This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in October 2016.
They say you find the best things in the most unexpected places and that's certainly true of an electrical shop in Clerkenwell.
Among the dove-white wires, caches of fuses, and boxed up fluorescent lights, Embassy Electrical Supplies stocks London's finest olive oil—and that's not just heresy, they're the words of everyone from Gordon Ramsey to local quarterly The Jellied Eel. New York Magazine went one step further, proclaiming it "England's best."
Electrician and shopkeeper, Turkish Cypriot Mehmet Murat—"Mem" to his friends and "Mr. Olive Oil" to those in the know—takes it all in his stride, presiding over the shop he founded in 1980 and talking about his olive oil, which he has stocked since 2002, like an old friend.
"It's become famous … " he says, before a customer comes into the shop and cuts him off.
"Hi. I need a 58 wattage and a five-three-five bright white light."
"Five-three-five I don't have. Got an eight-three-zero, which is brighter."
"Is it more expensive to run?"
"No. It's the same wattage, it's just brighter."
Notes and change exchanged and we're back to the story of the oil. A story that starts on the island country of Cyprus.
"My late father was the village [Louroujina] barber and in those days, by being the village barber, you were also the dentist, albeit one using a bit of string and pliers or whatever," Murat says. "He'd also travel all round Cyprus as an agent for the family of the first Turkish President of Cyprus, checking the teeth of mules that would then be sold to the British army for service in Egypt. This is in the 1940s," he adds, catching that I'm slightly bemused by the connection between mules and olive oil.
"And with that money," he continues. "He'd go back to Louroujina and buy a plot of land around the village and he and my mum would plant olive trees there. My mum was carrying me when they planted the first grove."
Murat only lived in Cyprus for five years before the family immigrated to London in 1955. It's curious to hear him talk about how out of sorts he was when he arrived, especially with his archetypal, friendly London shopkeeper accent. I can't imagine the boy confused by melting snow and double decker buses. He thought the latter were prison vehicles because of the small windows and separate driver compartments.
While his dad took up work as a barber, a French polisher, and a cheese factory worker, Murat finished his studies and took on the trade of electrician, buying the freehold of the shop we're sat in for £1,400 back in 1979.
By now, of course, the groves were bearing fruit and the olives pressed and sold on the Murat's family's behalf to Cypriot co-operative who would sell the oil on for blending and repackaging to Italy. When Murat inherited the groves in 2002, he saw an opportunity to take back control of the groves and sell the oil himself.
The first batch that Murat presided over was lemon-infused and when he talks about those inaugural harvests, his eyes flare with nostalgia.
"We'd go down to the press with the olives and we'd put the whole lemons in," he says. "The olives take the essence of the lemon, the pith and the juice are discarded, and the whole room would be filled with this fresh aroma of citrus."
He started shipping the oil over to England—and the shop—in plastic jugs, decanting it into empty wine bottles whenever someone showed an interest. Then in 2006, things went a bit crazy. The New York Magazine ran its article—the quote "England's best olive oil" is proudly displayed on a cardboard plaque in the shop—and years of endless press attention followed, culminating with an appearance on Gordon Ramsay's Ultimate Cookery Course in 2012.
As a result business boomed and today alongside the cables and plugs, Murat sells all kinds of oils and Cypriot treats—from pomegranate molasses to sweet paprika to candied pumpkin—supplying customers all over the world, including restaurants in London like Selin Kiazim's Turkish Cypriot joint Oklava and Workshop Coffee, where it's on the menu as "Electrical Shop Olive Oil."
To meet demand, Murat expanded. He bought a 45-acre farm in Koycegiz, Turkey, opposite the island of Rhodes, where until recently, over 2,500 trees were producing around 5 tons of olives each year. That farm was run by Murat's late brother in-law, Axipa, who on his website he refers to as "a tower of strength to me" and when he reminisces about the pair foraging for caper shoots, his eyes gleam once again.
Another customer comes in asking for fuses. When he leaves, I ask Murat if he prefers the electrics or the oil. Straight away, I know the answer.
"If you produce something and someone says it's good it's … " he stops and smiles. "I must've been one of the first to bring good olive oil into the country and people went, 'Wow, this is what good olive oil tastes like.' They were surprised by it. Now people have woken up and there are other's bringing it into the country," he says, skating over the fact that he was pretty much a pioneer.
I pick up a bottle for a closer look and notice it's not a photo of Mr. Olive Oil on the packaging. Instead, it's his parents.
It must be special to trace the oil's origin back to the groves planted by his late father and mother, I ask?
"Yeah," he says, almost with shyness. "There is that sense of pride in it as well."
As the saying goes, blood is thicker than water. In the case of Murat, perhaps olive oil would be more appropriate.