Olive oil may not be exactly what you consider a quintessential Canadian ingredient, but Rosie Lefler begs to differ. Despite living in the Calgary area, she travels to Greece three times a year to support her business, producing and selling olive oil. Having inherited property in the southern western side of the Peloponnese near Ancient Olympia from her father-in-law back in 1995, she now runs Parthena Inc. and produces extra virgin olive oil as her full-time business. The name, “Parthena” is Greek for “virgin maiden”, representing a product that truly is liquid gold.
To start, she had to learn first hand the intricacies of making olive oil. Koroneiki olives are harvested toward the end of the year, in November and December, when they are picked from the trees by hand, a belabouring process that Lefler still recalls crying over in frustration the first time she had to do it for eight hours straight. These green olives are specifically used for making oil, not for curing and eating from the jar. Their high oil content and nutty flavour make them the perfect candidate for this application. In fact, they are so richly flavoured that many large olive oil conglomerates try to create inferior olive oil blends by using Koroneiki oil as the base and then dilute it with canola or sunflower oil.
The key to making the quality product, Lefler says, is to not over-handle the olives. The more they are moved and thrown about, the greater chance there is for fermentation, a process which good olive oil producers try to avoid. Instead, they aim to maintain the purity of the product, without damaging any of the polyphenols: the important fats in the oil. Once picked, the olives are immediately transformed into “mash”, an olive pulp of sorts. The mash is then transferred to a centrifuge to separate the oils from the solids. From there, the pure oil is held in a giant vat, kept at a constant temperature, for at least a couple of months. Not only does the oil age, similar to the way wine does, but the remaining solids also sink to the bottom, meaning that the oil only needs to go through one round of filtering before it is ready to be bottled.
Properly storing your olive oil is also critical to maintaining the purity of the product. At Parthena, olive oil is only packaged in stainless steel, which does not react or become corroded by the oil. Glass and plastic are both no-nos because light can break down the desirable fats and nutrients in the oil. Believe me, it would be a shame for even a single drop of Parthena olive oil to go to waste.
By now, you may think that it’s just like any other extra-virgin olive oil. But, a few attributes set Parthena apart from others. First of all, the “extra virgin” classification means that it is virtually free from acidity. While the typical olives oil finishes with a spicy bite in the back of your throat, Parthena is smooth and subtle. Much like salt, Lefler suggests using it to bring out the flavours in whatever you are pairing it with. Even using it in a simple vinaigrette makes balsamic vinegar taste sweeter than you could ever imagine. Try it in dessert, too. Lefler’s olive oil ice cream is divine. Whether you want to impress summer dinner party guests with it or simply eat the entire pint yourself is up to you.
So why go through all the trouble of making olive oil when there are so many to choose from at the average store? What matters most to Lefler is making sure that people realize what they are actually eating, olive oil or otherwise. Let’s just say that the “extra virgin” stuff you can buy for $7 at the grocery store isn’t exactly what it is described as. As for Parthena, Lefler intends on keeping things in the family and making olive oil the same way the Greeks have been for as long as anyone can remember. Lucky for us, the tradition has been passed onto Canadian soil.
You can find Parthena extra virgin olive oil at select Calgary retailers, such as Springbank Cheese, Community Foods, the Cookbook Company and Market 17. Parthena is also available at several stores in the Vancouver and Okanagan regions. Stay tuned for the launch of its online store by following Parthena on Facebook and Twitter.