by Yael Adar
From biblical to modern times the people of the land of Israel have had a long association with the olive tree, its fruit, and the oil extracted from it. The olive tree has been a symbol of hope, beauty, peace and fertility. Olive oil was used for medicinal and cosmetic purposes, as well as illumination. Its oil was used in the Temple and up until the beginning of the last century olive oil constituted 20%-30% of the daily caloric intake of the inhabitants of Israel. In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in olive oil, due in part to its antioxidant nature. Studies have shown that drinking as little 50 grams of olive oil a day can have a positive effect on LDL – the ‘bad’ cholesterol.
Olive oil is typically more costly than other oils due to the labor of harvesting methods and the suseceptibilty of trees to disease. Primary harvesting methods include:
1) ‘milking’ – or hand picking, which is considered the best method but is extremely time consuming and costly.
2) Beating the branches with a stick, this is still the most prevalent method today among Israeli Arabs, which have a near monopoly of raw material since they own roughly 90% of the existing olive orchards in Israel. While this method, is the fastest, it greatly damages the tree.
3) Shaking the tree by mechanical means (this is the fastest method but it too damages the tree).
Olive trees are found in the Galilee (where the majority of production is centered today), Coastal Plain, and the Judean Hills. The trees favor rocky sites. The olive tree is never without foliage and it typically takes about five to seven years for it to be commercially viable. Even when it begins bearing large quantities of fruit, it only yields a significant amount of fruit every other year.
Olives were cultivated in the Land of Israel in the Neolithic period (8300-4500 BCE) and there is archeological evidence that attests to the fact that olive oil was exported from Israel as early as the third and second millennia, BCE. Interestingly enough, while there have been many advances in agriculture since biblical times – some of the methods used both in the harvesting and production of olive oil (such as beating the branches with a stick) are very similar to those used in ancient times. Olives thrived in Israel during two periods, from the initial settlement of Jews in Eretz Yisrael until the end of Roman influence and then again during the British Mandate.
There are a number of places throughout Israel that include olive(s) or oil as part of their name. The first that comes to mind, is of course Mount of Olives, in Jerusalem. Another well-known site right in Jerusalem is the Garden of Getehsemane. The word Gethsemane is actually the altered (Greek) form of the Hebrew phrase Gat Shemanim, which means oil vat.
There are three basic steps to producing olive oil: crushing, pressing and separating. There is great variety in the types of installations used to produce oil. The simplest installations were depressions cut into the bedrock (although portable versions also existed), where olives were crushed and pressed. Some also had a small vat for collecting the expressed liquid. Examples of the simplest installations, such as the Chalcholithic era presses can be found at Meggido (Armageddon). The more complex installations used a lever and weights, while others employed the screw press or direct pressure using screws or wedges. Some of the differences in the types of installations are the result of the era, while other differences are regional (there were differences between southern and northern installations, for example). Olive oil installations were made of stone, wood, rope and leather.
According to Fathi Abd El-Hadi, Ph.D., an agriculture adviser with the Ministry of Agriculture and an internationally certified olive oil tasting expert, tasting olive oil involves identifying the positive attributes (fruity, bitter, pungent) as well as the negative attributes (fusty/musty, winey/vinegary, muddy sediment and vegetable water).
El-Hadi noted that in Israel the average consumption of olive oil is 800 grams per person. However, there is a great difference between consumption among the Jewish and Arab population, among the Jewish population consumption is two kilograms per person, while the average consumption in the Arab population is much higher, eight kilograms (and even higher among rural Arabs). This compares (for example) to an average consumption of 20 kilograms per person in Greece. Israel, with its 200 thousand dunam (50,000 acres) of olive trees is but a drop in the bucket, on global terms. There are 100 million dunams (25 million acres) of olive trees, around the world.
The grades of oil are; Extra Virgin Olive Oil (only 1% acidity), Virgin Olive Oil (up to 1- 2% acidity), Ordinary Olive Oil (2-3% acidity), and Lampant oil (not fit for human consumption) has 3.3% acidity or higher. In recent years, numerous small Jewish owned olive oil producers have cropped up, renewing the interest in this age-old industry. The Olive Harvest festival, kicking off the harvest season, now in its fourth year, takes place on weekends in November. At press-time the detailed schedule of the festival’s events had not yet been made public, online. Those who can’t attend this year’s festival should definitely plan on attending next year.
Information about the Olive Harvest festival is available from the Western Galilee Tourist Trust.
In this section we feature just a few of the places where one can learn more about the traditions of olive oil making and view some of the many olive oil installations that are found throughout the country.