Pandemic Success: Olive Oil Stories from Corsica and Chile

On this special end of the year, Alice Alech tells us two stories that show the positive side of the pandemic, and how we, women, can transform a problem into an opportunity. Olive Oil is our superpower.

By Alice Alech for Women in Olive Oil

Pictures: Sandrine Marfisi

The ever-changing travel rules and complex restrictions of the Covid era have forced business owners to adopt innovative ways to survive.Two women in olive oil, a producer and an olive oil taster, met the challenges of the pandemic with determination, resilience, and strength of character. Along the way, many friendships and magical memories were made.

Sandrine Marfisi had good reason to be proud of her orchard, the olive grower and olive oil producer had worked hard over the year: careful pruning and vigilance of her trees brought success. The critical flowering and pollination periods now over, her olive trees drooped heavily under the weight of ripening olives. And, most importantly, not a single olive was infected.

Growers in sunny Corsica were spared this year from Bactrocera oleae; the olive fruit fly, recognized as one of the most damaging pests to attack olive trees.

Yes, 2020 was going to be a brilliant olive oil harvest.

As she navigated among the rows of trees, the owner of Domaine L’Asprellu had, however, one serious cause for concern. Who was going to pick her olives?

Sandrine explained:

“Every year for the past 15 years, I got hired help to pick my olives for my extra virgin oil L’Aliva Marina. This was not so this year because of the pandemic. Some hired help were brought to the island, but they preferred to pick clementines as the season for this fruit is much longer.”

Her predicament was understandable.

Olive oil producers have to press olives as soon as possible after harvesting: with ripe fruit from 1,100 trees on her 6-hectare estate, Sandrine had to find an answer.

Luckily, her friends came to the rescue.

Sandrine said: “These are girlfriends I've known for over 20 years. They occasionally popped in at harvest time over the years to see me work, but I've never mixed work and friendship. Their offer to help came naturally this year.”

It was a bit of a challenge for the women, but they learned quickly, pleased to be out in the fresh air during this lockdown period, laughing and joking as they worked.

Two seasonal workers lovingly coaxed ripe fruit from the branches using a comb while the ladies collected the fruit which fell onto the nets below.

“My five friends took it in turns to help over three weeks. It was like going to the gym for them, and we had such good fun,” Sandrine said. “Thanks to their generosity and warmth, we harvested 14,000 kg of olives this year in our mill. The atmosphere was so good that we are going to start again with the late variety Sabine which remains to be harvested between the end of December and the beginning of January.”

The good news is that Sandrine Marfisi won’t have to worry about harvesting next year. The ladies have already reserved their spots.

Communicating and collaborating in Chile

An olive oil taster based in Chile did not let the pandemic dampen her spirits.

Picture: Carola Dümmer

Olive Oil taster Carola Dümmer received a telephone call in the middle of lockdown, a day she remembers well. She was invited on May 1 to be one of the founders members of Women in Olive Oil (WIOO).

One of the global network's principal missions is to build a platform where women can exchange knowledge, expertise, and experiences – an original and challenging venture. Carola accepted.

The VP of Communication and Technology said that the timing was right for setting up WIOO.

“I’m grateful to the pandemic. It came at a time when we women had the time and energy, and as women, we know about multitasking. I wanted to do something positive. I wanted to make the best of this situation,” Carola said, oozing with enthusiasm.

Her love of learning and getting to speak to experts make her a good fit for WIOO.

“Women in Olive Oil is a gift from Covid. I’m honored to be part of this organization. It’s giving us a chance to collaborate. We have some enormous possibilities, she said.”

Set up during Covid 19, WIOO now connects almost 2,000 women from more than 40 different countries.

Carola received another call during the pandemic, this time from the founder and President of the New York International Olive Oil Competition, Curtis Cord. Carola has always been on the judges' panel in New York, but this year with Covid 19, she was almost sure the organizers would cancel.

Not so. As innovative as ever, Mr. Cord did not postpone the competition but set up a remote judging system for the 17 members of the jury to remotely judge the oils.

“This new way of testing olive oil was a whole new learning experience for me. We received the samples in special packages and succeeded in some high-level tasting, all working at the same time. What I thought was a crazy idea with so many countries in lockdown proved to be an amazing experience.”

The disruptions of the pandemic and the switch to home working meant juggling multitasks and commitment for Carola. With three young children and homeschooling to organize, the former journalist also had to focus on a mission she’d already started – the second edition of a bilingual guide on the best olive oil available in Chile –a guide to help consumers choose the best olive oils.

Working in a small team with her partner, Alicia Moya, they tasted their way through 87 oils, choosing a final 60 before writing the English/ Spanish edition. Guía Oliva 2020 was launched on World Olive Oil Day, November 26.

Carola tells me that her experience as a child growing up and tasting mediocre oil motivated her to share her knowledge.

“The oils I tasted were rancid and uninteresting, I hated olive oil.”

The expert olive oil taster believes that educating consumers is vital. Carola understands the science and basics of olive oil are crucial for professionals but thinks it's more satisfying for customers to discover the taste of extra virgin olive oil.

“It’s vital to communicate and collaborate with consumers, she emphasized.”

Carola is happy to see the positive changes in the quality of extra virgin olive oil in Chili.

Encouraging too is the steady increase in olive oil consumption. The annual consumption of olive oil in Chile today is 750 ml (per capita).

“People who used olive oil only for salad dressings are now cooking with olive oil. The quality is so much better now. It’s wonderful to see,” she enthused.

Stepping out of our comfort zones during this everlasting pandemic period has allowed many of us to face new challenges and to grow. If only we can stop referring to life as 'these uncertain times,' it will no doubt allow us to discover some meaningful positive experiences.

About the author: Alice Alech trained as a radiographer (x-ray technician) and specialized in mammography. She is also a qualified teacher of English as a foreign language. She has lived and worked in Martinique, St. Lucia, UK and Australia.

She discovered the wonderful world of Olive Oil on moving to Provence, drawn into the olive culture where taste, flavor, and quality of olive oil are crucial. With her health background, she is

understandably drawn to extra virgin olive health benefits, even more so after the research for "7 Wonders of Olive Oil", which she co-authored with Cécile Le Galliard.

She now writes on health and wellness from her home in the South of France.

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