Helen Peacocke talks to a local importer of exceedingly fine Mediterranean foods

Foodie and businessman George Bennell is not French, though he is responsible for importing some exceedingly fine French foods to Oxfordshire.

Admittedly he did spend much of his youth there with his mother, who lived in Arles, but most of his schooldays were spent at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, where he met his friend (now business partner) Adam Wells who sat at the desk next to him when they were just 11 years old.

After school their paths diverged, with George following his interest in food by working as a chef in Paris, while Adam went to university to read history.

It was George’s mother who pushed her son in the direction which was to mould his future.

Over the years she had noticed that her visitors raved about the freshness of the olives served at the local market in Arles. Seeing this as a great business opportunity she encouraged George to try his luck at importing them to the UK.

His first foray into the importing business was a delivery to Fasta Pasta in Oxford’s Covered Market, driving a van packed with 45lb of fresh olives direct from France.

This trip was to change his life because the venture proved so successful that Fasta Pasta asked him for more. Now he imports almost 50 different types of olive to the UK, more than 1,000 tonnes a year, which find their way to restaurants, supermarkets and caterers looking for a quality product. Obviously this means George has built up and nurtured long-term partnerships with Mediterranean artisan growers who share his belief that the ingredient, particularly the olive, is king.

George is keen to stress that he has not built up a million dollar business and achieved such success all on his own merit. His school friend Adam joined forces with him in 1991 and together they formed The Fresh Olive Company, going on to create the Belazu Ingredient Company whose products sit proudly on supermarket shelves all over the country, satisfying lovers of Mediterranean food and caterers looking for quality ingredients.

The name Belazu is an amalgamation of the French ‘bel azur’ and the Italian ‘bello azzurro’, words that evoke images of a blue Mediterranean sky and sea.

The Belazu product range now includes far more than just olives, with pastes, grains, oils and an imaginative selection of preserves including lemons, all of which are brought together by their quality and their Mediterranean origins.

Today Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal and France, as well as Turkey, Morocco and Tunisia are among the countries he imports from. George is quick to point out that personal taste preferences will always influence his task of selecting what he considers the best during his trips to the Mediterranean.

Given the success of his company that says a lot about his tastebuds, which he has refined to select the most succulent and tasty of olives. These trips take place at least three times a year, his destination depending on the time the olive harvest gets under way, and the variety of olives he is looking for.

Different kinds of olives ripen at different times and like grapes used for wine, the olive properties are determined by the botanical characteristics of the tree, the climate and the soil.

George explained that there are at least 60 varieties of olive, each with distinct characteristics, some giving off hot peppery tastes, whilst others confer a grassy flavour when pressed for oil. He enjoys the fact that the ripening olive changes from green to violet to red and then black, that final colour change which indicates the olive has reached maturity and its oil content has reached maximum level.

He thoroughly enjoys visiting the Mediterranean olive groves and the long discussions he has with the farmers as he inspects their crop. As many of these discussions take place under the warm sun he considers these trips more like holidays than work.

In true George style, rather than hiring a table to display his products at last month’s Thame Food Festival, he decided to offer visitors a chance to taste his wares incorporated into a meal by hosting an all-day pop-up restaurant in Christchurch on Upper High Street.

The profits this event raised were donated to the Belazu Foundation Charity which George established in 2013 to sponsor two schools in Morocco, as well as a school in Oxford, the Isis Academy, for children with special educational needs. With money raised through the foundation, an educational kitchen was built and installed at Isis.

He says he chose to fund Morocco as many of its inhabitants live in remote areas in the mountains where the children received absolutely no formal education until George set up two schools there where the argan trees grow.

Over the past decade the foundation has sponsored a number of rural schools in the mountains with donations of more than £150,000 that have provided education for more than 350 women and children.

The foundation has also set up a women’s centre to teach females to read and speak French, Arabic and Berber languages.

George has four children aged from 11 to 18 – Fyn, Joe, Jessie and Tom – so being a family man he is very conscious of the needs of children.

Watching the Moroccan children enjoying school days they would not have experienced without the foundation’s help has brought him great joy.

And yet George is most at home in Oxfordshire where he lives with his family in a village near Woodstock, revelling in its rural atmosphere, and the beautiful surrounding countryside, yet still close to London. Ask him about any hobbies and he raises a wry smile.

The busy man, in his mid 50s, does enjoy sailing when he has time to indulge in his favourite hobby, but most of his attention is taken up with his ongoing projects.

Never one to rest on his laurels, George is toying with setting up a cookery school in the Mediterranean and he definitely wants to open a restaurant which, like the Thame pop-up restaurant, will celebrate Mediterranean foods.

Let’s hope he keeps it close to home.