You think that beer guy is 'the most interesting man in the world'? Time to meet Eugene Ladopoulos
Eugene Ladopoulos is a former economic advisor who traded in his business suit for a quieter life as an olive farmer. But his passion project is now touching countless lives in the American Midwest.
MISTRAS, Greece — It’s important to get your head in the right space when you come to Mistras, or Mystras, in southern Greece.
It’s miles away in distance and mindset from the metropolis of Athens 2 1/2 hours to the north. As you make the isolated drive into Mistras, the first thing you’ll notice is Mount Taygetos, a beautiful, rugged mountain covered in a sea of green olive trees. On the side of the mountain are the remains of Byzantine castles and churches.
The ruins of a medieval palace and churches are open to anyone who wants to navigate the rugged cobblestone paths. The town on the mountain was virtually abandoned by the 19th century when the modern town of Sparta popped up in the valley.
The only inhabitants today are a handful of nuns who still live at the Pantanassa Monastery, tucked away amid the greenery and stray cats.
So maybe you don’t need to get your mind in the right space after all — it just happens when you get here. As the Greek City Times wrote, “As soon as you arrive here, you sense a strong spiritual energy, which brings peace and calm to the body, mind and soul.”
Perhaps that’s why Eugene Ladopoulos is the way he is. A native to the region, Eugene seems to radiate light. An infectious enthusiasm that isn’t dampened by this very damp day. He’s not letting a little rain and a lot of mud stop him from sharing his passion: his olive trees and the oil they produce.
Ladopoulos is the man behind Mistra Estates Olive Oil. In today's installment of Forum Communications' "Liquid Gold" series, he is taking a group of Americans on a tour of his beloved grove.
The rain is unusual. It’s been a dry summer. The ground is still brown, but Eugene is happy to see the green poking through. He’s even more pleased as he looks at his trees and the olives that are growing larger.
“All of the rain, we are not happy, but look at them, the olives, they are happy,” he said.
He insists those on the tour soak up more than the rain — he wants us to engage all of our senses and immerse ourselves in what the land and rainfall is giving us.
“He is a genteel scholar, farmer and philosopher. He loves his trees, he loves his land. He loves his country, and he is so proud of what he is producing. I don't really know anybody quite like him,” said Peter Schultz, an archaeologist and entrepreneur in Moorhead, Minnesota, who first met Eugene while working on his Ph.D. dissertation with Eugene’s wife, Olga Palagia, a highly regarded professor of archaeology.
The two men struck up a unique friendship and soon a partnership to bring the olive oil Eugene was producing on his farm 1 mile away from Mistras to the United States. The people walking with Eugene today have purchased Eugene’s oil.
They learn from the man himself what goes into producing it. He darts from tree to tree like a man half his age, energized by the thousand or so trees on his land, some close to 1,000 years old.
Eugene said there are about eight or nine varieties of olives grown on the trees. Sometimes, one tree will have three or four varieties growing on it.
The trees are often surrounded by wildflowers, blackberries and oregano. Just inches from the base of the tree, they can influence the taste of the harvested oil.
We had so many questions for Eugene about his olive trees, the harvesting and the man behind it all. To get away from the rain, we went to Eugene’s 19th century barn, where he fed us pork and potatoes roasted over an open fire.
Despite Eugene looking like someone who has grown up working the land, farming came relatively late to him.
“I was the economic adviser to the U.S. Embassy for 30 years,” he said.
That’s right: an economic adviser to the U.S. Embassy in Athens. A big job. In fact, he worked in the area of business, economics and marketing for 50 years.
But he traded in his suits and ties a few years back to work the land. He was inspired to buy and develop the land by the ancient Spartans who lived nearby. It became his passion project — one he won’t do halfheartedly. He said he doesn’t spray his trees with any chemicals for fear it will affect the taste of the olive oil or even harm those who consume the oil.
Harvesting, which happens anywhere from October to February, is also done with care for the earth and nature. Schultz explains that unlike larger operations that use machines to shake the olives loose from the trees and can affect nesting birds, at Eugene’s grove, harvest is gentle.
“We will lay down nets, and we will trim the branches and then handpick the olives," Schultz explained. “In a small single estate outfit like us, we know where the birds are, we know where we need to handpick around them, so we are nurturing our shared landscape there with no harm to any creature.”
From there, the olives are put through a mechanical olive press, a technology that has been around since about 3,000 B.C., around the same time period as some of the oldest trees in existence. The oil is then put in vats to settle for anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months.
“Our oil tastes different every year, and the reason why is that there are no inputs. So whatever the earth gives the tree that season is what we will get,” Schultz said.
That means oil from a wet year might taste different than oil from a dry year. The taste might also change depending upon which varieties of olives are most prevalent in that year’s crop.
But every year, the oil from Mistra Estates comes from the first pressing with no additives — a true extra-virgin olive oil — unlike much of the oil on the market.
“In 2012, the University of California, Davis did a study of of all oils on the shelves of American supermarkets, and found that about 87% of all of these oils claiming to be extra-virgin olive oil were, in fact, fraudulent," Schultz said. "They were cut with other oils, they were not extra-virgin or they had chemical profiles that did not line up with the definition of extra-virgin olive oil."
Olive oil industry officials blame the Italian mafia or the agromafia for tampering with extra-virgin olive oil by mixing it with lower grade oils. The customer who thinks they’re paying for top-grade oil is usually not getting it.
Ladopoulos is quick to point out there are very good olive oils to be had in America. Sometimes you just need to do your research. Experts say if the oil is too cheap or too light in color, it might not be extra-virgin olive oil — despite what the label says.
Ladopoulos and Schultz are doing their part to help some foodies in America know they’re getting pure oil by bringing it to them almost straight from the tree. But right now, Ladopoulos as a small producer doesn’t have the capacity or even the desire to sell to the masses.
They are now importing oil to Fargo, Bismarck and Grand Forks in North Dakota, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Duluth and Detroit Lakes in Minnesota, and Austin, Texas. It’s usually available by pre-order months in advance or at one or two specially selected places in each town. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org .
“We don't want it to be everywhere,” Schultz said. “We want it to be something that you have to seek out. That's the liquid gold ethos. It's like a hidden treasure, right?"
But for Ladopoulos, the treasure also comes from something else — the relationships and friendships he is making with the Americans who make the pilgrimage to his land every year.
“This is my payment, my pleasure,” Ladopoulos said with a satisfied smile so big, his eyes crinkle at the sides. “If you do something, love it! That’s my pleasure to meet nice people and to share something given by nature.”
In tomorrow's installment of the "Liquid Gold" series, we'll take a closer look at how the use of olive oil in a Mediterranean diet has promising results for heart health.
For more information about Forum Communications' series and read all published installments, visit www.inforum.com/liquidgold . Tune into WDAY-TV at noon Saturday, April 9, to watch our full-length documentary, which will also be available on the Liquid Gold page beginning April 11.