It’s Olive Season!!!

It’s olive season here in Israel!! This year, I had the great fortune of following native Israeli, Boaz Engel, as he harvested the fruit from his Yodfat Olive orchard. Plus I had the added bonus of going to the beit baad, the press, to see how the liquid gold is processed. It was completely different than anything I expected, but totally wonderful, nonetheless.

The Galilee region of Northern Israel is Olive Central. There are more orchards here, with more varieties grown, than in any other place in the world. Everywhere you look for miles and miles, olive trees cover every hillside and valley. From late October to early November, usually right after the first big rainstorm, you can see the olive pickers. Most of the groves here are Druze and Arab owned. Entire family groups drive into the orchards, spread out their big blankets under the trees, and start whacking away. The men whack at the limbs with long sticks, causing the olives to fall from their branches onto the blankets below. Young boys climb into the canopy and hit the branches to dislodge the fruits while the women prepare the noon meal from grills and tables they set up between the rows of trees. Depending on the size of the grove, picking usually lasts a week, sometimes two weeks. Then, they take their full crates to the community presses to make the oil. Besides being hard work, it seems like it’s also a huge social event as well as yearly family ritual.

Until I moved here, I had no idea there were so many different varieties of olives, or so many ways to prepare them. All varieties start out green. They can be harvested while they are still green. As they hang on the tree, at the proper time, they quickly turn from green to purple, red or gray, and eventually get darker and darker until they take on a deep brown, dark gray, or black color. Each type of olive has a different use – for eating or for pressing. They vary in flavor, oil content, and intensity. Some are rich, meaty and mild; others are up-front and strong with a certain “bite” at the end. The curing and brining process accentuates these differences. Getting out “in the field” to see the process up close was such an educational experience!

I was familiar with wine tasting, whiskey flights, coffee tasting and even testing different types of teas, so it should have come as no surprise that there are olive oil aficionados offering special oil tastings. I’ve enjoyed several since I’ve been here, and have refined my own tastes, so there are those I use for cooking, and those I use for making salad dressings. There are the “extra-specials” that I reserve for dipping and drizzling on cut up veggies or humus. By far, the best olive oil I have ever tasted comes from Yodfat, a neighboring village. So, to meet and shadow the owner of Yodfat Olive Oil, Boaz Engel, made for a wonderful day.

Boaz Engel lives with his wife and four children, ages 6-15, in the beautiful mountain village of Yodfat, about 15 minutes from Karmi’el. He has been growing olives since 2012. Boaz’s mentor, fellow Israeli and senior agronomist, Reuven Birger, has guided and accompanied Boaz throughout the years, but mostly, it’s been trial and error. He grows olives in two orchards spreading out over 450 dunams or 112 acres of land. His trees were purchased as seedlings from a special nursery specializing in olive trees. They come from France, Italy, Greece, Spain and Israel. He now has about 15,000 of the healthiest, most beautiful trees I’ve seen since I’ve been here. I asked Boaz if they need any special care, as most of the trees in the groves I’ve seen in the Galilee have paler leaves and a scraggly appearance. His are vibrant and lush with dark green foliage. One thinks that pruning after harvest is enough, but Boaz makes sure they are well irrigated all year long and fertilized during the summer months. He watches carefully during the winter months for any sign of leaf disease and during the spring and summer for insect infestation or dryness. Any of these can cause the leaves to fall prematurely, or the developing fruit to be deformed or stunted.

Despite the height of the olive harvest, Boaz was gracious enough to meet me on the side of the highway and drive me to the grove – I never would have found the tiny and obscure gravel road that narrowed into dirt paths otherwise. He escorted me through the rows of trees, pointing out the differences between the green Barnea the workers were harvesting (this would make that wonderful buttery oil I love the most); the French fichuline, an excellent eating olive; his award-winning picual from Italy; and the Coratina with its incredibly strong taste, so strong that the oil must be blended with the gentler Barnea to be palatable. Boaz would grab a handful of each kind of olive and crush the berries in his hand until the oil ran out. Each type produced a different quantity (some have a naturally higher oil content) with a different smell. WARNING!!!! Never attempt to eat olives straight from the tree! They contain a high amount of tannins which could make you very ill if not cured first (I will explain the curing process shortly).

Altogether, Boaz harvests between 10 and 13 tons of olives each year. While some go for curing and eating, most go into the production of olive oil. From 12 tons of olives, about 1.5 to 2 tons of oil is made. When I asked Boaz how long the whole process took from grove to bottle, he answered “two.” To clarify, I responded. “two months?” and he looks at me like I was absolutely looney. “Whaaaaat? No! Two hours!!” And this is where the story really gets good.

First, I had assumed that we would be taking long sticks and whacking at trees. Or that I’d be picking by hand. With little kids shaking climbing up high to shake branches… ABSOLUTELY WRONG!!!!! The entire process has been mechanized. Hello – we’re in the 21st century now. A big truck casts rows and rows of netting from giant spools onto the floor of the orchard in neat rows. Workers from the moshav (community) spread out the nets neatly under the trees. Then a tractor with a pneumatic arm comes along. The arm wraps around the base of the olive tree; a button is pushed; the arm vigorously vibrates the trunk – and voilĂ ! All the olives tumble out of the tree onto the nets below. It takes all of ten seconds! Then the nets are reeled in and the fruit dumped into large plastic crates and the process continues down each row. It was quite amazing…and deafening. That was the first surprise.

The next surprise came when Boaz asked if I wanted to go to see the beit baad. For some reason I had envisioned a large room in an ancient stone building. There would be a huge grinding stone perhaps operated by horses pulling a crushing device. Also, from the Chanukah story and the book of Maccabees, I had always known that the olive oil takes a full eight days to make. When the Maccabees cleaned out the holy Temple after it had been thoroughly desecrated by the Greco-Syrians in 150 BC, they found only a small cruze of pure olive oil which with which to light the menorah lamp. It was enough to last for only one day, but miraculously burned for eight days until the new oil was ready. According to my friend, Gabi, the oil for the Temple was produced in the Galilee, and had to be brought to Jerusalem. It would have taken a full eight days to travel by donkey, hence the delay. today, the process is almost instantaneous.

The beit baad, the community press, was a large room with a stainless steel machine imported from Italy, state of the art. The crates of olives are dumped into a hopper where most of the attached twigs and leaves are sorted out and the olives washed off in a water bath. The machine then sucks up the olives which are fed into a grinder and crushed. The noise is so intense that we were given headphones to wear to block out the sound. From one chute, the crushed pits and detritus plops out the dregs into a waste bin. From another chute, the golden liquid pours into a large, stainless steel container. The silver barrels are marked with the owner’s name, date, and type of oil. After the oil remains in the drum for about a week, so the oil cures a bit and the sediment settles out, the liquid is decanted into half-liter, liter, and five liter tins, labeled, boxed, and shipped to markets throughout Israel.

I was given a small sample of the freshly pressed oil to taste. It was rich and buttery – the most amazingly fruity taste. The sharp bite at the end (it actually took away my breath!) I was assured would disappear within the next couple weeks. I found out why this was my favorite oil: this particular variety from Yodfat Olive Oil has won first place in the Israeli olive oil competition!

I was able to take home a small bag of the freshly picked Barnea olives to cure at home. So if any of you have access to fresh, unsprayed olives right off the tree (we had lots of these in our California neighborhood, but I never knew how to prepare them), here are some simple instructions:

After washing the olives, make a slit down the center of each one (or at the ends) with a sharp knife. Soak the olives in a jar of sweet water for three days, changing out the water each day as it turns murky. these are the tannins leeching out. After the olives have soaked, transfer them to another jar of water with 12% volume of coarse or Kosher salt added. For a quart Mason jar, this is about a Tablespoon and a half of salt.

Here’s where it gets good, because everyone who cures olives here (it seems like that is everybody in Israel) has their own sworn special recipe. To the jar of olives in salt brine you can add: peppercorns; chiles; garlic; bay leaves; lemon; orange; fennel seeds; cumin seeds, dill weed; olive leaves; onion; oregano; zata’ar; caper berries; or any combination of any assorted herb imaginable. Some people swear by a vinegar solution instead of brining in a salt solution. Others add a few drops of vinegar to the end result. Some say to gradually add more salt during the last week of ‘curing.’ There doesn’t seem to be any set way. People home-cure their olives and then store them in recycled plastic soda bottles. Almost every grocery store here has an impressive olive bar. Here, you can see all the different varieties including those that have been salt dried and those olives that have been pitted and stuffed with almonds, garlic, little cornichon pickles, pimentos, or pieces of citrus. All have a unique taste. I can’t wait to try mine next week!

I have been rather hard -pressed to find jars of tapenade here, and when I have, it’s been exorbitantly expensive – go figure. Most people make their own and it is so easy to do:

I buy an assortment of pitted olives – kalamata, black and green. With an immersion blender, I blend them up with a small amount of olive oil. this past year, I also added a few roasted figs with some sea salt and a bit of fresh rosemary and a splash of high quality balsamic vinegar. It was heavenly!!!!

I can’t wait to go to Yodfat next week (the general store in the village) to sample all of Boaz’s new oils and stock up on this years’ blends. I usually get a large five liter of Barnea and one liter each of the special blend and the Picual. If I figure correctly, it will be enough to last until next years’ harvest. Thank you, Boaz for an amazing experience!!!

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