Monday, December 2, 2013

Messinian Messages

 Messinian Messages

These last few weeks have been very interesting for us volunteers here at the youth centre. We were treated to surprise matchmaking visits to several local companies at their factories, located between 5 and 8 km outside of Kalamata. The purposes of our participation in this EU matchmaking program was to learn more about the function of the local economy here in Kalamata in the wake of the global economic crisis, to gain an insight into their operations, to introduce the companies and the participants to each other for potential future collaboration and to promote these companies in our home countries.
            So, day 1 and the first place on the list was a brick and roof-tile manufacturing company. We were greeted at the entrance by the friendly owner and he showed us around the understandably loud and warm factory of his family business. He explained to us the process of turning the raw mud into bricks and tiles. Basically the get the wet mud, shape it into bricks and, in a parallel production line into tiles, dry them, stack them together, fire them together in the furnace (the heat from here is also used in the drying stage), cool them, pack them and send them out. We all left with a better understanding of the entire process and some of us even brought home a brick for ourselves!
     The next place we visited directly after was a wine factory, BioVin, in operation since 2006. Here we were shown how they make wine. They source the grapes from local, organic farmers and extract the juice. After this, for red wine, they let the colour of the skins of the red grapes soak into the juice, for rose they do it for a much shorter time and for white not at all. Then they ferment it, filter it, bottle it and sell it. They also explained to us that the reason some red wines are more expensive, such as the reserve wines is that they have to factor in the rental and/or operational costs of the reserves themselves, the price of the aging barrels and the cost incurred from the losses of product due to the aging process itself, both due to the ‘Angel’s share’ and accidental loss.
     Last on the list of places to visit for this day was a company called Κουλιέρης Α.Ε. . This is a local logistics company serving supermarkets and hotels with Greek and international food and cosmetics products. They also have their own brand called ‘Navarino’ which produces orange juice, olive oil and frozen foods. They have been in operation since 1986 and have recently been awarded with a certificate naming them as one of the strongest companies in Greece. The owner showed us around his factory, explained to us what they do, gave us a presentation of the company and also fed us! A good thing too because it was nearing lunchtime and we were all really hungry!!

            So day 2 and we set off for two fig factories and an olive oil company. The first fig factory was called Goumas and here we were shown the process of how they produce figs. The bring in the raw, dried figs and they wash them in how water. Then they have to fumigate them for two days in phosphine to kill any bacteria and eggs that may be on them or in them (useful tip: whenever you eat figs, it is wise to pull it open by hand first and then eat it, as is customary in Greece), then they wash them again and pack them by hand. One of our volunteers even got the opportunity to do this themselves! These figs are exported all over the world, with little under 10% being sold in in Greece. In Canada and America they prefer big figs (insert appropriate cultural stereotype here…!) and in Europe they prefer small figs, according to market research. Before we left they treated us to a box of Kalamata figs each, nice ;) .
      The second fig factory was much the same in terms of processing and packaging, though it was a larger factory owned by a co-operative, but here we also gained some insight into how the crisis has affected the companies and the wages in Greece.
 The other factory we visited on day two was the olive oil producing company, Ενωση Μεσσήνιας. Here they test the oil they receive and package it. They produce olive oil and olives with a PDO certificate, which stands for Protected Designation of Origin. This is the same idea as in France with Champagne and also with Feta cheese.
The olive oil they produce is extra virgin. In the lab we were shown how they test this oil and what exactly makes it extra virgin. Their limits for extra virgin olive oil is 0.45g oleic acid per 100 grams of olive oil, which means the oil is not very acidic. Also here before we left they gave us a small bottle of olive oil and a jar of olives, both Kalamata PDO of course!

            So, day three and our last outing, and we were certainly the most excited about this one as were were to visit a distillery and a winery!

     The first was the distillery where they make spirits of all shapes and sizes (literally!). The produce rum, vodka, whiskey, ouzo, tsipouro, rakomelo (tsipouro/wine with honey, usually served hot) and a whole cacophony of other spirits. We were shown around this factory, to the distillery and to the bottling part of the factory. After a brief Q and A section we were gifted with a small bottle of rakomelo for our enthusiasm!

   Last but by no means least we visited another winery, much bigger than the previous one called Οινομεσσηνιακή (or Inomessiniaki), a Messinian winery. Here again we were briefed on the details of the process of making wine, with the bottling phase of production in full operation. We were taken around outside the plant and shown, up close, various facets of the large scale production of wine. Afterwards we were taken inside and shown the bottling process as well as the cellar. We were then taken to the storage warehouse where there was already some wine aging there for a few years. After a few group photos next to a mountain of Messinian wine we received a most generous gift from our gracious yet insanely busy host: two cases of wine! After we exchanged our many sincere thank-you’s we set off for home with light in our hearts and wine in our arms!
            These trips were great fun and very informative. Even though all these places seem to be doing well, you can tell that the crisis has affected them, and this was a small shapshot of the larger situation in Greece, the peripheral countries in the EU and in companies across the globe.

     A lot of these companies have relatively few employees considering the size of the factories and/or have had to reduce them. They have also had to reduce production and pay more attention to seasonal work as well as reduced wages. One company told us that in the years following the crisis they have had to reduce the wages from €55 per 7 hour day to €40. Also, one company told us that before the crisis there was a 60-day grace period for payment of goods which doesn’t happen anymore, and of course this has an effect on business.  Competition is also an important factor in a contracting marketplace. If one country overproduced it can afford to offer contracts at a lower cost and price other countries out of the market easier, PDO or not. Because of this companies struggle to make themselves stand out from the crowd in a crowded market. Others have to enlarge their vision of their companies either by expanding their purpose and services or by expanding their market and changing their operations accordingly. Even though a place like Kalamata, famous for figs, olives, olive oil and wine, all with PDO status, it’s companies still feel the strain of the crisis. For some other of it’s companies that do not have such a marketable status for their products they feel it much more, and their lives are understandably more difficult.
     Innovation has to come from somewhere, and as with solidarity it tends to appear in sink or swim situations. These companies are all in contact with the locality and the people in the region, supporting each other either directly by trading goods and services or indirectly by word of mouth.

The crisis affects a lot of people on this planet (some would say 99%) and the practice of co-operation, determination, innovation and solidarity seem to be some of the best ways through it. This for me was the ultimate goal of these trips; to educate and to inform us and as many people as possible about their companies and the difficulties that the crisis presents. But it was also for them to reach out, through the medium of a small but international newsletter, like a message in a bottle.
By:    Fiachra Mac Íomhair

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