Just as Israel’s ancient wine industry was revived and thrives, olive oil from the Holy Land is once again flowing to great accolades.
By Avigayil Kadesh Olive trees have been growing in Israel for thousands of years. Today, about 330,000 dunams (81,000 acres) of olive orchards in Israel produce between 15,000 and 16,000 tons of extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) every year. Top-grade EVOO, from the first gentle pressing, is not refined or processed and is the least acidic olive oil. Reuven Birger, the Israel Ministry of Agriculture’s longtime olive- and almond-growing chief specialist, says most Israeli oil is for domestic use, while about 1,000 tons are exported, mainly to the United States. Large producers, such as Yad Mordechai, have been joined in recent years by some 150 boutique brands based mainly on small moshavim, or cooperative farming villages. Birger says there are probably 100 more boutique growers that don’t have their own label but sell to producers. These numbers are dwarfed, of course, by Israel’s larger Mediterranean neighbors – in particular, Spain, Greece and Italy. Spain exports an average of 58,000 tons of olive oil every month, accounting for 40 percent of world production. However, several features set Israeli olive oil apart, according to Zohar Kerem, a food chemist specializing in olives at the Institute of Biochemistry, Food Science and Nutrition of the Rehovot agricultural campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It’s not just that most Israeli olives are irrigated with salty (brackish) and purified wastewater, which is environmentally beneficial, does not diminish the fruit’s quality and actually allows farmers to use fewer fertilizers. “All countries produce excellent olive oil, but there are differences,” Kerem says. “In Spain, up to 70% of what they produce is not extra virgin [low acidity]. A large portion is not even virgin [from the first pressing]. That’s because of the tradition of the industry, not because they cannot produce only extra virgin, as we Israelis do.” Kerem says he’s come to the conclusion that the Israeli “type A” personality is the main reason Israeli olive oil is almost exclusively extra virgin. People tend to be more laid-back in the European Mediterranean region. “The moment we start, we want to complete the process, and the whole system is built for that,” he explains. “Harvesting is done in a rush, as opposed to Spanish, Italian and Greek farmers who harvest till March. In the Mediterranean area, the optimal time is generally between October and December. The olives start to ripen in October, and frost arrives in December, as the olives are getting overripe. When they’re just ripe, the olives have enough oil and are ready to leave the tree easily.” The next priority is extracting the oil right after picking. Whereas in some other countries the fruit is stored for weeks before extracting the oil, Israeli producers abide by an old Arabic saying, “From the tree to the stone.” “That means when you want to make good olive oil, the sooner you get the detached olives to the mill the better the oil you will get,” says Kerem. Israel does not even have facilities to refine lower-grade olive oil. “Virgin oil is a fresh fruit juice, while refined is an industrial product,” Kerem says. “In most countries, they have a second extraction stage and refining. The amount of production here does not support second extraction. Perhaps someday it will.” Refined oil is cheaper and less acidic, but Kerem says that many of the olive’s natural flavors don’t make it through the refining process. The superior taste of EVOO is important as a marketing advantage because it is regulated by law. “Olive oil is the only food product in the world whose trade regulations include evaluation of taste and aroma,” says Kerem. “Extra virgin and virgin have to have positive attributes as defined by the regulations with no essential defects. Virgin might have defects in taste that connoisseurs would discern, but it’s okay and costs less, just like with wine.” Refining also removes many of the health benefits of the oil. EVOO has been shown effective in strengthening the immune system and protecting the body from cancer, stroke, heart disease, obesity, osteoporosis, depression, diabetes, high blood pressure and the effects of oxidation. Expert palates Another distinction of Israeli olive oil is the many varieties of olive strains growing here, which produce a range of flavors. “If you want to be a gourmet, you have one olive oil for salad, one for baking, one for frying and one for cooking, and you’ll get different results for each,” Kerem says. Israeli farmers raise not only native varieties but also select varieties of Spanish, Italian and Greek olives. In most other olive-oil-producing countries, only regional native varieties are grown. Again, says Kerem, this difference is due to the Israeli personality as well as knowhow gained from research shared directly with farmers. “Here, because of our nature, we brought in other varieties and learned how to grow them successfully. With a lot of agricultural research, we are able to use many of the cultivars — some better in the Negev and some better in the Golan Heights. With the right irrigation and pruning and agriculture, all the varieties grow nicely here and you will see them listed on the bottle.” He adds that for the past two years, the ministries of agriculture and health have been carefully supervising what goes into Israeli olive oil bottles, in response to the practice of some producers to add lower-quality imported oils to keep the price down. “Today the supervision is very close to that of organic farming,” he says. Next year, labeling laws will go into effect to better inform the consumer. The many homegrown varieties allow Hilla Wenkert, owner of Olia on Frishman Street in Tel Aviv, to offer nine different types of single-variety Israeli olive oils grown in all parts of the country. The taste range goes from mild up to the most robust oils such as fruity, bitter Souri and Coratina. “We also make our own oil blends — really like wine — which makes our whole collection number about 13 varieties,” says Wenkert. “I’m fascinated with the oils, and blending them creates unique flavors and aromas.” If olive oils are starting to sound a lot like wines, that is because they truly are quite similar. After all, both are highly prized fruit extracts that come in an array of varieties, and require the work of experts from field to bottle. “In wine, time has a positive effect, while for olive oil it’s the opposite. That’s the main difference. But there are a lot of similarities,” says Wenkert, who opened Olia, Israel’s first olive-oil boutique, six years ago. A graduate of International Olive Oil Council courses given in Israel, Wenkert is an official international taster and participates in many competitions and panels. “I know each variety’s particular flavor. We have our own specific taste in Israel. Compared to, let’s say, Greek or Italian oils that are smooth and fruity and quite aromatic, ours are more pungent and a little more aggressive. I think it’s because of the water, the soil and the specific climate here, which is not stable like in Greece or Italy or Spain.” During harvest time, Wenkert traverses the country looking for new farmers – many of them small, boutique growers — and different varieties. “I am also looking for the same variety from different parts of the country. I may buy Souri from the Golan Heights and the Negev and perhaps mix them. We are responsible for the whole process from harvest to pressing and bottling in our factory.” Olia customers are a mix of locals and tourists. “Israel is well known symbolically for olives, so olive oil is a nice typical gift to bring back home,” Wenkert says. Olive oil is mentioned in the Bible as one of seven natural products that distinguish the land of Israel, along with wheat, barley, figs, pomegranates, date honey and grapevines (there’s that wine similarity again!) From field to bottle Though olive pits from 6,000 years ago have been discovered in Israel, and orchards of very old trees continue to thrive here – many of them tended by Arab farmers going back several generations — olive expert Reuven Birger says the first trees for the modern olive-oil industry in Israel were planted only in the early 1990s. “Modern” is defined by density, he says. “We can grow more densely because we irrigate. If we depend on rain, each tree needs a lot of area to thrive. More densely planted trees have greater yields.” At least 10,000 tons of Israel’s annual supply of olive oil comes from modern orchards. The rest is a product of traditional orchards kept by both Arab and Jewish farmers from northernmost Metulla to southernmost Eilat, says Birger. (Some of the traditional groves produce virgin oil in addition to EVOO.) “There are two ways to manage modern olive orchards,” he explains. “The conventional way has about 36 trees per dunam (about 145 per acre), harvested by several people using a vibrating machine. The super-intensive way, used mostly in the Golan Heights, has 130 trees per dunam (about 526 per acre), harvested by the same very sophisticated machine used for grapes and operated by one person. I assume that new plantations in the next few years will be mostly super-intensive because harvesting costs are lower.” The amount of olive oil produced from each crop depends on the fruit’s size and the irrigation level, but normally a one-liter bottle contains oil from four to six kilograms of olives, or about 1,000 individual fruits. The process of obtaining EVOO from the picked, washed fruit begins by crushing the olives, either the old-fashioned way with giant stones, or with stainless-steel rollers. The mash can then be processed in several ways. One way is to spread it onto thin mats that are then stacked inside a press; if no heat is applied during the pressing, the oil is termed "first cold pressed." Heat often is used to coax out more oil in second pressings. Alternatively, the crushed olives can be poured into a rotating container with thousands of stainless steel blades that pierce the olive pulp. The oil that sticks to the blades is removed and collected. Because this method does not involve pressure or heat, it better preserves the taste and healthful properties of the olives. Research into more economical and ecologically beneficial methods for olive-growing and olive-oil producing is ongoing, according to Kerem of Hebrew University. His lab works in collaboration with several teams from the governmental agricultural research Volcani Institute and the Shaham agricultural extension service. “We work closely with the growers, which is typical in Israel, gathering data on how to produce various qualities of extra virgin,” says Kerem. “For instance, we are working on adaptation of various oils for frying. We look at their contribution to bone health and other health issues, while Volcani works on agronomy issues such as optimizing the date of harvest to get the better oils my team looks for.” Award-winners How good are Israel’s olive oils compared with those from other countries? Tasters at the 2013 Terra Olivo International Mediterranean International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition
Tasters at the 2013 Terra Olivo International Mediterranean International Extra Virgin Olive Oil CompetitionBased on results from four years of Terra Olivo Mediterranean International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competitions every June in Israel – this year, staged on the slopes of Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives – they stack up favorably. More than 500 EVOOs were entered in the 2013 contest, from Argentina, Chile, Croatia, Greece, Israel, Italy, Japan, Spain, Turkey, Tunisia, Lebanon, South Africa, the United States, Uruguay, Peru, Slovenia and Portugal. Each “blind” entry is judged by an international panel of 25 expert tasters. The overall champion for 2013 was Meshek Achiya , whose 75 acres of olive trees grow in a small town north of Jerusalem. Awards for specific varieties went to such oils as a Koroneiki produced by Shemen She’an at Kibbutz Ein Hanatziv. Other brands that have done well in the competition over the past few years include Carmey Golan, Eli-Ad, Eretz Gshur, Jahashan Family Farm, Live Organic, Olia and Zeta. EVOO made by Sindyanna of Galilee, a women-led association that operates among the Arab population of northern Israel, won the Terra Olivo Prestige Gold Medal in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013. In 2013, for the first time the judging panel included food engineer Hatem Khamaisi, who is in charge of quality control at Sindyanna. Israeli oils (including Sindyanna) have also won prizes at Biol, the 18-year-old competition in Italy that compares and awards the best organic extra-virgin olive oils of various continents. But Terra Olivo founder and director Moshe Spak, an Argentinean immigrant, says the Israel-based international competition has really put Israeli olive oil on the map. “Everyone knows about Israeli expertise in other areas, but not about olive-oil quality,” says Spak, who also runs an international wine competition in Israel, Terra Vino, every December. The rising prominence of Israeli olive oil has led to a new certification course at the Hebrew University aimed at maintaining high-quality production. The curriculum is devised using standards and guidelines of the International Olive Oil Council so that graduates may apply for membership in international organizations and testify in Israeli and international courts as to olive oil quality in situations of dispute. Celebrate olives, see how oil is made Just as the olive harvest signaled a time for festivals in biblical Israel, today many Israeli families enjoy activities sponsored by the annual Olive Branch Festival throughout the Galilee and the Golan. Tours of oil presses, olive-picking events, guided olive oil tasting, farmers markets, gourmet meals and alternative health treatments, art, music and photography exhibitions, as well as hikes, guided tours and bicycle trips are all part of the fun over two weekends in late October and early November.
Families enjoying the annual Olive Branch Festival
at Ein Dor Museum in the Galilee During the festival, Ein Dor Museum in the Galilee offers a hands-on experience, from olive picking and pressing to using the extracted oil as a topping for fresh-baked pita bread. Every child goes home with a souvenir piece of olive wood, and oils are for sale. The festival also includes an academic conference sponsored by Tel Hai College, which brings together players from all aspects of Israel’s olive industry to discuss strategic planning for the further development of the entire industry. There are several places in Israel where people are welcome to watch the olive-oil-making process. At the moshav Bnei Darom near Ashdod, visitors can take a 90-minute tour through what spokesman Yair Kawon says is the first modern olive-oil factory in the Jewish sector, established in 1998. Between September and December – the holidays of Sukkot to Hanukkah – Bnei Darom guides take visitors from picking to pressing. Off-season, the tour begins with a small museum on the history of Bnei Darom from 1946 to the 1980s. It continues with a tour and explanation of traditional oil making at a replica of an ancient olive-oil factory. “Then we enter our lecture room and talk about olive oil in Israel and explain terms such as ‘extra virgin’ and ‘acidity.’ We show a film, available in Hebrew, English, French and Russian, showing our own olive press, which uses the very gentle ‘sinolea’ method [with the steel blades],” says Kawon. Finally, the tour goes to see the moshav’s actual olive oil factory. If it’s off-season, the focus is on the machinery and how it is similar and different from the antique methods. Tastings of oil from Bnei Darom’s five species of olives comes after that in the retail shop, which also sells the many products made on the moshav from its olive oil, such as spreads and chutneys. The guided tour costs NIS 20 per person, but for no charge people can see the film and the factory – and, of course, taste the oils. The Golan Olive Oil Mill at Capernaum Vista Olive Farm in Katzrin has a visitor’s center, café and free tastings. A guided tour (small fee) takes visitors to Golan’s olive-oil press and Olea Essence olive-oil skincare center, explaining the process starting with olive harvesting through pressing all the way to making olive-oil-based cosmetics. The tour includes a short film. Visitors learn that an olive consists of 20% oil, 40% flesh and 40% water. After the oil is extracted, the water is left with high concentrations of oxidation-resistant molecules called polyphenols that cause environmental damage when the water is discarded – in fact, it is known in the industry as “black water,” and the problem is common to all olive-oil-producing countries. Instead of discarding the water, Capernaum Vista takes advantage of its healthful properties by incorporating proportionate amounts into cosmetics such as olive soap scrub and also soaps for the home and garden. Among other Israeli companies using olive press waste in innovative, earth-friendly ways is Olivebar, which creates long-burning heating logs for wood-burning fireplaces out of the material. The ash left behind by the rolls after burning can be spread as fertilizer for the garden. Olivebar also sun-dries and sells the bulk waste as an alternative source of energy for industrial plants.