Wednesday, August 4, 2021

How to Build an International Food Brand: Inspiring Story from Natalia Ravida, Sicily's Award-Winning Family Olive Oil Maker

 

It was my first International Ladies Who Lunch Conversation. 

I pursued Natalia Ravida as a special guest to talk about her successful career in the food industry, building a global brand and her adherence to high quality.  From the first time I met Natalia as part of the European Union’s outreach here in the US where she joined two other key industry leaders as part of the Italian Consortium, CEQ Italia, along with the Spanish EVOO Association QVExtra! International.  I worked for the Consortium, and I couldn’t help but be impressed with her confident, cool-handed smarts and her cosmopolitan style.   

Natalia Ravida is president and owner of RAVIDA' Azienda Agricola, an Italian olive oil producer just west of Menfi and she linked in from her family’s farm estate. As part of the Ladies Who Lunch Conversation, I asked her about her career trajectory, and she explained how she left a career as an international print, radio and television journalist to develop a quality olive oil brand, RAVIDA, out of the oil produced on the family estate in Menfi, Sicily. Natalia works full time in her family’s olive oil business, combining brand promotion with farm tours, olive oil tastings and cooking classes.

I asked her about how she built her family’s brand “empire” - and she laughed a bit saying it’s not exactly an empire but rather a small business run by her and her sisters. I’ll add that I love it all even more knowing that a family team of women make this magic.  

Later I asked her how she fared in this business as a woman. You’ll be charmed by her description of how having no sibling brothers - the first time in 13 generations - contributed to her fearless prowess in business, perhaps.  

You’ll enjoy the background story of how she grew up and went to schools in Kenya, Rome, and London (hence her charming British “accent.”)  And how she convinced her engineer father to take over the reins of the farm from her grandfather when he wanted to hand over the business. The family farm at La Gurra has been in the Ravida family since 1770! All I could think was thank goodness Natalia and her sisters kept this jewel of legacy. Maybe not surprising, she tells how her engineer father made some modernizing upgrades to the farm’s operations. That and his love and respect for nature, especially for those old trees  - set them up for future success. When they finally won their first award - and Sicily’s first for olive oil, then he threw his full support behind the business.  And the awards never stopped coming.  Recently, Natalia and her sisters introduced a limited edition blend as an homage to their father: Nicolo’s Blend.  I can imagine the love that went into this special release and can’t wait to taste it. 

I asked Natalie what she knew about the olive oil business when they started their reign at the farm.  “Nothing,” she replied with a smile.  “But I knew I loved it!” she added enthusiastically.  (Olive oil, that is.)

She tells how in the early days she would always carry bottles back on the plane with her to London and friends would ask, “What is this?!”  The taste was so unique to them. Quite different from the store bought stuff, I am willing to bet.  Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s it was really the wine producers who started producing good olive oil.  When I asked how folks got their olive oil, Natalie described how in the south of Italy - people would go to the olive oil presses bringing their jars with them and would buy say, 50 litres  -  enough for most of the year.  So good olive oil was had at home in Italy but nothing for the  international customer. There were  just the cheap supermarket brands. This bad industrial olive oil paved the way for such product misunderstanding for so long that that the high-quality olive oil producers work assiduously to debunk - decades later.  

Estate olive oil like Ravida’s is grown on the farm, overlooking the beautiful and pristine Mediterranean Sea, in a sanctuary of preserved flora and wildlife, and hand-picked at the harvest - a process much like vintners growing grapes for their wines.

You’ll hear Natalia describe how important all this is for the taste of their olive oil - how a good quality olive oil will have a mild, medium, or intense grassy nose; a long peppery taste in the back of the throat and a beautiful, Ravida finish is very clean. Not greasy on lips. It tastes of fresh grass or leaves, lemons, salt and/or artichokes. 

Depending on the variety, olive oil and the extra virgin olive oil has its own distinct character – fruity or aromatic, sweet or bitter, with differing intensity of the spicy aftertaste. These extra virgin olive oils all have their own nuances, contrasts and flavors, but what they have in common is that their production has been closely controlled – from the flower to the bottle – with the main aim of providing the highest possible quality.
 

Did you know the terroir and the variety affects the taste of a good olive oil?  Again, like vintners, the soil and the climate affects the taste. Natalia made us all pea-green when she tells us their farm looks out on the Mediterranean - so there’s the effect of salt air in the olives.  They also grow in the mountains nearby and those olives have a milder taste. 

Do you know how long olive trees can live?  Tune in to find out :)  Natalie reveals the longevity of these astonishing trees - whose trunks can look like elephant feet. And describes the three Sicilian native tree varieties they nurture. 

I asked Natalia for some pearls of wisdom about a career in the food business. Hear how she explains her love of food. “As Italians, in Sicily, it’s a way of sharing.” Seasonal ingredients are the base of everything they do. And they don’t use a drizzle of olive oil. No, they let the ingredients take up that oil!  I can personally attest to this! “If the olive oil is a good quality, it adds taste & flavor,” she noted. Natalia gives a few of her cooking experiences before making her family’s award-winning olive oil ~ and after, in order to amplify the point. Some are funny ones we can all relate to.  I admire and respect that Natalia is a kind of her own focus group and test kitchen. Because she’s both a prolific and a good cook; she has the gravitas to teach us how to use the olive oil in the best way - to make our dishes and recipes soar.  

We then moved on from the exquisite taste to the health benefits of good olive oil.  This liquid gold checks all the boxes: high antioxidants, higher nutritional value, helps prevent heart disease and there’s studies about its effect on doing likewise for dementia.  She told us about her father “just knew” the olive oil had high levels of vitamin D; so she is planning to test this theory.  Wonderful!  I can think of many women and ederly folks who will very much appreciate knowing that olive oil can help support healthy bone density. 

Never one to sit on their success with “just” the olive oil, not too long ago, Ravida also started harvesting salt from the nearby sea and offering different flavors, including fennel and oregano sea salt as part of their collection.  Brand extension!  Again, Natalia focused on simple, natural, seasonal ingredients that she uses, i.e. olive oil and local salt, to add to seasonal fruits and vegetables especially, like chopped tomatoes.  See below for one of her recipes. 


I asked Natalia to showcase her book and she held it up, turning some pages to some of her favorite dishes, including sardines with pine nuts and salt and olive oil.  Sounded just heavenly to me.  Bill? Not so much.  Ha.   

In all seriousness, we are advocating that the publisher, New Holland, reprints her book, Seasons of Sicily 

Don’t you just love this tempting cover food art? Talk about “eating with your eyes first…” The book is brimming with Natalia’s simple, delicious family and regional recipes. 


Natalia then shows the viewer each of her olive oils from the Ravida collection. The bottles are as pretty as a still-life, too. Not unlike using their nearby sea salt, her family saw opportunity with their orange and lemon trees, Pressing and extracting  into their EVOO. You can mix with their marsala vinegar, she suggested or use the mandarin orange with duck, lamb, tomatoes. Or on mozzarella.  They go with so much.  She noted that the lemon EVOO just won an award in the UK. 

I am over the moon happy to share the news that at the time of the Ladies Who Lunch Conversation with Natalia, she broke the news that RAVIDA had just obtained GOLD at the prestigious New York International Olive Oil Competition (NYIOOC) ~ their 33rd award in 30 years of business.

In the Olive Oil Times, Natalia was quoted as saying, "Reaching the top ranks of the world’s leading olive oil contest confirms our commitment to offering the final consumer an excellent quality oil. It's a must have harvest! Grassy, peppery, elegant: RAVIDA at its best!” 

Where to Find Ravida's Olive Oil

You can shop the Ravida website for everything at www.ravida.it and in the US from www.Olio2 Go.com Williams Sonoma, Formaggio Kitchen in Boston and many other outlets coming up soon. Bill and I have long purchased our RAVIDA Olive Oil at Sickles Market when we are at our country house in the Garden State. Natalia promised that this year’s blends are excellent due to a great harvest!   

I sincerely hope you learn from the Conversation: about the different plants - olive tree plants and how they account for different taste characteristics, production methods and standards, benefits and the role of extra virgin olive oil in the Mediterranean diet, key elements in determining quality, how terroir influences flavor profiles, and how to cook with olive oil and EVOO. I also hope you will be inspired by a remarkable, successful woman...

Here is the link to the Ladies Who Lunch Conversations with Natalia 

And just as we were wrapping up, the tech gremlins had their way. Yet, not to be cheated out of a proper goodbye sign-off, Natalia demonstrated her attention to detail and the appropriate way to end a conversation by jumping right back on a linked call. What a professional! A truly inspiring woman...

I noted, “We are polite people,” and of course, wanted to bring Natalia back. 

So, just like in a novel’s dramatic resolution, here is the Denouement of my Ladies Who Lunch with Natalia Ravida - from her farm in Sicily ~ completing the part about the old tree varietals.  (Denouement means, “untying the knot” ~ the conclusion after a narrative. So it’s really a perfect resolution.)

We could honestly toast arrivederci and grazie mille/molte grazie..  

Too much for just one video conversation (ha!); please enjoy the two video Conversations with Natalia and me!  

Food News & Recipes

For her Happy May posting on her website, Natalia tells how she put together “a special sea salt gift to uplift your daily meals wherever you are. Be it a mango and avocado salad, a gently poached or fried egg, a sprinkling of natural sea salt combined with our wonderful, luscious olive oil can turn a simple meal into a gourmet affair.  Natalia recommends you “make sure to have this magnesium rich flavor enhancer in your cupboard alongside a fresh bottle of olive oil.”  Not surprisingly, she says it’s what she uses in her kitchen everyday.  On top of this, being a natural unrefined sea salt (with no additives), you need so much less to achieve your final flavor profile.

And did you know olive oil oxidizes in contact with oxygen, heat and light?

Natalia explains: “Olive oil is a delicate product that needs to be properly stored.

The high level of natural antioxidants (found in quality olive oils) will give it a longer shelf  life maintaining its flavor and taste.

Yet, she writes, that these wonderful characteristics will slowly disappear once the bottle is left open, near a source of heat, its top greasy with oil that has been poured out. Gradually, the oxidation process sets off destroying all those divine flavors and precious nutritional properties.”

To store olive oil in total absence of light and oxygen, back in 1993 we introduced the Oilbox to the world of olive oil. See where she keeps her Oilbox? Handy for all her cooking. Its spout is flexible and the box equally handy, she describes how she can readily pour oil on a slice of bread from her Oilbox.   I confess, as I was writing this and read Natalia’s tips, I had to take a break and go tear off a piece of my mother’s delicious homemade bread ~ now referred to as “Ginny’s Bread,” thanks to Wendy and Ken's sweet moniker.  I took a piece of the heel of the bread and christened the bread with some of Ravida’s liquid gold on it.  Mmmmmm…. 




Recipe          

Here is her favorite tomato salad recipe. Bright, red..the color of love. 

To make the salad, Natalia says: 

  • start by cutting half an onion into slivers and marinate 5-10 minutes with a cup of water and 1 tbsp of RAVIDA's wonderfully aromatic Marsala Wine Vinegar.

  • Meanwhile chop 8/10 sun-ripened cherry tomatoes in half or quarters.

  • Squeeze excess water from the onion, add to the tomatoes and season with a pinch of RAVIDA Oregano Sea Salt to taste, 2 tbsp of RAVIDA Extra Virgin Olive Oil, and a dash more RAVIDA Vinegar.

Enjoy Sicily on your plate!


Olive Oil Cocktail

And back in the “Before Times” ~ in 2018 to be exact ~ the year I first started working on the two-year project with the Consortium, I was inspired to create an olive oil cocktail as a delicious homage.  

The ingredients included in my crafted Olive Oil cocktail is made with blood orange infused olive oil,  Salerno, Aperol, orange blossom water, and either Pelligrino (or any other sparkling water).  


Please email me for the recipe. It's a delicious keeper.

*Images of Ravida Estate, Farm, Natalia in her kitchen and products are courtesy of Ravida web site. Screen shots and the beautiful Natalia and olive oil cocktail are mine. 

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