I always define myself as a ‘people lover’ and when I get to meet people like George Kostelenos and his family, I confirm why that is so. I had called him about a month, or so, ago to ask if I could visit the nursery and ask him a few questions about olive trees. On the phone he says: “Which Kostelenos are you looking to talk to? The tall, handsome blonde, blue-eyed one, or the short, stocky, dark one?” I was taken aback and for a minute there, at a loss for words, so I mumbled: “I haven’t ever met him, to be honest, so I’m not sure how to answer that one”. “Well then, you will have to do with the short, stocky, dark-haired one”. I realised he had been teasing me and that there was probably just one of him anyway, so I laughed.
I didn’t manage to get an appointment at that time because he’s obviously a very busy man, but he accepted to see me at the nursery http://www.kostelenosfytoria.gr/ just before Easter, on Good Thursday. That was a huge present for me, because most people wouldn’t have agreed on a business meeting on a day like that.We were shown in by his secretary. I looked at him and thought he was very likeable. Chubby, wearing glasses, slightly balding, a beard, a warm handshake, a deep voice and slightly stern. One of those people that have a crease between the eyes. Once he started talking the face softened and very soon, a good sense of humour shone through. A man who has worked amazingly hard with his wife to set up their nursery, and who is considered one of the most knowledgeable people on anything to do with olive trees. He has written a very comprehensive textbook “Elements of Olive Cultivation” in 2012, which he funded himself, and owns an important collection of books pertaining to olive trees.
But let me take things from the beginning. He studied Agricultural Science at the University of Pisa in Italy and Thessalonika in Greece. He tells us that he grew up in an agricultural business (his family had a flower nursery) and had no intention whatsoever to work with olive trees. “When I was in the army, serving my duty, they would offer me days of leave if I helped the local olive growers, and I wouldn’t even think of it. Up to about 1993 my nursery focused on the multiplication of carnation plants.” Nevertheless, as of 1991 it happened that he slowly slipped into the olive tree business, “People came looking for olive trees, so slowly I started multiplying olive plants, as that is the basis for olive cultivation. I soon realized that the whole olive tree sector was in mayhem. As I began to expand into this and to deepen my knowledge, it seemed that people were asking us for one or another variety of olive tree and we came to understand that many times they were looking for the exact same variety but were using different names; or the exact opposite, different varieties using similar names!”
So he and his wife, Evangelia Vlassaki, who is also an agriculturalist, decided they needed to look into the existing bibliography. To their great surprise, there was not very much available. So they started developing their own research, which branched into three directions. The one was to begin a collection of different olive tree varieties, the second was to search for books on the history and cultivation of olive trees and to start a collection of such books. The third important course of action was to improve their nursery production by adopting techniques that were not used by others. They wanted to base their research on findings that already existed. There was one important book written by N. Lychnos ‘The Olive Tree and its Cultivation’ published in 1948, which was quite comprehensive. He was an officer of the Ministry of Agriculture and wrote several books about olive trees. There was not very much written after that. “There were also three large collections of varieties, but which were inter-related as they had been put together by the same original collection, one at the Agricultural School of the Athens University, one at the Institute of Olive Tree, Subtropical plants and Viticulture in Chania, Crete, and one at St Mammas in Chalikidiki, Northern Greece. The same varieties, the same approach, the same mistakes. Due to our previous work with the carnations we had a great asset. We knew hundreds of people around Greece and could easily check on information or ask to have a particular variety sent to us.”
Then the idea of writing a book of his own was born. As he tells us there were the writings by N. Lychnos, before that by P. Anagnostopoulos on which prof I. Therios based his book in 2005 and even further back Grigorios Palaiologos, the agriculturalist that was brought to Greece, following the liberation, to organize agriculture. “Imagine that in France of the 1800s they would have Olive Tree book contests. Olive tree cultivation started in Greece, and was popularized by Rome but modern olive tree cultivation evolved in France, and it was the French who modernised methods of oil extraction, oil mills, etc. So, when I started writing my book, I had thought I would include a small section on the history of the olive tree. What started to be 2-4 pages became 90 pages in the end. When we actually printed the book we realized people were interested in the historic part, and not as much in the part about varieties. Or rather, they were interested in the history and a part I hadn’t included. Cultivation of Olive Trees. Gaia published a book on Olive Tree Cultivation and I’ve actually written a couple of chapters in that, but I plan on writing a separate book myself.”
Amongst all these other things they wondered where the olive tree originated. And bang! An amazing discovery came to light. About 10 yrs ago they were invited to see an olive tree on the island of Naxos. The trunk of this tree has a 10,8m diameter. They took cuttings and the fruit they produced was Aegean Throumbolia. “This is the only olive tree that can give fruit which is not bitter. You can eat the olives right off the tree. This means that the human forager could just pick the fruit off the tree and eat it. This is the exact same variety of olive tree that was cultivated in Minoan Crete. The olive pits (the most stable characteristic of an olive tree) are the same as those found in excavations in Crete. This variety has also been found in excavations all around Greece. We then decided to check the feral olive trees and discovered that the populations of feral olive trees have degenerated, which means that the constant presence of cultivated olive trees for the past 6000 years are the reason for that. So, it is my belief that Greece was the first to domesticate olive trees. Nevertheless, a problem arose. If this country is the first to have domesticated the olive tree, it should also be the country with the widest selection of varieties”. He holds that there hasn’t been systematic recording of varieties and DNA testing.
He explains that the nursery had to be set up right from the beginning recently because, due to various reasons, many of the trees from his original collection were pulled out or destroyed. Nevertheless, they now have about 200 indigenous (Greek) varieties of olive trees and 200 varieties from around the world in the nursery. The next step in his research will be to have all of the trees planted (they are in pots at this moment), and to then collect the crop of each and press the olives for oil. “This will definitely be the only research work that includes 400 varieties of olive trees planted in the same region, cultivated in the same way, exposed to the same conditions, all aspects exactly the same, which will give rateable results as to the quality of olive oils and their particular characteristics. Right now, it’s impossible to tell what is going on, because we compare the Koroneiki of Crete to the Koroneiki of Lakonia. I have 8 clones of Koroneiki planted. Which one exactly are we comparing with the other? Of course, it will take years before we have secure conclusions. We need to clarify and map the genetic material. On the other hand, the fact that it hasn’t been done to this day, gives our producers a great asset. This will be one of the first times, in our latest history, when they can hit the market with exclusive products that nobody else can produce. All of this work I am doing will give the producers the necessary background, that will allow them to show how their products differ from Spanish and Italian oils.”
He then explains that the reason the varieties did not emigrate is because the olive tree depends on its environment, that also explains why there are so many varieties. Apparently, when he consults on which is the right olive tree to be planted in a particular place, he needs the soil analysis, information about the climatic conditions, about whether the trees are near the sea, at altitude, and so forth. He recommends the suitable variety or varieties and he also decides on whether the plant should be grafted on a different rootstock. “I multiply all 400 varieties that I have here, so I know exactly how each plant behaves. I also have the full production history of every single plant I have ever grown and sold, from the very first one on. I know exactly who bought it, where it was planted and when.”
His only grievance is that he has not been helped by the state, in the least, in what he has done so far. As a matter of fact, he had filed a research proposition, which would have been partly funded by the state and was turned down. “I don’t mind, because now every time they request results from the work I have been funding myself all of these years, I just copy/paste the reasons for which I refuse to do so from the rejection letter I had received at the time…..your research proposition is not innovative since the collection of data, selection, identification of healthy multiplication olive plant material is the object of national and international acts……your suggested technical approach is credible, but not beyond already existing technical achievements….” He is now putting together material for his new book which will be split into three volumes. “The first will be on the History of the olive tree, as I understand it, the second on Varieties, as I classify them, and the third on Cultivation. The whole family is working on the research for this.”
He gave me so much information I could probably go on writing another few pages. I put down what I thought was the gist of what I was told. He then asked his eldest son Dimitris to give us a tour of the nursery and our tour with Dimitris is Part 2 of this visit.