BRATTLEBORO >> Folks around the region are not used to having a taste of Morocco in their homes, but if Jill and Simo Ouazzani have their way, that could change soon.
The pair, who met while attending Beloit College in Wisconsin, are the founders of Asra Extra-Virgin Olive Oil, which they market and sell out of their home in Brattleboro.
They ended up in the Green Mountain state because Jill, with a degree in international relations, came to Brattleboro to attend SIT Graduate Institute.
"We love this community," said Simo, who has a modest accent. "We have a great circle of friends and life in a small town suits our own lifestyle."
Jill said she and her husband are also fans of Brattleboro's food culture.
"People in Brattleboro are curious and well informed," she said, but there was one thing they were surprised the local folks didn't know a lot about: Olive oil.
"It's a shame that you can't get good, fresh olive oil here," said Jill.
That realization was like the proverbial light bulb.
"Why don't we import olive oil?" they asked each other. "We appreciate the abundance of fresh, locally produced foods paired with the best olive oil, but olive oil that met our standards was hard to come by."
Simo had grown up in Morocco, and both he and Jill had returned there in 2008, where they were married.
"I grew up eating fresh olive oil," said Simo, who studied economics in college and is now in the travel industry. "After many conversations with friends and family, we decided to search for the best tasting and freshest olive oil produced by small-scale farmers in Morocco."
Jill and Simo had an ace in the hole, though, when they began their search for a single-source olive oil.
His brother, Ahmed, had conducted a study of women farmers in Morocco and their impact on rural development. When Jill and Simo mentioned their business idea, he was able to point them in the direction of a cooperative of small farmers in the Rif Mountains who grow Picholine Marocaine olives in groves on the range's rocky slopes.
Ahmed is their "man on the ground" in Morocco, negotiating with the farmers and overseeing the pressing and bottling of the unfiltered olive oil that Asra is now offering through the Brattleboro Food Co-op and online at www.asrafoods.com/order-online.
Asra Extra-Virgin Olive Oil comes from the first pressing of the olives and is robust in flavor and high in antioxidants. Unlike most conventional olive oisl, Asra Extra-Virgin Olive Oil is unfiltered, which means that the fruit particles remain in the olive oil, which enhance the taste and flavor of the oil and yields a greater nutritional value.
The olives are harvested and pressed within 48 hours, and each bottle has a harvest date and a "best before" date stamped on it.
It was important for Jill and Simo to support small-scale farmers who practiced sustainable farming and the cooperative in the Rif Mountain doesn't use fertilizers or pesticides and relies on rain water, rather than irrigation systems that can deplete local water resources or cause soil erosion. The farmers selectively hand-pick the olives and take them straight to the local mill to be first cold pressed.
Jill said the cooperative from which they get their olives consists of subsistence farmers who grow olives to supplement their incomes.
By finding an outlet for their olive oil in the United States, Jill and Simo are able to cut out the conglomerates that exploit small-scale farmers around the world.
"This impacts the community in a good way because the money stays local," said Jill.
The cooperative in Morocco is sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Locally, Jill and Simo received support from the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation and Deb Boudreau the local advisor for the Vermont Small Business Administration.
Asra Extra-Virgin Olive Oil is hosting a tasting on Feb. 25 from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Brattleboro Food Co-op.