With 20 years in the hospitality industry already under her belt, Crystal Lee has been working on the manufacturing side of food for the past eight years. Among the products she’s become an expert in is olive oil—and having visited the olive groves in Greece multiple times, she’s become a bit of an expert in the region as well.
Most visitors to Greece head straight for Athens or the islands, but Crystal is introducing us to the less-trodden country around Kalamata, a city of 70,000 in the southern Peloponnese.
“You probably know of the olive, but Kalamata is also a place. It’s famous for olives in general: not just Kalamata olives, but also an olive called the Koroneiki olive.
To give you an idea, these are very small towns that most people don’t go to, ever. The region around Kalamata itself is right off the coast. It’s nothing but mountains, sea line, and olive groves for as far as the eye can see. It is stunning, and that unique mix and climate is really special to that area.
To get there, you would fly into Athens. It’s about a two-and-a-half-hour drive south, so we usually hire a car, and it’s a really beautiful drive through the mountains. There’s also ruins that you pass by on the way through.
My favorite thing is how warm and hospitable these people are. In one of the villages that we went to on this last trip, the patriarch of one of the groves was basically just showing us around his little cute town. We didn’t speak the same language, but the people made it hard for us to leave. They kept sending us out food. A lot of small plates: there was feta; olives, of course; and everything has olive oil on it. This guy—I think his name was Pavlos; he must have been 80—he ended up doing a handstand on a chair.
In Greece, there’s local mills everywhere and so you take your harvest, the olives—in Greece, they’re all handpicked—and you take it to a local mill and you either keep it for yourself or you take it to the factory and you have it bottled.
If Napa were on the beach, that’s what I would compare it to. We went in September, and it was a perfect 75 degrees. You have all these mountains over here, but you also have the water there, and then there’s nothing but olive trees.”