The mountains and valleys of the Galilee region of Israel are dotted with groves and groves of olive trees. They are everywhere! These are some of the world’s oldest olive trees; some of the larger ones are over 2000 years old! Our olive harvesting and pressing season has just ended. The luscious, ripe fruits are gathered by hand after the second rain of the year, when the olives have absorbed the rains and have grown swollen and fat. Driving along the Galilee roads, one can see entire families gathering the olives using the “ancient method” of spreading tarps and blankets below the trees and knocking the olives down with sticks. Things have not changed much over the past 3000 years.
The olives are gathered in huge sacs and buckets and taken to be pressed within hours of harvest to capture their freshest flavors. There is an Arabic saying here: “From the tree to the stone.” Israel is a leading producer of olive oil- third only to Greece and Spain – producing about 19,500 tons each year of this liquid gold. There are over 120 olive presses in the Galilee and Golan Heights, most owned and operated by the local Druze communities. The techniques used in extracting the precious oil range from the ancient stone ground to Ottoman era press to higher-tech machinery.
Some olive are taken to press. Others are cured for future use. Eating-olives must be cured first. Never eat a “raw” olive off the tree. It contains tannins which are slightly poisonous and can make you quite sick. There are as many opinions here on curing olives as there are people. Most have their own secret and traditional recipes, but all use either a salt-brine method, citrus juice or a vinegar solution. To this solution, can be added any combination of olive leaves, bay leaves, various herbs, hot peppers, citrus and citrus peels, pepper berries, garlic, and various other herbs and spices. This is part of what makes olive tasting here so special. And there are so many different varieties! Who knew????
EVOO (Extra virgin olive oil) is big business in Israel, with boutique oil shops popping up everywhere in addition to the larger production houses. The first press yields the virgin oil. Cold press is best. “Extra” means lower acidity, which for me, is important. The Israeli olives tend to be a little more assertive and pungent, although there are some delicious fruity and buttery varieties. Everyone has a personal preference. It’s not a matter of one type of olive over another, but the process of how the oil is made. And Israel makes some of the best. I buy 4 2-liter cans of a local olive oil made in neighboring Yodfat. I find it to be the best for pouring over salads and for dipping. It lasts us about a year if I’m very frugal. Like several other Israeli olive oils, Yodfat Oil has won coveted awards at the TerraOlivo International Olive Oil Competition. And each beautiful tin costs me 80 shekels, which is about $23. For cooking, my favorite oil – it’s smooth and delicious and stronger than the boutique variety – is Zeta. I used to buy this in California as it is exported to the U.S. (This is a play on words as the Hebrew for olive is zayeet). I can find a liter bottle on sale at the local supermarket for about $6.
Olives are one of the Seven Species of Israel (shiva a’minim), which elevates them to an almost holy status here. Extra virgin oil had holy uses in ancient times. It was used to anoint priests and kings. The golden liquid was used as a healing unguent. It was also used to light the sacred menorah burning in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Part of the Chanukah story is the miracle of the oil. After the Maccabees won the battle for Israel’s independence from the Greeks in about 160 B.C., the Temple was found to be in shambles. Totally desecrated with pigs running loose and sacred objects looted and destroyed. At its Rededication, there was only enough pure olive oil to keep the menorah lit for a day, but it miraculously lasted eight days. Thus we commemorate this by burning pure oil in our chanukkiyah, our Chanukah menorah. We also eat lots of fried foods on this upcoming holiday.
Held in high esteem as a superfruit for its health benefits, these little gems are not only used in foods. Dr. Ziad Dabour, a Druze man from the Upper Galil village of Beit Jann, is a specialist in pharmacology. Since childhood he has studied traditional methods of using the local plants for medicinal purposes. After serving for years as the Chief Pharmacist for the IDF, Dr. Dabour has spent his “retirement” in the demo-cosmetics industry. Tours are available at the Dabour Cosmetics Factory, and you can purchase his organic facial, body and hair care products using local olive oil.
The Tivon-based cosmetic company, Lavido specialists in organic beauty products grown in their own gardens in nearby Nahalal. the plants and herbs are blended with the oil from the Galilee’s olive trees growing in the fields surrounding their small factory. Lavido is my favorite Israeli cosmetic company. Their products are redolent of lavender, roses, mint, rosemary, lemongrass and pomegranate. I love their hand and foot creams.
For a last minute holiday idea – why not put together an olive and olive oil tasting? So easy. Grab an assortment of hearty whole grain breads and fluffy pita. Lay out bowls of different varieties of olives: kalamatas, green olives, black olives, olives stuffed with nuts, garlic, chilies or citrus. On a wooden board, place varieties of cubed cheeses. Feta is especially good with EVOO. But also cubed manchego, grana-padano, some hard cheeses and a brie or cambozola to round out the taste. Add some fresh grapes, pomegranate arils, and cut up veggie sticks. Maybe an assortment of crackers. Don’t forget little bowls of olive oil with the bottles behind them so keep track/rate favorites. Just add a few bottles of red and white wines, put on some festive holiday music, and you have the makings of one great party!
For lovely, personal gifts or hostess presents, take some decorative clear bottles (in the States, available at craft stores as well as Pier One, and World Market, Homegoods, Marshalls, TJMaxx and Homesense). Fill about 3/4 of the way with EVOO. Add sprigs of fresh herbs – rosemary, garlic and peppercorns; thyme and oregano; lemon peel and sea salt; dried chilies. Attach a pour spout and tie the neck with brightly colored baker’s twine or raffia with a sprig of the herbs. A thoughtful present indeed – an easy, too.
Another delicious recipe is to take 4 whole garlic bulbs. Lice the top off each, exposing the garlic. Place in a baking dish and you EVOO over the top to almost submerge the garlic. Bake for 20 minutes at 300*F/140*C. The garlic will come out soft and sweet, great for spreading on bread directly. Bottle the oil for cooking and drizzling over potatoes, sweet potatoes, and roasted veggies. Total yum!
Salad dressings are easy to make up fresh. Play around with the ingredients and amounts used. I take about 1/3 part EVOO, an acid like lemon juice or vinegar (white, balsamic, wine, or cider) and assorted spices and herbs, sea salt and fresh ground pepper. About !/3 part water. Shake and voila!
For homemade beauty – try making a scrub for a special home spa day. So simple! Just take a small jar and add either white or brown sugar or course sea salt. Pour olive oil over the top and add a few drops of essential oil to the batch. I love fresh lemon juice and a bit of rosemary in my scrub. Enjoy! Happy holidays….