A few signs led to what is now Citizens of Soil, primarily this: We wanted to help our friends. They are like our big Greek family, and they—like many families across the Mediterranean—have been making olive oil from their own trees going as far back as anyone can remember. Typically, they’d produce it to a high standard and use up quite a bit as a family, and then sell the rest on. But this is where we got interested.
It’s a similar story across small-scale producers of what is seen as a commodity and treated as such. This “bulk” of their quality extra virgin olive would be sold on to some no-name middle man at whatever the current market rate is. It’s then blended with hundreds of other families and shipped off to be blended away even further—losing every sense of place, identity and character. This means they make less money and get no credit, making it a highly unsustainable business and certainly not attractive enough to keep passing on to the next generation.
But they love their trees and their olive oil, and so they press on as a side labour of love, which was under-appreciated in the commodities market but that we knew was truly artisan, thoughtful and of a high quality. And if only they could get it direct into the UK foodie’s hands—it would speak for itself.
Additionally, once we started researching olive oil, we became absolutely obsessed with it and the whole culture around it. I mean, here we have this ancient ingredient that developed Western Culture as we know it. Diving into the world of EVOO felt like going into the world of wine. Only somehow even more sacred and certainly more inclusive. Finally, we’ve seen people shift to more small-batch coffee, craft beer and artisan chocolate. But those same people would tell us that they love olive oil, but then could maybe only name one or two mass-market global brands. That, to us, spoke to an opportunity.
We love big and bold flavours at Mother Root; what are some of your favourite flavour pairings with Citizens of Soil?
YES! I’m a huge fan of vibrant, colourful foods and flavours. With this particular single estate extra virgin olive oil coming from Crete, I honour that with loads of lemon, vinegar and citrus flavours. Being a “green” oil that has those sorts of flavours (artichoke, avocado, green apple), means it comes alive with acidic notes from fresh lemon, pomegranate, apple or a cheese like feta. It also means it tends to amplify the taste of many vegetables, making them taste livelier. For autumn, that means roasting with a bit of our EVOO and then pouring some on top before serving. This right here is quite actually why hundred of years ago the people from the North of Europe used to find the Mediterranean diet so fascinating? How are they eating SO many vegetables and random plants down here? Oh, they pour this gold stuff on them and it makes them all delicious.
What values do you hold as important to you as your brand grows?
We’ve said from the start that our mission is to create a more fair, sustainable and flavourful place. It is all about building a business to look like the world we want to see. But saying that, those things should be the baseline for any modern business. Even though we’re less than a year in, we’re already talking about how to make that bolder. So we don’t just want to be fair, we want to be generous. We don’t just want to be sustainable, we want to have a positive impact. Specifically related to what we’re trying to do with our farmers as partners is to connect the ingredient staples on our table with the people and places that made them.
There’s a rich culture and sense of place that’s intertwined with the land our olive oil comes from. And yet, there are so many small-batch products that never get experienced outside of their own families or local areas. They’re sold into bulk blends and stripped of their identity—getting lost in complicated, global supply chains. We want to break that chain. We want you to taste something you never would have had the chance to before; something beautiful and simple that represents where it comes from.
What has been your biggest challenge to date with Citizens of Soil?
I think everyday has fresh challenges when you’re running your own business. While so much of my previous careers have collided into this role, there’s so much I don’t know about. You’re learning on the fly in a start-up and you’re meant to do things that you once could pass off to some other specialist in your company.Probably the biggest frustration for me is packaging. Part of this is the desire to push for more sustainability but struggling with MOQs and the fact that many suppliers don’t even know the impact or recycling process of what they’re trying to sell makes it difficult to know what’s the best option.
We also had an issue with our labels in our first batch, compounded by the fact that the bottles were filled so poorly. In short, everything that could go wrong seemed to. The expensive labels we had made were all scratched up, poorly printed and then covered with oil. There were different levels of oil in the bottle, with some of the corks coming out and some of our refill pouches leaking.
After weeks trying to “fix” as many as we could in our living room to get some out of the door, we ended up pausing everything and having to eat a huge cost instead of fighting it out with our UK supplier and bottlers. It meant we launched our business, had an amazing first 1-2 months, and then had to pause it all for 2 months and just burn cash. It was heart-breaking. But it’s all a part of the journey and you learn fast under fire.
Tell us about the importance of healthy soil?
Soil, quite actually, underpins everything. In our case, through flavour, nutrition and how many more harvests the land will give us. It’s crazy to think about, but we read about how humans are degrading a football pitch-sized plot of land every 5 seconds. More than a third is already in this state, and another 90% is on track by 2050 (FAO). When we drive through these agricultural belts across the Mediterranean, we see erosion. Even near our groves in Crete—and that’s terrifying. Soil is not a renewable resource. It’s finite in that it takes more than a human lifetime to recover.
This is why we’re a committed member of 1% for the Planet—giving 1% of our total sales to soil regeneration projects and paying our farmers more so they can reinvest in their own land. It’s also something we’re trying to learn more about and find tangible, actionable solutions to regenerate and prevent erosion and degradation of soils with our farmers and beyond.
With seasonality in mind, what dish would you pair with a Mother Root Ginger Switchel?
It’s really the perfect autumnal drink or sipper for colder days as the ginger and cider notes are just so warming. Something about this makes me want it with roasted winter squashes and root veggies. I’m thinking sliced and roasted butternut squash with sauteed greens like cavalo nero or chard. I’ve been all about roasting every edible plant I can get my hands on. Covering it in EVOO, some herbs and then using in omelettes, soups or just on their own. And their heartiness needs something to cut through like the mix of ACV and ginger. I also think the Switchel goes great with a veggie curry, one that’s also got some winter vegetables and creamy coconut in the mix.
If you're interested in learning more, watch our IGTV Live with Citizens Of Soil co-founder Sarah Vachon and check these two amazing recipes ideas, including a cocktail recipe that calls for olive oil! And if that were not all, Citizens of Soil have offered all Mother Root email subscribers an exclusive discount this month, so make sure to sign up to our newsletter to receive an exclusive discount code for 20% Citizens Of Soil Extra-Virgin Olive Oil.