Culture

Yiayia and friends: preserving heritage by hand

In the hierarchy of kitchen essentials, olive oil is close to the top. I cannot think of another ingredient, condiment or sauce that I lean upon with such regularity, another item just as indispensable to how I cook. I enjoy its grassy, slightly peppery presence in every anointed plate, marinade and dressing. And as a vehicle for melding individual components together into something greater than the sum of their parts, it remains peerless.

With a bottle always at arm’s length though, I am guilty of forgetting its value. I take it for granted, expecting it to be on the supermarket shelves week after week. Rarely, if at all, do I reflect upon the state of my dependency. I dread to think how much I would spend on a Nicorette-style product if I ever I had to be weaned off it, slapping on a patch and sobbing as I spray my pan with Frylight.

As with so many of the products in our fridges, freezers and cupboards, we are removed from the how part of their manufacture. Reheating a carton of soup has created degrees of separation between consumers and the valuable skills of growing fresh produce and then cooking them from scratch. Our detachment from how things were made before conveyor belts and computer programmes automated everything is culturally significant, too. We reflect on the craft of the artisan far less, and our grip on the beauty of sustaining life directly from the soil around us has loosened. This is the collateral of convenience, and it has obscured our outlook at a cost.

Yiayia and friends are challenging us to recapture an appreciation for what has become abstract. Central to their brand story, the yiayia (‘grandma’ in Greek) communicates something universal about connection, both to the spaces we inhabit and to the myriad traditions embedded within them. Whether it is the yiayia, the nonna or the aunties, the daily sacrament of making food with their bare hands preserves our shared histories.

I caught up with its co-founder, Konstantinos Poulopoulos, to understand why he thinks this ethos endures, and why it is still crucially important to the modern world’s sustainability projects.

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Can you tell me a little more about Yiayia and friends?

‘Yiayia and friends’ is a multi-faceted gastronomy-related project that reimagines and re-introduces superior quality food products, culinary objects and epicurean artefacts of yesteryear.

What are the values and ideas at its core?

This is a story about Yiayia: a Greek granny together with her animal friends spreads the message of family values through food-related stories and experiences conceptualized with a fresh perspective and a sense of humour.

At the heart of the design project, ‘Yiayia’ is glorified in a key-storyline as the super-powerful, all-knowing (but also discreet) person that she is. Together with her ‘friends’ from both the human and animal kingdom, the arts of growing, cooking and sharing food, along with everything that is attached to it, is remembered, re-introduced, and re-imagined for generations to come.

Why is it important to reintroduce these ideas back into the modern world? What have we been missing out on?

First of all, we feel that traditional does not mean outdated. Our Yiayias were sustainability ninjas and recycling aficionados without even trying. Just think of all the ways they used food and other materials again and again, in a healthy and respectful manner. Nothing went to waste, it was so efficient and beautiful. We think the world needs more of this mentality.

Additionally, in the modern world of globalised fast information, people and brands are struggling to discover and maintain their identity. Sometimes, to stand out, we need to turn back the clock a bit, to better understand our traditions and heritage and utilise this knowledge in a contemporary way.

Moving on to your crop, what makes them, and Greek olives more generally, stand out from the crowd?

The uniqueness of our olive oil stems from the Greek climate. The mild, wet winters and warm, dry summers help the cultivation of the olive tree. The abundance of Greek islands provides unique terrain and soils that are not suitable for any other agriculture practice. Greece is a land destined to produce high-quality olive products.

The first mention of olive oil dates back to 12000 B.C, as Greeks were the first people to systematically cultivate the olive tree. Up to this day, the love for the olive tree farming is passed on from generation to generation and from family to family, making Greece the world's most passionate exporter of quality olive oil.

I'll be honest, I know embarrassingly little about olive oil production. Could you talk me through your process from branch to bottle?

Sure. Our olive tree fields are located in one of the most iconic islands of Greece, Crete. Our olives are harvested in autumn and winter in the traditional way, which is by hand. After the olives are picked, any leaves, twigs, and stems are removed before they are washed thoroughly.

Our olive oil is made by gently crushing and pressing olives until the oil is separated from the fruit pulp. Our extra-virgin oil is the least processed of olive oils, no heat or chemicals are used, only mechanical cold-pressing. Press-to-bottle time depends on various circumstances (storage, demand etc) but never exceeds one year, to ensure a flavour, aroma, and nutritional value of exceptional quality.

What flavour notes can we expect to find in your olive oils?

Bitter and a little bit spicy to the throat. It stays in a perfect balance between fruity and earthy notes, making it the ideal oil for seasoning your favourite salads or dealing high-temperature cooking. Due to the existence of polyphenols, our extra-virgin olive oil is the healthiest choice for your kitchen, too.

Available to purchase from The Conran Shop here.

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