By Gretchen McKay

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Pittsburgh olive oil company’s roots reach all the way to Greece

Categories : Food , Positively Pittsburgh

Like many in Pittsburgh’s Greek community, Panayiotis Liokareas grew up eating and cooking with extra-virgin olive oil, both at home and on summer visits to his paternal grandfather’s sun-baked olive groves in Kalamata, Greece.

Known for its exceptional taste and healthful dietary fat, EVOO is a cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet. A flavor booster in sweet as well as savory dishes, it adds fruity, peppery notes to salads, pan-fried meats, and dips for bread and cheese. It even helps moisten and add crumb to baked goods like cake.

Still, if you had asked the South Hills native 10 years ago if he ever envisioned himself in the Greek olive oil business — in Pittsburgh, no less —  he probably would have laughed. The first in his family to go to college, he planned on using his business degree from the University of Pittsburgh to work his way up in his father’s commercial construction business in Bethel Park.

Little did he know in his 20s how deeply olive oil flowed in his blood. He never imagined how much fun he’d have bottling and selling the organic EVOO his family has been pressing in the Peloponnese region for more than five generations to cooks across the country via Liokareas Olive Oil, which he started six years ago.

Or dreamed that the cold-fused and early harvest extra-virgin olive oils, found at Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. and select Giant Eagles, would prove so extraordinary, that the company would win awards in prestigious contests such as the New York International Olive Oil Competition.

Olive oil was his destiny.

Way back in 1850, when his great-great grandfather Antonis Liokareas planted the beginnings of the olive orchard he nicknamed Perivolatha, he issued a decree in the family record books. The orchard had to be passed down to the first-born son of the next five generations.

“And I’m the fifth,” Mr. Liokareas, known as Peter, says with a laugh.

It skipped a generation with his father, Yiannis, who was forced to leave school after the third grade to work on the family farm and harvest its olives. The last thing the then 23-year-old wanted when he followed his father, Panayiotis, to the U.S. in 1970 was a career in agriculture. He found work as a laborer instead. In 1980, he founded Liokareas Construction, a commercial construction and general contracting firm that does large-scale projects for schools and housing projects.

Panayiotis returned to Perivolatha in 1972, never again to leave. When Mr. Liokareas was 3, he visited the olive orchard for the first time. By the time he was 10, he was spending entire summers on the growing orchard and learning about Koroneiki olives. It wasn’t until he became fluent in Greek in his teens, though, that he developed a passion for it.

“My grandfather would take me out [into the orchard] and say, ‘This is all yours — everything from here to this mountain,’” Mr. Liokareas, 38, recalls.

It was not until he was in college that he participated in the fall harvest where most of the work is done by hand. The all-day process starts at dawn and often doesn’t button up until after midnight.

After laying nets on the ground, the fruit is knocked from the trees using small shakers and basic hand tools that “comb” the olives off the branches. They’re then sifted to weed out the leaves and twigs, placed in burlap sacks to the tune of 120 pounds, and carried on the harvesters’ shoulders to the press.

It usually takes about one hour to cold press about 20 sacks of olives into extra-virgin olive oil. The olives are first washed and chopped and then churned in a malaxation tank for close to an hour to separate the oils from the paste.

Next the paste is sent to a decanter where the oil, water and mush is separated using centrifugation. It’s neon green when it comes out with notes of green grass, which is a sign of freshness. The oil is immediately taste-tested to assure that the acidity is lower than 0.8 percent (the standard for EVOO) and has no sensory defects.

“It’s instant gratification after a hard day, and we take a lot of pride in it,” he says.

In the early days, horses pulled large granite turning stones to crush the olives. Today’s technology has made the process easier, although you still need almost a sixth sense to know when the fruit is ready to harvest, Mr. Liokareas says. Trees that get more sun and water ripen faster than those tucked deep into the orchard’s valleys, and growers have to worry about fruit flies and other insects that can rot the fruit.

The later in the season you pick, the more oil you get, he says. But the quality isn’t as good. EVOO is high in polyphenols (anti-oxidants) and has a bright, peppery finish that burns in the back of the throat. Oils produced from late harvest fruit tend to be less pungent but they also have a shorter shelf life.

Every time he visited Greece, Mr. Liokareas would bring back a half-dozen five-gallon cans which he’d bottle in his Mt. Lebanon kitchen to give to family and friends. Recipients included Michael Dudek, who is married to his first cousin.

Six years ago, the two men decided to get into business and started by importing one ton of olive oil or enough to make 1,300 bottles. Each one of the 750 ml containers was filled by hand in Mr. Liokareas’ kitchen and labeled in his garage.  Pennsylvania Mac and Uncommon Market agreed to sell the oil, and the men set up booths at farmers markets. The $20 bottles were gone in just a few months.

Confident they had a superior product, the partners entered their first olive oil competition in 2017. But because of a rookie mistake —  they didn’t filter out the sediment  — they didn’t win.

“So now we keep it in cold, climate-controlled tanks to let the sediment fall and bottle from the top,” Mr. Liokareas says.

It made all the difference. Starting with three medals in 2018, Liokareas now counts dozens of gold and silver awards from international competitions.

“We definitely took a chance, and we’re still relatively small, but we’re continuing to grow, “ Mr. Dudek says.

Last year, the company imported just shy of 100 tons of olive oil. It has SKUs (Stock Keeping Unit) for 120 products, including private labels for celebrity chef Geoffrey Zakarian and a variety of premium vinegars, Greek sea salt, Kalamata olives and other pantry items. It recently added cold-fused olive oils flavored with herbs, lemons and oranges grown on the farm.

The oil is sold to food companies like Sysco as well as  local restaurants. Among the fans is Google Pittsburgh’s executive chef, John Karbowski.

Unlike wine, olive oil is best when it’s fresh, so every bottle comes with its harvest date on the label. It should be used within two years and stored in a dark, cool spot away from heat and light.

It isn’t cheap. A 250 ml bottle of orange olive oil is $18. The  hardest part of the business, says Mr. Dudek, is educating the consumer about why good-quality EVOO is expensive.

“But when they develop an emotional connection to the brand and see all the awards,” they get it, he says.

Mr. Liokareas is inviting Pittsburghers to take part in the 2020 harvest. Building on the success of last year’s sold-out inaugural Harvest Trip to Greece, it is offering two trips this October, barring restrictions from the coronavirus pandemic. The eight-day trip includes stops in Athens and all meals and transportation.

When a new facility being built next door to its current location is completed in 2022, Mr. Liokareas hopes to further expand the business. “I want to be everywhere in Pittsburgh,” he says.

To that end, he’s already paving the way for the sixth generation to continue the family business. His oldest son, Yiannis, 8, was baptized in the same church in Kalamata as his father was 70 years ago and has spent every summer on the farm since then picking fruit and getting to know the trees with his father.

“Our family legacy is showing no signs of ending anytime soon,” he says.

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Orange Olive Oil Cake

Orange-infused olive oil and fresh orange juice lend a summery taste to this Greek olive oil Bundt cake.

PG tested

Olive oil cake sounds like it would be heavy, but this recipe makes for a super moist and tender dessert. Freshly squeezed orange juice and a bit of fruity, orange-infused olive oil add a hint of citrus.

Be sure to turn out the cake while it’s still warm or the sugar will harden and make it stick to the pan. (I greased my pan with a little olive oil.) Feel free to use a fairly heavy hand with the powdered sugar.

3 large navel oranges

3½ cups all-purpose flour

1½ teaspoons baking powder

1¾ teaspoons kosher salt

5 large eggs

3 cups granulated sugar

1¼ cups Liokareas Premium Extra Virgin Olive Oil

¼ cup Liokareas Late Harvest Orange Oil

Powdered sugar, for sprinkling

Position a rack in the middle of the oven, remove any racks above, and crank up the heat to 350 degrees.

Finely grate the zest of 3 oranges and then squeeze their juice. You should have 1 cup orange juice.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment or with a handheld mixer in a large bowl, beat the eggs on medium-high speed until well combined, about 1 minute.

Slowly pour in the granulated sugar and continue to beat until thick and pale yellow, about 3 minutes. Switch to low speed and alternate adding the flour mixture and the oils, starting and ending with the flour and beating until just a few wisps of flour remain. Pour in the orange juice and zest and whirl for a few seconds to bring the batter together.

Coat a 12-cup Bundt or tube pan with olive oil (or baking spray). Gently scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake until a cake tester comes out with a few moist crumbs clinging to it, about 1 hour, 15 minutes. Check the cake occasionally and if the top begins to brown a touch too much, loosely cover it with foil.

When the cake is done, transfer the pan to a wire rack and let the cake cool in the pan for 15 minutes. (Don’t forget to come back after 15 minutes. Seriously. If the cake remains in the pan too long, the sugars begin to cool and the cake will stick to the pan.)

Turn the cake out onto the wire rack and let it cool completely. Place the cake on a covered cake stand and let it sit overnight. Just before serving, dust with powdered sugar.

Makes 1 cake.

— Liokareas Olive Oil

Roasted Cherry Tomato Bruschetta

PG tested

I like to roast the tomatoes until they’re soft and jammy, but you could simply toss them in a bowl along with the other ingredients to marinate for a half hour before spooning on top of the bruschetta slices. You also could toast the bread in the oven instead of frying it (brush first with olive oil).

If the tomatoes are not sweet enough on their own, add a sprinkle of sugar along with the vinegar.

2 pints cherry tomatoes, rinsed

¼ cup good-quality olive oil, plus more for bread

2 garlic cloves, smashed

½ cup fresh basil, thinly sliced into ribbons, plus more for topping

Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Dash of red wine or balsamic vinegar, or to taste

1 large baguette or ciabatta, cut into 1-inch slices

Grated parmesan cheese, for serving

Pinch of hot pepper flakes, optional

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a large bowl, toss cherry tomatoes with olive oil, garlic and basil. Season with salt and pepper, then spread on a rimmed sheet pan.

Place in oven and roast, stirring once or twice, until tomatoes are tender and just ready to burst, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and cool slightly. Add a splash or two of red wine or balsamic vinegar, and gently stir to combine.

Meanwhile, heat a glug or two of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add bread slices, a few at a time, and fry until brown and crispy on both sides.

Spread roasted tomatoes on top of baguette slices and place on a serving platter. Sprinkle basil on top, and dust with grated Parmesan cheese and hot pepper flakes, if you desire. Serve immediately.

Serves 6 to 8.

— Gretchen McKay

Greek Salad With Kalamata Olive Dressing

PG tested

Greek salad is typically made with fresh vegetables, olives and salty feta cheese. The star of this recipe is the briny dressing, which features minced Kalamata olives. It is iust as tasty in a pasta salad as it is over grilled chicken or fish.

For dressing

½ cup minced Kalamata olives or mixed olives

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

Juice of 1 lemon

½ teaspoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon minced cilantro

Salt and pepper to taste

For salad

1 cucumber, unpeeled, seeded and sliced ¼-inch thick

1 red bell pepper, large diced

1 yellow bell pepper, large diced

1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved

½ red onion, sliced in half-rounds

½ pound good-quality feta cheese, cubed

Make dressing: Add all ingredients to medium-sized bowl or jar and mix with fork. Store in airtight container in refrigerator until ready to use. (It will last up to 2 weeks.)

Place cucumber, peppers, tomatoes and red onion in a large salad bowl. Pour dressing over the vegetables, add feta cubes and then toss lightly. Set aside for 15 to 20 minutes to allow flavors to blend.

Serve at room temperature.

— Adapted from Liokareas Olive Oil