New York.- Vicki James Yiannias
Photos: Dimitrios Panagos
The lights were turned low over clusters of bistro tables, quiet pop played, and small plates and finger food from chef and author Diane Kochilas introducing Rice-Up’s Bistro Risotto circulated while red and white Greek wines from Naoussa imported by Stellar Importing from the Amyndeon-Florina regions flowed generously at the Greek Press and Communication Office in New York on June 29.
Exports hold immeasurable promise for Greece in crisis. Apostolos Digbassanis, Trade Commissioner of the Greek Trade Office in New York, led this “evening of fabulous Greek Food and Wine”, supported by the Greek Trade Office and the Greek Press and Communication Office.
Agrino, the leader of the Bistro rice program, one of four organizations* comprising Rice-Up (formerly AGREENO), the Association of Rice Producers from Greece and Stellar Importing were among the many Greek product exhibitors in New York’s 61st Summer Fancy Food Show (June 28-30).
As dietician and nutritionist Elena Paravantes wrote in the HuffPost recently, the creativity spurred by Greece’s economic crisis, the high quality of Greek products, and the fact that all the foods of the Mediterranean Diet are produced in Greece, spells out success for Greek exports. Greece has some of the finest food products in the world and the world will benefit from their increased availability.
Ambassador Georgios Iliopoulos, Consul General of Greece in New York, the first speaker of the evening, pointed out that Greece is the third largest producer of rice in Europe, and AGREENO is responsible for 54% of Greece’s rice production. “The U.S. market is a sophisticated market… And, the Greek rice producers can meet the requirements and the demands of this market,” he said. “Therefore, we can only be optimistic about a future AGREENO partnership, both for the benefit of the American consumer and, of course, the Greek producer.”
“Greece is not only one of the most beautiful places in the world today, and, of course, I’m very objective about it,” Ambassador Iliopoulos said to audience laughter, “but Greece is also the perfect answer to the current trends in food consumption in the U.S. and Europe. One of the few countries with a perfectly balanced climate, Greece produces agricultural products of the highest standards and has increasing significance in future exports with this partnership.” Currently, rice is the most important grain in regard to nutritional value, providing more than two-fifths of the calories consumed worldwide,” said Ambassador Iliopoulos, noting that rice production is considered to be one of most important agricultural outlets in Greece, which produces nearly 120,000 tons of rice a year, half of which is exported to other European countries.
Quality and the constant effort to strengthen Greek farmers and their crops are core values of the Thessaloniki-based Company, Agrino (EV.GE PISTIOLAS SA). Agis Pistiolas, the Marketing and Exports Director of Agrino, talked about rice cultivation. Rice cultivation in Greece is carried out close to river deltas, which results in naturally salty rice with a rich taste. He discussed Agrino’s certificate for Good Agricultural Practice and Agrino packaging, which lists Greece as the country of origin, the name of the area and the farmer.
“Because we have a really special product we decided to ‘take the bet’ and try our luck at promoting it in the U.S.” said Mr. Pistiolas, describing some of the superior indigenous Greek products used in the Risottos line, such as hand-picked, select mushrooms from Grevena; hand-picked, select Krokos Kozanis P.D.O (Product of Designated Origin from Kozani), an outstanding Red Saffron known internationally for its unique red color and strong perfume (saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, costing $1,000 per ounce); and Avgotaracho, “a very special fish roe–from a very special area in in Central Greece–that is being presented in a risotto for the very first time on the globe; tomato risotto with Greece’s superb tomatoes; and also a ‘first’: an Avgolemono risotto, which has a very Greek taste.”
Mark Schmettau, Agrino’s International Development Director, pointed out the four elements of Agrino’s approach to the market, Sustainable profitable growth, Greek products with Greek ingredients, Investment in product merchandizing and sell-out activities and building with the right partners to ensure a long lasting relationship. The emphasis of Agrino is the quality of its products, which is the basis for their competitiveness. The Avgotaracho or Bottarga [mullet roe], mushrooms from Grevena, and the Red Saffron of Kozani are products that are especially popular and part of the Mediterranean diet trend.
Thanking Lampros Kazis, Press Secretary of the Greek Press and Communication Office for his assistance with the event, Patricia Schneider, for orchestrating the event and bistro-atmosphere, and Diane Kochilas, Mr. Digbassanis introduced Mrs. Kochilas.
Mrs. Kochilas, who had arrived in New York less than twenty-four hours earlier, spoke about the role that rice plays in the Greek kitchen and some ways it can be used in the American kitchen. She related that although rice has existed in Greece since ancient times, it has a more recent history that ties in with the United States. “When the administrators of the Marshall Plan went to Greece they taught the farmers of northern Greece how to cultivate rice commercially. So it hasn’t been around as a commercial crop for all that long. It is very, very good quality. It has none of the issues rice in the United States has, for example, arsenic in the soil, which is a big issue here. Greek rice is really tasty–and I know that as a cook at first count–mainly because of where it grows, close to the coast.”
Until fairly recent memory rice was more or less a luxury food said Mrs. Kochilas,, a food of weddings, of festive occasions. “Anyone who is Greek American may remember the rice pilaf formed in a Bundt pan served on important occasions. There was always this element of festivity associated with rice… but in the form of rice pudding, or rice with lemon, rice is also a special food for people who aren’t feeling well.”
At the beginning of the event Ambassador Iliopoulos noted that as early as 450 BC, first Herodotus, then Theophrastus, recognized the high nutritional value of rice and that rice cultivation and consumption were introduced to Europe through Greece by the soldiers of Alexander the Great returning from the military expedition in Asia. “Rice was the best available source of energy from food for Alexander’s soldiers—and the most sustainable food option.”
It still is. Some things never change, but they can be embellished, and we wish the Rice-Up group’s innovations and Greece’s stellar wines the greatest success in America.
*Rice-Up, the Association of Rice Producers from Greece (founded in 1955) is comprised of EV.GE. PISTIOLAS SA (Agrino), the First Agricultural Cooperative of Chalastra, the Second Agricultural Cooperative of Chalastra and the Agricultural Cooperative of Adendro “AGROVIOTOPOS”.