Marije Passos of Passeite speaks to us on the big dreams and demanding realities of producing olive oil. – Article by Katrin Deeg based on an interview with Marije Passos, September 2020
Move to the countryside. Set up a rural business. Live the simple life. Right? Depends on who you ask. For many, the realities of running a farm quickly muddy any preconceived notions of a peaceful agrarian life. For Marije Passos, however, such challenges actually reinforce her drive to do what she loves the most: produce quality olive oil.
Marije is a realist-optimist. She openly illustrates the hurdles it takes to run a small olive oil business, from fires, floods and windstorms to questioning the solidity of her customer base. But her confidence and ambition are laced with such irresistible humour that she radiates invincibility.
Marije is an olive oil sommelier and olive farmer who runs the production of Passeite olive oil with her husband Gui in Condeixa-a-Nova, Portugal. The Passeite business is based out of their home, O Moinho, a converted water mill sitting 20 kilometres southwest of the university town of Coimbra. Gui’s parents bought this dilapidated mill in the 1980s, renovated the ruins during their spare time over the winters, and planted an olive grove next to the house in 2001. Four years later the grove began producing olives.
Fast forward a decade, when Marije and Gui turned the grove into a business along with a restaurant “to bring the farm to the table.” The restaurant is no longer running but the grove is strides ahead from its modest beginning; today O Moinho produces Galega, Arbequina, Picual, Cobrançosa, Verdeal and Gordal olive varieties. The couple also works with small farmers in the area to maintain and harvest ancient groves.
Marije’s background in industrial design has honed a crucial set of sales skills she uses to share Passeite oils throughout Europe. That’s one reason you’ll find Passeite on the New Dawn Traders menu alongside Caixeiro, Reigado and Os Tres Gatos oils. Meanwhile, Marije acts as Port Ally for Scheveningen, helping to coordinate De Gallant’s New Dawn Traders deliveries in the Netherlands.
Days and months at O Moinho move forward on a rotation of animal care, vegetable growing, tree pruning, work parties, olive fly prevention, and sales. And, of course, the autumnal rush of the olive harvest, pressing and bottling. Oh, and not to mention Gui and Marije’s two young children! Marije has found her happy place within this organised chaos.
We spoke on a morning in September 2020 after she had just come in from an animal round with her “other children,” the seven ewes who graze the grassy carpets beneath her olive trees.
New Dawn Traders: You’re a busy woman. Describe how you start your day.
Marije Passos: Yes, it will never not be busy, I am a farm! But I love it. I’m always creating or inventing things, so this is the perfect playground for me.
We start the day by supplying all the animals with some food. My sheep are a bit naughty; they’ve been going through fences and trying to eat the olive trees. So, I like to check up on them. The sheep were supposed to reduce the amount of tractor time and be more ecological, but it’s actually like having a bunch of children around that you have to pay attention to. I’m like their mom. There are always snacks for them, like grains, so they like to follow me all the way down to the shed. They go, “Baaaaah!” They shout at me, asking for food.
NDT: Do you have any other animals?
MP: Thanks to my father-in-law, we now have ducks for duck breast. He loves to surprise us with things. He just buys baby ducks. Imagine, all of a sudden you come home and you have 24 baby ducks! The chickens are for eggs. I like how you can use them for composting; they eat the leftovers that we have here.
NDT: Why don’t you use the sheep’s wool?
MP: Nobody wants to buy the wool and there are not many people who still have the spinning wheel. On a farm, you see so many things are going to waste. You think, “they’re practical, I could use them.” But there just aren’t enough hours in the day. People think small farm living is idyllic that you can use everything. But this kind of living involves a lot of investment of personal time.
NDT: You’ve mentioned that you want to “put olive oil from Coimbra back on the map.” Why was it ever off the map?
MP: Specifically in Coimbra, there was a large Roman settlement in this area [now the Ruins of Conimbriga]. This brought the use of olive oil. The museums tell us that the olive oil in this area was used for lighting, which the Romans here would trade in exchange for Galician olive oils for consumption and beauty. Much later, between 1500 and 1960 there was again much olive oil cultivation in the area. Our village alone counted over forty Lagares (olive mills).
But, nowadays there are no functioning Lagares left. In the 1960s came “the golden era of butter,” people moved to cities, villages became abandoned and many ancient groves were destroyed. Eucalyptus and pine were planted instead of olives as they were more profitable.
NDT: Do your neighbours live in a similar way to you?
MP: No! It’s super strange. I mean, Most neighbours here have their personal vegetable garden, or their grandparents do this. But the younger generation, no way. We’re the only ones. This is due to two things. I think the older generation that was on the land, kind of suffered. Low income, hard work. They wanted their kids to have a better future so they sent them to universities to become lawyers, doctors and things like that. Also, they’re ashamed of working on the land. Land work is for poor people. Hopefully, there will be a new generation that does what we do. I’d love to have a few farmers around.
NDT: What advice do you have for young people interested in producing olive oil?
MP: You really have to be passionate to make it. Or born into a family that has land, because if you have to start from scratch with olive growing, I think it’s really, really rough.
[When Gui and I started the business at O Moinho] we had a 20-year-old growth and one with 100-plus-year-old trees. And we have planted two more. Next year, one of the [newer] groves will hopefully start giving olives, but it will give something like five olives per tree. It takes six, seven years until you get some volume out of a tree.
There are also a lot of components [about farming] that you can’t know if you’re doing right or wrong, and you only have one harvest a year to prove your experiment. [For instance,] we have tried no-tilling now for two to three years but the olive fly problem seems to have worsened because of it. And now the climate is also changing. So, this work involves a big level of risk-taking.
NDT: You’ve said that your taste for olive oil doesn’t match the local taste. Can you explain?
MP: Here at Passeite we do early harvest which means the olive oil is always a little bit spicy and bitter. But people in this area hate spice and bitterness. They like the fermented flavours. [Traditionally] they harvest a bit later, or put the olives in water after harvest and wait a month before they go to the mill to soften the flavour. But by doing this you’re ruining the product, nutritionally.
Can you imagine an orange that is almost rotten? That’s not nice, is it? So basically, if I had a grove full of rotten olives and pressed it, my neighbours would buy the oil. This would be an option if it would pay the bills, but the buyers want [that kind of oil] at such a low price that we can’t sustain ourselves [by going that route].
But tastes are changing. In cities like Lisbon and Porto, there’s much more appreciation [for our kind of olive oil]. The younger generation wants to try different things and food from different cultures. But the older generation, no way. For all my neighbours, it’s potatoes, cabbage and a piece of meat or grilled fish. They don’t like to experiment with things. But that’s OK!
NDT: Dare I ask, then, how your olive oil is received in Coimbra?
MP: There is not much appreciation of what we’re doing here. But that kind of makes me want to do it even more! Coimbra is [a city of] doctors and lawyers. It’s a university town. There’s a feeling that people put their noses up at what we do.
For example, when the kids were in kindergarten I did a little harvest with their class. Their parents all know what we’re doing, but none of the parents of my kids’ school friends have ever bought a bottle of our olive oil. Envy is typical in Portugal. People think that we are doing well because we have a lot of land. I have the impression they think that we don’t need support. There’s also the price. My product is maybe 3 to 4 times as expensive as what locals can get from around here.
NDT: What does the price of your product represent?
MP: I pay my taxes. I do my analyses. I play by the rules. This makes my oil a little bit more expensive. [The oil that is made around here] does not always apply to regulations and rules. Quite a bit of olive oil in supermarkets is not what it is. Fraud, it’s simple.
NDT: Where is your spicy, bitter and beautiful olive oil most successful?
MP: In Coimbra, we sell to a wine shop and I do monthly local markets that have started to pick up. We work with one shop in Lisbon, 5 or 6 in the Netherlands, one in Poland, and we’re going to Luxembourg and Germany. We also sell online, which I’d rather not do but was forced to because of the [COVID-related] lock-downs. It’s growing, definitely!
NDT: Why is sail cargo of value to you?
MP: The biggest impact for me is the community around [sail cargo], the human aspect of it. If I put a pallet of olive oil on a truck to the Netherlands, there’s this unhappy guy who just puts that pallet in his truck, I sign his paper, and he goes off. There are no questions, there is no “How cool! Tell me what you are doing here!” Then the same thing happens when the truck arrives on the other side: he drops off the pallet and that’s it. With the ship comes stories and experiences. I think this is what the world needs right now. We need to know where our food comes from.
NDT: Who is involved in the olive harvest?
MP: Well, in the beginning, it was just family and friends. There’s an old colleague of mine [from the Netherlands] that has been here for three or four harvests already! On the weekends, local friends come with the kids and we do a family harvest. And Gui’s parents love to come. I always do a ladies night where I just invite the ladies I know. We just have some wine and pick a few olives. It’s more of a social thing.
And then there’s Bella, Gui’s cousin. She’s the most important person in our lives during harvest because of her excellent mood. She is such a bubbly, positive person. She cuts apples for everybody during the picking while she sits on a bucket because she’s a little bit older so she doesn’t want to stand and do the machine work. And her husband Olegario is a police guy who always gets some time off for harvest, or comes down on the weekend. He loves climbing in the trees and cutting the branches and working the machines. He loves red wine as well!
NDT: Do you work with any volunteers?
MP: The business is growing and we need speed, so we started to work with Workaway. We have met some really nice people that have become friends through Workaway, but there are also volunteers that, well…. let’s just say I’ve learned to be more strict on communicating clearly! That was a big life lesson. For me, this work is not hard at all because it’s what I love, so I’m super enthusiastic. But I have to remind myself that there could be people that do not love this work at all. They’ll hate it.
Olives are our income. We need to be fast, be efficient, and try to get as much done, rain or shine. And some people don’t really get that. They enjoy the good food and the wines, but when it comes to work ethics… they seem to think “I’m a volunteer so I can do whatever I want.” That is difficult.
NDT: What does the harvest look like for the year ahead?*
MP: Just to be clear, we haven’t had an income since March. We normally harvest about 15,000 kilos, but this year we’ll do half of that volume. So this is extremely painful.
The Gallega olive variety has an alternate bearing, so there’s a year full of fruit and then there’s a year with a lot less fruit. And last spring did not help at all because it got super hot and then cooled down again. It was just not the right kind of climate for fertilization of the flowers. And the fruit fly has been major in this area of Portugal. I’ve been driving around the last few days to see if we can harvest some other lots that I know. But their fruit looks horrible. It’s all bitten, eaten and rotten.
*autumn 2020 harvest
NDT: Are there ways to supplement your income if the harvest doesn’t yield enough to live by?
MP: To stabilize our lives a little and to be able to have a constant offer to my clients, we just purchased a new grove right in the middle of a larger lot. Also, I’m working on a property in the North near Edgar [of Caixeiro olive oil]. If I don’t have oil, I don’t have a life!
Most families, even in the smaller groves, all have a job on the side. I mean, I still work as a designer and do some consulting on olive growing and tastings. I take any job I can take right now, because the restaurant has gone. It’s scary that you can lose what you love. I think that’s the situation right now. We have to move in a direction for [the business to] become sustainable.
NDT: Is there any funding available for small olive oil producers?
MP: We looked into it. The problem with these grants or this funding by Europe or Portugal is that they involve hiring commercial agents. Most of them have no clue; they look at the brightest situation and try to calculate for that. And I think as a farmer, you always need to calculate with the worst situation. But if you do that, you’ll never get the grant!
There is no funding for olive groves like ours in our area. We went to a meeting last year and they didn’t give any support because one hectare in a traditional plantation just doesn’t bring enough oil or olives to be financed. And in a way, why would we need money? It’s sort of a loan, anyway. My dad is also an entrepreneur. We always learnt that you have to do it yourself. We’re not gonna hold our hand to a government and say, “Please give me money so I can be a farmer.” I don’t think it should work like that. But most farmers do work like that.
In the North, in Tras os Montes, they all get funding of a few hundred euros a year, just to have a grove. Even if you let your olives fall off the trees before bringing them to the mills, you receive just as much funding as a guy who picks the olives green, when they’re of higher quality. It’s strange. I think they should give funding to people that make good quality olives or have sustainable farming [practices].
NDT: Any hard-learned lessons you care to share?
MP: There’s no mill in my area that can give me the quality that I want. I have good quality olives. All they need to do is not destroy it, and…they destroy it. They don’t clean their machines properly. They heat up the paste in the malaxing. They do not filter properly. They actually steal from you if they can. So…no! Commercial mills are a nightmare. I really want to change this, I have a dream to create facilities for people like me but it’s a long, long process.
A few years ago, there was a mill here that was new. The year before they did an excellent job. So, we did a milling. I wasn’t around to collect the oil, so Gui took the oil back [home]. I opened a bottle. I always open one straight away to smell. I love the smell of fresh oil! So I smell, and it’s completely destroyed. That was 500 kilos of our good quality olives! I was in a complete panic because for the mill it’s maybe a loss of 50 euros but for me, it is a loss of 1200 or 1300 euros. I told Gui, “We need something else!”
Gui’s uncle said he knew someone, so we gave them a call. And this is how it started with the Feitera mill. 2020 will be the third year with them. The problem is the distance. With a full load, it takes us one and a half hours to drive there. So it’s long days and extra fuel, which is not nice. But we have to do this if we want to make quality olive oil.
NDT: Tell us about your dream to create a milling facility.
MP: My dream is our own mill. But it should be an educational institute. I want to teach people and do smaller lots for small farmers. It needs to be an experience. People need to learn about the past, the now and the future.
[Right now] it’s about finding the right facilities, and you’re looking at about 100,000 to 150,000 euros for just machinery. I want to recuperate an old watermill. There are four around here but [the owners] don’t want to sell them. I mean, they’ll sell them, but for a price that’s not fair. These mills are going to waste, they’re ruins, they’re falling apart. The owners don’t want to give up a historic building, because they think they “can do this.” It’s all about status.
But, my vision is strong, the ideas are there. For me it’s not about making a profit, being the best or being more efficient. No. It’s about making a good, honest product that’s sustainable for everybody. If my kids can go to school, if we can stay here and do our thing, then I’m the happiest woman on the planet. For the first time, I have a vision and a dream. It’s not easy, so it’s going to take me a while. It’s going to be my life project. And when it’s done, then I’ve done it. So it doesn’t have to be five years from now. It can be 20 years from now.
NDT: What’s your sommelier tip for tasting new olive oils?
MP: Pairing with food is where oils shine. It’s not just for bread, it’s for everything! Our restaurant was the best platform we had. We just let people taste. And when people taste, opinions change. [The average] palette today is used to refined or rancid flavours in olive oil because almost all the olive oils in the supermarket have rancidity. And if there’s one thing that I’m absolutely sure of is that olive oil makes or breaks a dish.
In my kitchen, I have three types of olive oil. There’s a delicate one that’s from our farm. There’s a medium to intense one, such as the Intense from Caixeiro. And then there is a super-intensive oil with strong bitterness. I think in general, people should have an all-rounder they can cook with, and then have some oils to surprise their friends at parties.
NDT: If you were an olive, which variety would you be?
MP: Galega, for sure. It’s a Portuguese native from our area and more down South. I have really learned to love the difficulties of this little fruit. It is a very complex olive, and it kind of reminds me of myself.
* * *
Photographs: Piteira Photography
Further reading and inspiration
Passeite website and news blog: https://www.passeite.com/
Marije’s sommelier page: https://www.evoosommelier.com/
Women in Olive Oil: https://www.womeninoliveoil.org/
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