Olive oil is as old as the ancients, described by Homer, the bard of Classical Greece, as liquid gold.
But Theo Rallis, a Canadian of Greek heritage living in Windsor, Ont., prefers to call it the elixir of life.
Trained as an engineer, Mr. Rallis, 42, has invented a new method of processing olive oil, made from olives grown on his centuries-old family farm and orchard in the Peloponnese region in Greece, harnessing the latest technology to revive a traditional food product.
With his father and 40-year-old brother, he produces Rallis Olive Oil, which he says is more health-empowering than supermarket olive oil and loaded with nutrients.
The small, family-run business uses ice-pressing to retain the life-supporting enzymes that typically are compromised when produced by more conventional methods using heat, says Mr. Rallis, who had 11 years under his belt as an engineer specializing in software development before becoming an accidental farmer in 2009.
His previous employers included Dassault Systèmes in North Carolina and Softech Alliance in Windsor, where he helped implement a new engineering software program for Ford Motor Co.
Ice-pressing yields significantly less oil than heat, Mr. Rallis adds, but it produces a more premium product, deliciously fragrant and flavourful. "It truly is a live, healing oil," Mr. Rallis says, "but only when made the right way."
The proof is in the tasting.
Sold at farmers' markets and foodie boutiques across Canada, Rallis Olive Oil has been winning international food awards since its launch in 2009. Fans can be found as far away as Los Angeles, where the oil took top prize in the olive oil and raw foods categories at the 2011 Gourmet Products Awards, the first culinary contest Rallis had entered.
"No one else makes a raw, ice-pressed olive oil," Mr. Rallis explains. "So we don't do any more competitions. We are a unique category."
Devotees of the olive oil include Hollywood actor Woody Harrelson, who was turned on to the Rallis product by David Wolfe, a popular U.S. raw food advocate.
In Canada, celebrity chef Mark McEwan sells Rallis Olive Oil under his own private label, as does Toronto-based Ace Bakery, whose products are sold across Canada and the United States through grocery giant George Weston Ltd. Future markets include Singapore and Finland, starting in the new year.
The ice-pressed olive oil will be a feature at the Whole Life Expo 2013 event taking place at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, Nov. 22 through 24.
(Mr. Rallis's wife, Jen, will be also selling the company's latest product, The Bare Bar, a soap made from 100-per-cent ice-pressed olive oil.)
The oil is bottled in Windsor after being harvested and produced in Greece using computer-based technology and actual blocks of ice that cool machinery during the extracting process.
The precise methodology, Mr. Rallis says, is proprietary. But he says he and his family make olive oil differently from how it has been produced before.
For millennia, olive oil was made at mills where large stone wheels crushed hand-picked olives, releasing the oils. Traditionally, the paste is then heated with water to increase the yield.
That was how olive oil was being made at the village in Greece where Mr. Rallis's father, Nikolas, was born 69 years ago.
The family farm had a grove that members of the Rallis family had been harvesting for generations.
When Mr. Rallis's grandfather passed away in 1997, he and his brother, Steve, a chiropractor and natural health practitioner in Barrie, Ont., went back to the old country from which their father had emigrated more than 50 years ago, eventually settling in Owen Sound, Ont.
With their father, they went to see how the olive oil was being made at the local stone mill. They were shocked. Even though the olive oil was said to be cold-pressed, it was being cooked at a temperature of 33 C, a common enough process.
"We saw steam coming out, and right away my brother, with his background in health research, saw something wrong with that," Mr. Rallis says. "Think about it. What is going on when there is steam? There is heat, and it is causing what is cooking to lose some of its essence. My brother, especially, wanted to change that."
The idea was to do cold-pressing, but really do cold-pressing – with no heat applied whatsoever. The villagers thought the brothers were crazy.
"The cynicism was so thick you could cut it with a knife," says Mr. Rallis, laughing. "They had been making olive oil one way for thousands of years. Who were we to change things?"
It took two years and, as Mr. Rallis describes it, a lot of tweaking to figure out the right process that would retain all the embedded nutritional value of the olive during the oil extracting process.
"My goal was to leverage technology in different ways, to improve upon how olive oil has been made for thousands of years," Mr. Rallis says. "It was about using new tools and systems and pairing them with an ancient tradition to produce a new result."
The first step in the process was to buy the old stone mill and then do away with the stone in it. The stone, says Mr. Rallis, was effective, but it was damaging the olive.
Instead of the stone, he determined to use machinery automated by a computer program of his own creation. That machinery, in turn, was slowed down to a snail's pace to ensure the preservation of the olive. Ice was applied to the mechanism to cool it down further, eliminating any heat that might boil away nutrients. The net result? Mr. Rallis says the olive oil is so delectable that the villagers now come armed with their own olives to be processed using the new technology.
"The villagers no longer call what we do olive oil. The word they use can be translated as butter and medicine, and that's because what we make is thick and cloudy, green and fresh in taste, and proven to be good for you."
Mr. Rallis cites a scientific study that has determined that the colder the process in making olive oil, the higher the immune-boosting properties.The protective effects of olive oil on cognitive function was part of a study conducted by Miguel Martinez-Gonzalez of the University of Navarra in Spain and reported in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry last May.
Encouraged by these recent findings, Mr. Rallis and his brother will be participating in a neuroscience research project in Quebec in the new year on the healing effects of olive oil on the brain.
"The objective is to see if the way I make olive oil helps to increase brain function following trauma," says Mr. Rallis, excitement building in his voice. "All the enzymes and neutraceuticals are intact because of what I do. Colder is better. I am certain of that."