The Mediterranean Diet.
People who live to 101.
We should eat like the Greeks, of course. But finding a Greek market in Sacramento is like embarking on a true Odyssey.
Unlike San Francisco, where a huge Greek population supports plenty of neighborhood Greek markets, Sacramentos equally significant Greek community doesnt have such finds.
But if youve ever reached for the smallish, shiny and wrinkly black kalamata olives at an olive bar, eaten them on pizza or encountered them in olive bread, chances are those olives came from Mani Imports headquartered in West Sacramento.
Founded in the late 1990s by Peter Cononelos, 52, Mani Imports began as a company so small its warehouse was a friends cabinet shop.
Back then, even with a degree in economics from the University of California, Davis, Cononelos was as green at the food business as some of the olives he now sells.
Having spent long periods of his childhood in the kalamata area of Greece, Cononelos speaks fluent Greek. He wanted to develop a line of food products to show the best of his culture. After all, he says, being Greek is a blast.
He made the requisite trip to Corti Brothers in Sacramento to see if Darrell Corti would carry an extra-virgin olive oil made from koroneiki olives from Mani, a region southeast of kalamata. I took a 250-ml (about 8 ounces) bottle in a brown bag and I went to Corti and asked What would you pay for this? Cononelos recalls.
He gave me a number, Cononelos said, his face showing satisfaction, and I said, Im doing this.
He describes Mani extra-virgin olive oil as having medium intensity and a green-grassy flavor profile from an area renown for oils made from the koroneiki olive. Greece is really just one big olive orchard.
To import it, Cononelos works with only two olive oil co-ops in Greece. You have to be careful who you buy from, he says, alluding to reports of adulteration in olive oil. Every batch thats exported is tested before it leaves Greece.
A big break in Mani Imports early years came from deciding to pit kalamatas.
It just exploded, Cononelos says of this new product. At the time, the kalamata was just a table olive. We pitted them in Sacramento. That opened the door for kalamata olives in salad bars, breads and pizzas.
Mani Imports sales rep Glenn Waddell, 48, the chef who opened Tower Café and later headed the kitchen at Tapa the World, also doubles as Manis corporate chef.
At the Berkeley Bowl, 85 percent of the olives are from Mani, Waddell says. Every olive at the olive bar at the Davis Co-op is from Mani. And at just about every olive bar in Sonoma, Napa, St. Helena and Calistoga thats us, too.
Manis olives are found in bread from many commercial bakeries, including Safeway and Costco, and also in artisanal breads from Grace Baking Co. (Richmond), Acme (Bay Area), Il Fornaio restaurants, Truckee Sourdough Co., and Sacramentos Grateful Bread Co.
Cononelos estimates that Mani sells a million pounds of olives a year. Now, more than 800 mostly Greek products are housed in Manis modern, 30,000-square-foot office with a sweeping Greek island scene on the wall. Theres a climate-controlled room for some of Greeces most popular wine varietals and refrigeration for Greek cheeses and the olives.
Manis line of cheeses started with feta, a cheese Greece is trying to protect as a national food. We now have what you call feta snobs, Cononelos says. He imports Dodonis, considered the Cadillac of Greek fetas for its balance of creaminess, tanginess and saltiness.
Greek wines are a category to watch. Mani distributes the highest-rated Greek white, Assyrtiko from Santorini.
Retsina is not our focus, Cononelos says of the stupor-inducing resin wine some would call a Greek tragedy. Greek wines are as specific to regions and food as in Italy.
Two years ago, Cononelos spent a month in Greece on his own odyssey to scout great Greek wine. I was looking for indigenous Greek varieties that were up and coming and for people easy to work with, he says.
Among the new labels are Moschofilero (mose-koh-FEEL-eh-ro), a crisp, summery, light white thats reasonably priced, and Aghiorgitiko (ah-yor-YEE-ti-ko), a ruby-colored medium bodied red.
The problem is, how will we ever learn to pronounce these names?
People learned how to pronounce Schwarzenegger, Cononelos says.
Elaine Corn is an award-winning cookbook author and former newspaper food editor.