Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Like most Minnesotans, Peter Schultz was raised on home cooking infused with butter and lard.
Ten years of study and adventure around ancient Sparta opened new doors – cupboard doors. “What pure butter and lard are to Minnesota cooks … that’s what olive oil means to the cooks of Greece,” he says. “It’s absolutely everywhere. It’s nothing at all like what you see in the supermarkets. Freshly squeezed from my friend’s orchard, it was oil so green, so milky, so delicious that I drank it like soda pop.”
Well, maybe not quite like pop – but almost. “It’s part of the culture of living in Greece. It’s everywhere,” he rhapsodizes. Twenty years ago, he was a young Minnesota native in love with everything Greek – working on his doctorate in classical art and archaeology at the University of Athens. He’d spend long, hot afternoons talking with his friend Eugene Ladopoulos (Mr. Lado), the husband of his dissertation adviser, whose family owned an ancient olive orchard near Mistras.
It was the first year the Greek was bottling oil pressed from the gnarled old trees that grew with little or no modern cultivation. “I was the graduate student-grunt-slave who he enlisted to hand-label those first bottles in an incredibly hot warehouse,” Peter recalls fondly. “None of the labels got on exactly straight.”
Over half a dozen ensuing years, while Peter explored the timeless archaeology and modern ways of the land he’d come to love, the two men talked from time to time of Mr. Lado’s dream of selling his extra virgin olive oil – EVOO – in the United States and Peter’s eagerness to share his discovery with his friends. The American returned to Fargo-Moorhead, where he’d earned his first degree at Concordia College. As the Olin J. Storvick Chair of Classical Studies, he began leading annual student trips to explore Hellenic culture. Finally, he decided to take a chance and share his love of the ultimate oil with his friends in Minnesota.
“I imported a single pallet of Mistras Estates oil in the fall of 2006,” he recalls ruefully. “It was a disaster. I sold 30 cases and couldn’t get rid of another bottle.” He attributes the failure of his ultra premium product to the area’s unfamiliarity. Fortunately, he says, Tony and Sarah Nasello, who then ran Sarello’s restaurant, recognized its quality immediately. “They loved it, and graciously bought all the leftover inventory to use in the restaurant. Seriously, if they hadn’t done that, we couldn’t have continued.”
But his confidence in the almost-magical oil from those old trees prompted him to carry on. As a professor of the classics, he organized annual student trips to the Peloponnese, expanding the pool of believers who developed a taste for the fresh-pressed oil so omnipresent in Greece. As the business grew, he was joined by Cady Rutter, who’d first accompanied the student journey in 2013; today they work side by side, with Cady handling imports and the low-key Mediterranean travel tours they’ve continued and expanded.
Fans of Mistra Estates oil have grown in number over the years. Last August, their annual email to past customers generated orders for 240 cases. When the premium bottles were delivered in November, both Cady and Peter were as eager as wine connoisseurs to taste the “vintage.” This year’s oil, the fruit of the 2017 harvest that had been settling in casks for many months, is described by Cady as “smooth, floral, almost sweet.”
“Every year’s oil is different,” she explains. “Last year the oil was earthier, peppery – almost spicy. It depends on the growing conditions on the mountainside that summer.”
In the best farm-to-table tradition, all of Peter’s oil comes from a single source – the family-owned trees whose husbandry Ladopoulos trusts mostly to nature, as his people have for a thousand years. Olive trees grow among other species, native plants and wildflowers. They’re cultivated only by the foraging of wild boars. No irrigation – “you won’t even find a hose anywhere on that farm,” Peter says. “It’s absolutely quiet there, except for the rustle of the wind. You get a sense of medieval times. It’s like walking in Middle Earth.”
When the olives are ready for harvest late in the year, the same long traditions prevail. Trees are pruned or shaken to drop the fruit into nets spread on the ground. Farmers haul them to a community press that Cady calls “as old as the hills. The milky pressing is filtered, then drained into a settling vat. Over the next three to five months, gravity does the rest: “No centrifuges, no heat,” Peter says. “It’s all gravity and time. This is pure, organic, cold-pressed, gravity-settled, extra-virgin gold from the heart of the Peloponnese.” He adds, “Half of that so-called ‘extra-virgin junk in the grocery store, I wouldn’t even burn in a lamp.”
Peter is downright passionate about the differences between his lovingly nurtured Mistra Estates oil and the bottles crowding the shelves of American supermarkets. “There’s no comparison with the commercial product,” he asserts. For one thing, he says, recent research has revealed that 70 to 90 percent of commercially bottled so-called “extra-virgin” brands are frauds.
“So yeah, it’s pretty bad. But we never need to worry. Cady and I go over to the orchard every year. We check out the trees with Mr. Lado, we inspect the facility, we hang out with the family. These folks are the real deal. In over 10 years, they’ve never let us down. Not once.”
Peter Schultz, Importer – as the oil project is known – is perhaps less a business than a labor of love. There’s no advertising at all; to be included in next year’s once-a-year ordering season, aficionados send an email to get on the mailing list.
Other ideas are percolating, too. Peter has talked with other Greek friends whose orchards might add variety and new tastes. He’s talked about importing the olives themselves. After a trip to Costa Rica, he has begun working with a similar farm operation run by a woman who grows and roasts her own beans on a small farm right below the Monteverde Cloud Forest. “Amazing coffee … just incredible,” he reports. He may import some of her harvest, too.
Now a visiting scholar in the North Dakota State University Department of Visual Art, Peter continues to think up new projects as he pursues his professional research and writing and other deep interests like the Longspur Prairie Fund, which focuses on prairie and wetland restoration. With Cady’s help, he also hosts three or four tours a year to his beloved Greece and surrounding areas.
“This is never going to be a full-time business. Honestly, we’d probably do it even if we didn’t make a cent,” he says. “The stuff is just so good, and this is so much fun.”
For information on ordering Peter’s Mistra Estates olive oil and other products, visit peterschultzimporter.com.