Organic. ?Last year there were only about 10 acres of organic artichokes in the world,? May says. He surmises that organic artichoke farmers likely get a lot less money from processors than from the fresh market.

Another problem is that as a food trend, the Mediterranean diet is still in its youth, as researchers discover it?s not any one item, such as olive oil, that conveys the diet?s widely reported health benefits, but the combination of foods that are prevalent in the Mediterranean lifestyle.

That?s why a certain amount of education is in order before embarking on a quest to bring organic Mediterranean foods into your store.

How to taste
?American consumers are not very smart with olives,? notes Steven Dambeck, a grower who supplies the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op with the 200 pounds of organic olives it sells each week. The olives Americans are most acquainted with are what Dambeck calls ?black pizza olives,? which are heavily processed in vinegar.

?Back in the 1930s, there were a number of cases of [olive-related] botulism and people died, and people feel like olives are a very dangerous thing,? says Dambeck. In response, the U.S. government required that microorganisms in olives be eliminated in one of three ways: through temperature control, the use of salt or the use of acid to maintain a specified pH level.

Since Americans don?t like a salty olive, Dambeck says, and keeping olives below a certain temperature is costly and difficult, most producers choose to regulate the acid level. ?The method American producers have taken is to drown the poor little olive in vinegar,? Dambeck says. Except at that point, he says, ?It?s not an olive anymore; it?s a medium for vinegar.? Dambeck takes a different approach: He layers olives and salt in a barrel, turning them every few days in a traditional curing process.

Andrea Moshe, produce manager at Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, says when she first tasted Dambeck?s olives it was ?a completely different experience, how it tastes.? Now, when she buys olives, or any other cured food, she is ?looking for a product to have its own essence.?

With 42 varieties of olives, Dambeck is hard-pressed to describe what an olive should taste like. ?If I cure an olive green, it should be a little crunchy and have a fresh olive flavor. If I process it in brine, it should have a full, deeper flavor.? The intensity of the flavor, he says, reflects the stage of the growing season at which an olive is processed. The darker and wrinklier the olive, the later it was picked.

Because Dambeck?s olives are fresh-dressed—he rinses off the brine they cure in, adds a small amount of citric acid to stabilize them, and then dresses them with his organic olive oil and seasonings such as garlic and pepper, or fresh lemon—he and the retailer must handle them carefully. ?It?s a living, vital product,? he says, and it must be kept cold. ?We try to sell it as a fresh product, like you?d sell a peach or a plum.?

Moshe says consumers appreciate the handcrafted care. ?It speaks well to people who are into raw food,? she says. And when they taste them? ?They?re like, ?Wow, I never liked olives till I tasted these.? ? Moshe is able to offer the olives at a competitive price, too. While most olive bars in California get about $8.99 a pound, the co-op prices its olives at $7.99 a pound. The margin is comfortable, Moshe says; she buys them from Dambeck for $4.85 a pound.

Of course, not everyone has a Steven Dambeck to supply organic olives. ?Read books, seed catalogs, go out to restaurants and start approaching growers,? Moshe advises. ?Ask them if they can grow some of these Mediterranean varieties. There?s so much competition between growers, they have to keep creating a niche market for themselves.?

If that?s a little too ambitious for your store, there are still things to consider when ordering your Mediterranean products from a broker. ?You need to have an appreciation from a consumer?s perspective,? says May of Mediterranean Organic. While some products are bought for party events—like the black pizza olives—others are sought out for their particular flavor profiles. It?s important to stock several niche products, then, such as nicoise, manzanilla and kalamata olives.

May says it?s also important to consider the region where the product was grown. Try to find olives grown in Italy, France or Turkey, where the fruit is native. Likewise, artichokes grown in Spain are among the best in the world; those from Peru are generally inferior. And, as with many organic products, there?s a taste difference that stems from the distinction of being produced in a small batch. With tomatoes, for example, those that are cut by hand and dried in the sun have a distinct flavor advantage.

It?s only a matter of time before consumers discover that, like virtually any other product, Mediterranean foods are now available organically, and your customers will expect you to stock the products they want.

?There really is a trend of shoppers wanting Mediterranean varieties of anything,? Moshe says.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 9/p. 32, 34, 37

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