Although Wellington's famously rowdy Greek restaurants are no more, their food still enters our lives in a very intimate way – through the Greek olives, oil and antipasto products imported by The Olive Lady, Mary Etheridge of Lepanto.
Olives, as Mary points out, are not created equal. Very much an expression of soil and climate, they also reflect they way they are brined and cured.
"Sometimes olives can be too salty, and sometimes very vinegary," says Mary. "And some Kalamata olives actually come from Morocco," adds her daughter Angela, Lepanto's lively marketing manager (who speaks three languages, has two degrees and has previously worked in commerce, as a media research analyst and a winemaker).
Indeed, it was dissatisfaction with the olives then available locally that drove Mary to set up the Lepanto brand in 1996. That, and an excuse to go back to Greece on a buying trip every year.
While there, she scours the Greek countryside, meeting merchants and looking for prime local products. The family now sell fire-roasted peppers, eggplant puree, capers, giant white beans and aromatic dolmades (rice-stuffed vine leaves), along with the Greek dessert halva, in several flavours, and Greek wines and brandies.
Greek olive oil, says Mary, is recognised as the most flavoursome of all the Mediterranean, but because the Greeks are so poor at marketing it, much of it ends up in Italian and Spanish blends.
Born Mary Anastasiadou and raised in Katerini in northern Greece, Mary was sent to Wellington at the age of 17. She lived with an aunt who had married a New Zealand serviceman after having fought with the Greek resistance during the World War II.
Although the plan had been for Mary to stay in Wellington for only two years while she improved her English, the inevitable happened – working in a bank, she met and married a New Zealander, Paul Etheridge, and has lived here ever since.
In Wellington, the Greek community has always been divided into sub-groups, and even the Cypriots and the Cretans have their own associations. Bringing them all together is the Hellenic-New Zealand Congress, of which Paul was a founding member. He has served twice as president.
Lepanto is named after a war in which the Christian Greeks successfully took on their Muslim Turk neighbours. Mary still cooks her mother's recipe for papoutsakia, or "little shoes"– aubergine halves stuffed with pork and beef mince, rice, onion, carrot and lots of fresh herbs – a tradition which Angela continues too.
Lepanto's on-premise sales manager Paul Holley decided to organise a chefs' competition featuring their new product line – sweet olives – simply played God and with a short list of contestants, chosen from his client base.
Happily, these restaurants also happen to be among the best in Wellington:
Taylors on Jackson
Muse on Allen
was invited to taste and judge the creations of the top three placegetters – Taylors on Jackson, Spruce Goose and Cafe Polo.
Cafe Polo offered the sweet olives as a crust for roast rump of lamb, served over a salad, while Spruce Goose, the runner-up, produced an excellent hare and sweet olive pie.
But head and shoulders above the rest was Taylors on Jackson's spin on cassata – a sweet olive parfait, served with a contrastingly dense olive oil cake, some pistachio puree, orange curd and a functional crimson sprinkling of dried raspberries.
The complete recipe would be too complex for most home cooks, but here is the parfait which forms the heart of Glen Taylor's winning dish.
Sweet Olive Parfait
3 egg whites
1 Jar Lepanto Dessert Olives (available from Moore Wilson's)
5g citric acid
1/4 tsp vanilla paste
50g roasted pistachio nuts
Line a loaf tin with a strip of baking paper, this will help you remove your parfait neatly and easily.
Whip the cream and vanilla until you get a thick fluffy cream with soft peaks, while this is happening in a small heavy based saucepan combine the sugar and the drained syrup from the olives. Slice the olives and set aside.
Bring the syrup to a gentle boil.
In another clean bowl whisk the egg whites until thick and glossy as for a meringue.
Once this stage is reached, start to slowly drizzle in the hot sugar syrup, whisking continuously.
Gently fold meringue and cream together along with reserved olives and pistachio nuts. Pour into the loaf tin and freeze for 6 hours.
Unmould, slice and serve with fresh red berries. Enjoy
- The Dominion Post
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