As the car crested a craggy hill, the first rays of golden sun peaked over the horizon, painting distant clouds the color of red wine. Tufts of gnarled olive trees and rows of grapes whizzed by the window as we approached the farm, outrunning the quickly approaching sun.
We left Thessaloniki at 5:30 a.m. to beat the Greek summer’s heat, something of concern for both workers and oregano plants, our destination’s star crop. Michalis and Anastasia, owners of Aetheleon, were prepared for the day’s harvest. With every rising degree, minuscule droplets of moisture and essential oils seep from the oregano in an attempt to cool them down. The plants’ sweat-like response can be easily smelled, the aromatic wafts upon the breeze a prelude to the frenzied buzzing of hordes of happy bees following the fragrant trail.
Oregano is a complex herb. There are dozens of varieties scattered around the world, each with their own characteristics, scents and culinary uses. The oregano grown by Aetheleon is native to the mainland of Greece and known for its remarkable scent. “I remember when I was young, my father would go to the mountains to harvest oregano. When he would return, the whole house would smell like it,” says Anastasia. For her, oregano farming is both a connection to her identity and a means for forging healthy eating habits.
In Greece, the healing properties of oregano have been known for centuries. Today, Anastasia and Michalis strive to integrate modern technology with traditional knowledge to create something special. Aetheleon’s organic oregano oil is both delicious as a seasoning and soothing as a salve. Studies have found oregano to be antimicrobial and beneficial for breathing, and to help alleviate a variety of skin ailments.
Harvest begins at first light. As the sun glances over the tallest of the 30,000 plants, bees can already be seen silhouetted by the early morning light. “Our business is a family business,” says Michalis as he starts to unpack secateurs and hand trimmers. Cars containing extended family begin to arrive, bouncing down the dirt road to the 0.7-hectare field.
While some farms use combines to harvest, Anastasia and Michalis find picking by hand to be the best way to prevent damage to the plant. The oil will be of a lower quality if the plant is stressed. For this reason the harvest stops at midday when the plants become taxed by the sun’s onslaught.
Anastasia and Michalis strive to integrate modern technology with traditional knowledge to create something special.
Michalis, a former sound engineer, is dedicated to the plants and maximizes natural growing techniques by incorporating drone sensor technology – part of their attempts to marry tradition with technology. The sensors detect how the oregano plants reflect solar radiation, which allows Aetheleon to determine the optimal harvest time for the highest quality oils depending on whether they want to emphasize healing properties or taste. They have partnered with remote sensing company Ecodevelopment SA to create several years’ worth of analytics for predicting oregano growth patterns.
People chat while crouched between rows of oregano, bees flitting from plant to plant between them. Lizards zip through the harvested rows in search of a snack, taking advantage of new avenues for exploration. The farm takes advantage of northern Greece’s natural biodiversity to create a product they see as both sustainable and environmentally conscious. They do not use pesticides or herbicides, but seek natural alternatives that maintain the region’s equilibrium. Many other herbs, such as spearmint and Saint John’s Wort, live side by side with the oregano. During breaks, people gather bunches of these cohabitants to form herbal remedies. Knowledge of the plants passed down from generation to generation reveals a landscape rich in meaning. Understanding the importance of every herb paints an entirely different picture of the ecosystem, disregarding the conventional assumption decreeing all unwanted plants as weeds.
Around midday, a truck arrives to take the oregano to a distillation facility outside of Kilkis. Called Natural Drops, the high-tech distillery only produces essential oils. Steam is pumped through a vat of fresh, compacted plants, snagging oils on its journey to a cooling tank, where it returns to liquid form. With time, the oil rises to the top and is able to be separated with relative ease. In order to compact the oregano in the distillation vat, men have to climb inside and perform a sort of dance, circling and prancing to ensure that air pockets do not form.
The distillation process takes around four hours. During that time, people sit in the shade, sipping home made ayran, and chatting. The process has to be monitored at all times, checking temperature and pressure. Seven hours of harvesting yields 441 kilograms of fresh oregano, which in turn produces 4.5 liters of essential oil. While this seems tiny in comparison, a one-percent yield is expected with oregano. Four and a half liters is enough to make about 900 tiny bottles of pure, natural oil.
Apart from creating pure essential oil, Anastasia and Michalis source extra virgin olive oil from the island of Lesvos that they infuse with their oregano oil. Each bottle is numbered by hand and comes with a dropper so that you can precisely control your seasoning.
We end the harvest day at Mourga, a small restaurant in the heart of Thessaloniki with a reputation for ingeniously integrating traditional Greek cuisine with modernist flair. Yannis, the chef at Mourga, was Michalis and Anastasia’s first customer for the infused olive oil. During dinner one night, they shared a bottle with the chef, who exclaimed that it smelled and tasted just like a Greek salad. He immediately ordered 100 bottles, which have all since been used.
If you go to Mourga, you can see the oregano oil drizzled on fresh bread, the scent wafting throughout the restaurant. Michalis and Anastasia focus on creating connections with customers through a quality product they can enjoy. Each bottle of infused oil is numbered and produced in small quantities according to demand. While there are many centuries of traditions related to the use of oregano in cooking and herbal healing, using oregano essential oils in cooking is relatively new, something that Aetheleon is hoping to make widespread.
Aetheleon is a very small company, and they would like to keep it that way. Michalis and Anastasia would rather maintain small plots to the absolute best of their abilities rather than expanding beyond their reach. They sell widely throughout Greece and have found enthusiastic buyers abroad, such as at Oliveology in London’s Borough Market.
If you would like to sample food made with their fragrant Oregano in Thessaloniki, you can visit Café Mitsos for fantastic traditional Greek fare, or Mourga for a modern twist.
Full disclosure: The author assists Oliveology with their social media accounts.