In 2012 Michael Noonan said that Irish people knew little of Greece except for the feta cheese on supermarket shelves. Condescending though the remark may have been, it unfortunately held a lot of truth. Greece hardly touches the surface of what it could be earning from quality agriculture. At a time when every cent counts in balancing the national budget, and reducing the huge balance of payments, there is no effective agency to introduce these products into the international marketplace, nor incentives to stimulate creative production.
Boosting agricultural exports alone could significantly narrow the €20 billion trade gap, of which agriculture accounts for €1.4 billion. That’s without adding the rapidly expanding sector of services such as biotechnology, medical technology and robotics.
In this column I’ve often bewailed the fact that the creativity and industriousness of Greek people is neither recognised nor rewarded by the public administration. Greece could be – and in some cases already is – a world leader in honey, cheeses, wines, and olive oil. There are, of course, exporters, but without encouragement and incentives they are struggling in a vicious marketplace.
Net importer of fruit
A major setback to Greek export promotion was the decision in 2013 to close the Greek Foreign Trade Board and establish, in its place, Enterprise Greece.
Its functions are similar to those of Enterprise Ireland but there the similarity ends. An Irishman in Athens said to me "if they even exist, they do shag all".
Yet in 2014 the then prime minister, Antonis Samaras, was urging small businesses to discover their export potential. How? Even the Panhellenic Exporters Association, claiming to represent all exporters, is small potatoes as far as clout in the international marketplace is concerned.
It's absurd that Greece should be a net importer of fruit and vegetables. Greece imports over 15,000 tonnes of tomatoes each year, at a cost of €11 million, when it should be a net exporter of agricultural produce. A Greek tomato actually tastes like a tomato, not a synthetic GM lookalike with more air miles than Pope Francis.
Greece won an international court case recently to protect the names of feta cheese and Greek yogurt as distinctly Greek products – you can't market them unless they are Greek-made. "Greek-style" yogurt made in Ireland is good, but not as good as the real thing: thicker, creamier, and bursting with flavour.
One of the most lucrative markets is in olive oil, in which Spain is the world leader, closely followed by Italy and Greece. But in Irish supermarkets, Greek oil is hugely outmanoeuvred by the Spanish. Why?
One reason for the lack of an export drive is the self-sufficiency of growers: families harvest as much as they need for their own consumption and receive EU subsidies for the rest. In Corfu, thousands of olive trees, mainly owned by "absentee landlords", lie fallow, increasingly infertile and in need of severe pollarding.
Greece harvests about two million tonnes of olives annually, enough to produce 500 million litres of oil. Corfu alone has over three million trees which could yield, on a conservative estimate, 15 million litres of oil annually which, if sold at a modest 50 cents a litre, would earn €7.5 million from one island alone.
The wines are certainly on the shelves, but not in significant quantities. They impress with their spectacular quality. There are far more bottles where those came from, but that requires a policy and a co-ordination strategy that isn’t there. Figures from the UK show that Greek imports account for less than 1 per cent of the £15 billion (€20 billion) UK wine market.
Specialists 64 Wine in Glasthule tell me that there’s a steady sale for Thassalitis, a dry white from Santorini and they are in specialist shops such as Oddbins (which has eight different Greek wines) rather than supermarkets.
Once you encounter reputable wines such as the Naoussa range from Boutari (with 130 years experience) or Gaia (mainly in Santorini), the sweet dessert wine from Samos or even budget labels such as Tsantalis, you’ll recognise superior quality at an affordable price.
As far as cheese is concerned, yes, there is the ubiquitous feta. But there is a huge range of– hard, pungent, salty, creamy or blue cheeses.
Honey is distinguished by the unique flora of Greece, giving flavours such as thyme, rosemary and sage. I'm chuffed that 65 per cent of all Greek honey comes from pine. Greece produces 1.2 million kilos, but sales in the EU are threatened by a 2014 directive allowing cheap imports of inferior quality from China, to the advantage principally of German distributors.
The lavender-flavoured honey and creamy feta from the village where I live, and the local Nyssos extra-virgin oil, are always in my Dublin-bound baggage. Would that I were doing it in tonnes not kilos.
Ironically, Corfu is now exporting – but only so far as the Athens parliament – a new crop: its first ever neo-Nazi MP, elected last month.
Richard Pine's Greece Through Irish Eyes is published by Liffey Press.