Making a statement with staples

Wine bottles and pouches of olive oil

How many people can name any brands of olive oil? Unlike beer, coffee and chocolate there are many household staples including olive oil that are very much taken for granted by consumers and it is only the mass produced, nameless, generic versions that find themselves in shopping baskets.

Citizens of Soil are looking to change this and single estate extra virgin olive oil represents its first gambit at bringing provenance and terroir into play for under-appreciated staple products and their artisan producers.

Sarah Vachon, co-founder of Citizens of Soil, says the venture began when she and co-founder Michael Vachon randomly met a Greek woman on a ferry in 2006. The conversation that followed led to her supplying them with gallons of olive oil each year.

This personal arrangement led the Vachons finding out that of the 3,000 litres her family on the Greek island of Crete produces, they keep 150 litres for their own use and sell the remainder to a middleman who also buys from 200 other families and then blends it all together.

Much of this Greek blended olive oil is then sold into Italy where it is blended further into Italian branded oil, which can be sold at a greater premium to that of its Greek equivalents.

“It loses all its identity as it’s blended into anonymity. It loses its terroir. Before blending all the oils individually taste very different, just like wines. Also where they are milled and the processes involved affects the flavour. The time-frame of milling, when it’s harvested, and how clean is the mill all have an impact,” explains Sarah.

Citizens of Soil are initially selling the olive oil produced by the Amargiotakis family from its website, which includes a subscription service. To expand this proposition they are also on the lookout for other small producers in the Mediterranean whose distinctive oils they can hopefully highlight when they deliver them into the hands of consumers in the UK.

Vachon says the underlying idea is to enable “staples to make a statement” and to this end they would like to eventually introduce other product categories into their portfolio. She cites vinegar, salt, pepper, sugar and flour as obvious examples of other core staples that are under appreciated. The distinctive characteristics when produced by small independent manufacturers are not being recognised and the artisans are not being sufficiently rewarded for their efforts.

But she is in no rush to expand: “We’ll see how the olive oil goes first. We’ll explore this area initially. We need to see how the supply chains work and not just dive into other areas.”

Citizens of Soil are also very aware of bringing transparency to their work in order that there is no confusion about exactly where the products are sourced. To achieve the desired transparency and honesty with consumers the company is working with blockchain platform Provenance that helps provide proof about the origin, journey and impact of the produce across the full supply chain.

Glynn Davis, editor, Retail Insider