by Rachel Travers
As a food writer, I love it when I know I have a story at the first taste of a new local product. Well, this time it was Olympiana Local Stuffed Grape Leaves found on a Friday afternoon at the Cambridge/Charles Square farmers market.
Rolled as compactly and neatly as a good Cuban cigar, the toothsome grape leaves were a real surprise. Now, I love stuffed grape leaves. But the fact is they usually disappoint. They’re almost always too oily, sometimes soggy, sometimes tough and fibrous, often carelessly filled with either a rice mixture or meat and rice mixture that can be overspiced, too meager or too al dente—always eaten but so frequently an edible letdown.
Paul Hatziiliades, proprietor of Extra Virgin Foods Company, is the young entrepreneur and passionate foodie who brings these terrific grape leaves to the markets, but it’s really a family affair—as is everything he does, but that’s jumping ahead.
Paul’s father is the one who suggested he start making fresh stuffed grape leaves from local vines, and he showed Paul how to harvest them. Not too big or they’re fibrous, but young and big enough to roll. “Any variety you can make wine with works,” explains Paul, with one caveat: “Concord grape leaves don’t work.”
Paul’s original grape leaves came from family land on Cape Cod. But once he got into the Cambridge farmers market he met Frank Zoll, owner of Zoll Cellars in Shrewsbury. They started talking and now Paul picks his leaves from Frank’s vines. Paul is also in discussion with Turtle Creek Winery in Lincoln to procure more local leaves and increase his production.
Paul’s Aunt Vaya Goutzinos is the one who actually makes the delicious and compact rolls. But only after Paul tried six or seven different types of rice. “The problem was that some rice just doesn’t taste that good, then there were varieties that expanded too much,” Paul relates. Fresh mint, dill, parsley, sea salt, lemon juice and the family’s brand of olive oil—Olympic Extra Virgin Olive Oil, which is estate grown from handpicked Kalamata olives in Greece—goes into the simple recipe.
Aunt Vaya blanches the leaves as soon as Paul picks them, about 400 leaves a week. Planning for year-round production, Paul also picks extra leaves, which get lightly brined so Vaya can continue to produce the stuffed rolls even when the grape harvest is finished.
Though they are perfect as is, at room temperature, Paul suggests that they’re really great when lightly grilled with a little added olive oil (Greek, of course) and a touch of fresh lemon juice.
You will find other products when you go looking for the grape leaves at the two farmers markets where he sells: Newton Cold Springs Park on Tuesdays and the Cambridge/Charles Square market on Fridays. The olive oil, which is one of the backbones of Paul’s business, is always available as is freshly made Greek yogurt. If you’re lucky there might still be spanakopita, a spinach pie which they sell in individual pieces and which disappears within the first hour and a half of market. The key to its popularity is the handmade phyllo dough, which is made with extremely little butter and primarily olive oil. Or you might also catch one of their fresh whole-wheat olive oil breads, infused both with the olive oil and with pieces of Kalamata olives.
Usually, food entrepreneurs start small and grow up and out if they’re successful. Paul Hatziiliades has built his business in reverse order. He began in 1999 with a custom kitchen design and cabinetry company in the Boston Design Center, called Moda Cucina. He wisely installed a live kitchen in the showroom, which ultimately led to his introduction to chefs and the food business in general. Over the years, many cooking shows, fundraisers and events have taken place at Moda Cucina. And chefs would always comment on both the fabulous kitchen and the fabulous olive oil—which was always in generous supply.
Ana Sortun, chef and co-owner of Oleana restaurant in Cambridge, used Paul to build out Oleana—and then Sofra some years later. She also was the first to fall in love with Olympic Olive Oil and promptly began ordering it directly from Paul, then began raving about it to other chefs like Barbara Lynch. When the first big volume shipment came in during December 2010, Paul “bought a rolling cart at Staples and went straight to the Charles Hotel. I bumped into Peter Davis and suddenly I had two customers.”
This fall Paul will return to the family orchards in northern Greece, where fruit trees are growing. Once bountiful with peaches, the orchards have been replanted with cherries and pomegranates. And he will be on a mission: Ana Sortun has personally asked if they could come up with a pomegranate molasses that doesn’t have excessive additional ingredients added to the mix. Our guess is that by next summer, you will be able to buy pomegranate molasses as well as olive oil as you go looking for stuffed local grape leaves.
Rachel Travers is a freelance food and lifestyle writer who has been contributing to the Boston Globe for 15 years—and to Edible Boston for its proud five! She can be reached at email@example.com.