A symbol of abundance and fertility, of good luck and wealth, of life and death, pomegranates have played an important role in Greece since antiquity. With their beautiful, crowned shape, this fruit figures heavily in Greek mythology, connected as it is to the goddesses Demetra, Persephone, Hera and Aphrodite.
Apart from their symbolic meaning, pomegranates are also highly praised for their wonderful flavor and remarkable health benefits. Grown in abundance in Greece, there are many varieties available, with the most popular being Ako, Wonderful, and Hermione. The latter has an exterior that is almost pale yellow in color, and its seeds are paler too, but large in size, juicy and very sweet.
Pomegranate harvest begins here in September with Ako, an early variety that is incredibly tasty if harvested at the right time, even though it’s considered premature. Wonderful is among the most common varieties found in Greece, and the name is on the nose – it is really wonderful, not just because it’s delicious, but also because it has the longest harvest season, starting from early October and going until late March.
Lately pomegranate farmers, like other farmers and producers in Greece, have been trying to find ways to sell directly to consumers. Triggered to a degree by the economic crisis that hit the country a few years ago, these producers are avoiding distributors and other intermediaries (who take a cut of their profits) by selling directly to markets and supermarkets, or opening their own retail shops. It’s a welcome development, as buying straight from producers often guarantees a better and fresher product, and, of course, a better price. Plus, it’s a more fair and ethical form of trade.
The best way to achieve these aims is by creating co-ops, which allow farmers of a specific region or product to join forces and sell more efficiently to consumers (resulting in greater success). The new co-ops are updated versions of the old-school co-ops that have mostly failed or went bankrupt, primarily due to bureaucratic issues and dated laws in the Greek constitution (a lack of marketing and sales skills, which are necessary nowadays, also contributed to their demise).
After 2011, laws on the formation of co-ops started to change, and finally in 2016 the government obliged co-ops to adapt to the new standards: The deadline for compliance was set for April 2017. While a few disorganized old co-ops had to shut down, over 5,500 new co-ops popped up and more have formed since then (subsidies coming from the EU have surely assisted in this, too).
Such is the case of Aphrodite, a co-op based in Ayia, close to the city of Larissa in central Greece. Back in 2010, Giorgos Bitsaras, a farmer in the region who at the time was in his late 30s, saw the potential and opportunity in the cultivation of pomegranates. He first started on his own and saw the drawbacks and difficulties of being in business by himself. Then, as the laws began changing, the idea of organizing a pomegranate co-op in his region was born.
After a lot of thinking and planning he gathered together other producers, around 20 in total, and in 2015, they officially founded the co-op. Their small yet decisive steps have proven fruitful as they now have an agreement with Lidl Europe to supply their supermarkets with pomegranates, and they also export to Germany and Holland.
When in season (from September until late March), pomegranate juice is squeezed on the spot.
Inspired by their initial success, they explored more business expansion ideas, eventually signing an agreement with Attico Metro (the company that manages the Athens Metro). In May 2019, they opened their first retail point, a kiosk, outside the entrance of the perpetually busy Ambelokipoi station in central Athens. The main aim was to sell their freshly squeezed pomegranate juice at an affordable price. When in season (from September until late March), pomegranate juice is squeezed on the spot.
Before the pomegranate season ends, between February and March, they make sure to juice plenty of fresh fruit and freeze it immediately in order to retain its nutrients and flavor. Between April and August, customers can purchase frozen bottled pomegranate juice or their delicious granita made with 100 percent pomegranate juice, without any sugar or other additives.
You may wonder how it can be so delicious without an added sweetener, but the answer is simple: choosing the right moment to harvest. The farmers that are part of this co-op pick the pomegranates off the trees, all of which are checked by trained agronomists, when their natural sugars have reached 17 grams and above. They do everything in their power to ensure that their fruit is high quality at all stages of production – from the farm to the moment it reaches the customer.
The pomegranate juice comes in two sizes: a 250-ml. bottle for €1.80 and a 500-ml. €3. Such low prices have resulted in an ongoing queue at the kiosk. Recently they’ve added orange juice to the menu, as well as a mix of orange and pomegranate.
Apart from the juices and granita, the kiosk also sells almonds and walnuts as well figs and two handmade fig- and honey-based energy bars – one with almonds, walnuts and sesame, and another with chocolate, coconut and spices. The co-op collaborates with a small cottage industry based on Euboea Island to source the figs and energy bars, which have no added preservatives or sugars except for raw honey. Soon they will also sell fresh, cleaned pomegranate seeds and a new winter nut mix with a blend of nuts and dried fruit that they prepare up north.
Three young women – Nadia, Irene and Stavroula – take shifts at the kiosk, always ready with a smile and some information about the products on offer. The kiosk is open daily from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m., and the women inform us that they’re busy all day long. Over 400 customers stop by each day, most of whom order the pomegranate juice.
“Customers are returning daily, craving their juice and enticed by the fact that they can purchase it freshly squeezed at such a good price,” Irene tells us. “Plus, everyone seems happy and excited to support a Greek farmers’ co-op.” Proving once more that Greeks have become more cognizant of the origin of products offered, and that old traditions are being revived and updated to fit contemporary trends and needs. Perhaps more importantly, the link between producer and customer is stronger than ever.
In a couple of months, the co-op’s second kiosk will open outside the metro station in Katechaki. It’s worth taking the train there to taste their wonderful pomegranate juice and other products. But in the meantime, get yourself to Ambelokipoi for some freshly squeezed juice before exploring the neighborhood’s many culinary secrets.