Israeli Olive Growers Discover That Thinking Small Can Deliver Big Results
Copyright © Dana Kessler
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.
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.
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.