Muhammad Amir claims that his olive trees are up to 5,000 years old—although he phrases it more poetically: As visitors sample shots of fresh olive oil at his Alzitun olive press in the ancient city of Peki’in in Israel’s Upper Galilee, the Druze owner tells them that the oil is “made from trees that heard the Messiah talking.”
Olives are, indeed, an ancient business in Israel, but as is the case with chocolate, wine, and many other fields, recent years have seen a new “boutique” phase take root, where small businesses like Amir’s hold special appeal for consumers.
Like all Israelis in the olive oil business, Amir is busy right now with the olive harvest, which takes place from October through December and in the north is accompanied by the annual Olive Branch Days Festival. Each year tens of thousands of Israelis attend the festival, which is currently taking place for the 19th time; it starts at the end of October and runs through the end of Hanukkah, offering various activities in different locations each week—sticking to the natural progression of the harvest, which begins in lower, warmer areas and progresses north through the Galilee and the Golan. Visitors get a chance to participate in modern, as well as traditional, olive pressing and to get acquainted with different methods in which the area’s Jews, Muslims, Druze, Christians, Bedouins, and Circassians make olive oil. The festival also offers lectures, guided tours, shopping, workshops, bicycle rides to the groves, olive-oil tastings, and children’s activities and allows visitors to participate in different aspects of the harvest, like picking olives and pressing them for olive-oil extraction.
During the first days of the festival, I took a road trip with a group of friends to visit two presses. The first was Alzitun, where we were met by Amir, sporting an old oil-stained baseball cap. After we sipped some sweet Hawthorn tea that Amir brewed for us the moment we arrived, he showed us the cold-press machine and explained how it works. “We used to make olive oil using millstones and donkeys,” he said, pointing to relics of old machinery in the yard, “but we don’t do that anymore because it isn’t sanitary and it doesn’t hold up to the standards of the [Israeli] Olive Board. Now we use modern methods but we still make the same excellent extra-virgin olive oil out of the same Syrian olives that have been used in the area for thousands of years.”
The olives known in Israel as Syrian olives aren’t really Syrian at all: They are a subspecies of Olea europaea olives, which originate near the Lebanese city of Tyre and got their Israeli name due to a pronunciation error—Tyre and Syria sound similar in Hebrew. But Syrian olives, which were used to make olive oil in biblical times, are the only ones Amir uses.
The Jewish-owned Goren olive press and winery in the Western Galilee also uses French Picholine olives, which are relatively new to Israel, and modern Barnea olives. That was our next stop, where we received a tour and more olive oil to taste—as well as red wine and fresh pomegranate juice. Like Alzitun, Goren has news clippings from international olive-oil competitions it has won stuck on the walls, and like Amir, Goren owner Yakov Pinchasian recommends drinking a tablespoon of olive oil every morning. (“It’s good for the heart, digestion, and cholesterol,” said Pinchasian, whose own brand is called Torak, “from Song of Songs.”) Much to our disappointment, we learned that whole olives lack the health merits of olive oil, since the curing process kills the nutrients.
While most of Israel’s olive presses are located in the north, there are a few in other areas. Sde Moshe is a moshav in south-central Israel, next to the city of Kiryat Gat. The Tamir family was one of the first to settle in the area, striving to fulfill Ben-Gurion’s vision of making the Negev desert bloom: Tova and Shmuel Tamir built their family farm there in 1956, growing many different crops, including olives starting in the 1970s. In 2006, their grandson Ido Tamir established the Ptora family boutique, which produces extra-virgin olive oil as well as boutique wines and honey. “We wanted to start selling our products directly to the consumers instead of selling them through another brand, like we did before,” Ido told me. The brand is named after the ancient city of Ptora, which archeologists discovered next to the family’s groves just two years before the brand launched.
“Our family is among the first Jewish families to develop modern olive agriculture in Israel,” said Ido. “Until the 1970s, only Arabs grew olives in Israel. We started manufacturing boutique olive oil in the late 1970s and together with a few others preceded most boutique manufacturers who opened their businesses in the 1980s. As a boutique farm, one of our main advantages is that we can fully guarantee the entire process, from planting the olive trees, growing them, harvesting them, making the olive oil, storing, bottling, and distributing.”
Ptora produces between 10 and 20 tons of olive oil per year, which classifies it as a medium-sized manufacturer. The Tamir family’s olives grow organically in their private groves. Immediately after the harvest, the oil is cold-pressed and kept in sealed barrels to keep the air and light out. After three months it is poured, thus producing extra-virgin olive oil—the highest grade, which contains no more than 0.8 percent acidity.
Israel will produce approximately 20,000 tons of olive oil this year, a tiny percentage of the global supply. Spain is responsible for 40 percent, and together with Greece, Italy, and Portugal, Europe produces about 70 percent of the world’s olive oil. But if Israel’s output is like a drop in the ocean in comparison, Israeli olive oil is “among the finest in the world,” as the Israeli Olive Board proclaims on its website.
Because of its health benefits and the rise of “New Israeli Cuisine,” demand for olive oil is up in Israel, but this isn’t necessarily good news for the Israeli industry—quite the opposite, in fact. Cheap imported oil is threatening local producers, and even consumers who want to buy local products are duped into buying imported oil, since many of Israel’s big companies actually import oil (olive, or other kinds), mix it with their own, rebottle it, and sell it as Israeli olive oil.
In addition, Israel’s leading consumer watchdog TV show Kolbotek reported this spring that many of the oils being sold as high-grade olive oil (extra-virgin or virgin) are in fact low-grade. Some are edible but not worthy of the label “olive oil,” having been mixed with corn, soy, or other oils; others were found to be unfit for human consumption and should have been used only in the industrial market.
“There definitely is a crisis in the Israeli olive-oil industry,” admitted Li-or Avnon Solan, spokesperson for the Israeli Olive Board. “One of the main reasons is imported olive oil from Europe, which is sold at very low prices. Imported olive oil is cheaper because Spain and other countries subsidize their manufacturing, while the Israeli government doesn’t, but it is also cheaper because often the imported olive oil is of poor quality or sold past its expiration date or very close to it. When people see cheap imported olive oil next to the checkout counter at the supermarket they are tempted to buy it, since they don’t know that it might be of poor quality and therefore devoid of any nutritional value, or maybe even spoiled or fake.”
The board issues a stamp of approval to help guide consumers; only brands that manufacture 100 percent Israeli olive oil—meaning that the olive trees are grown on Israeli soil (which, for the board’s purposes, includes the West Bank and the Golan) and the oil is manufactured (and not only bottled) in the country—are eligible to be considered at all. Today there are 156 manufacturers who have received the stamp of approval: 90 small manufacturers, 50 medium-sized, and 16 big ones. (Ptora, Goren, and Alzitun all bear the board’s sticker on their bottles.)
Fraudulent manufacturers hurt not only the consumer but also the small presses. Ptora’s Ido Tamir says his business has been adversely affected by the glut of cheap, imported oil, but he is optimistic that Israeli consumers are becoming more aware of the difference between high-quality olive oil and imitations and are willing to pay the price for good products: “When buying from small boutique manufacturers there is more of a guarantee, and people are starting to understand that,” he said, although he admits that sometimes small manufacturers falsify their products, too: “Whoever wants to deceive can do so easily, and ultimately the only way to know for sure is to check the oil in a lab. But the Olive Board’s supervision is very strict, so if the consumer sees their stamp of approval on a bottle, that’s a good guarantee that it is in fact high-quality olive oil. My recommendation is to always buy from a reliable source, where you see the people who are making your olive oil.”
Thanks to the annual olive festival going on right now, it’s easier than ever for Israeli consumers to do exactly that.
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