Olive Oil – It’s a Slick Business

1 Dec

Let’s announce the bare essentials about myself and my family before I delve into my first blog:

In August 2011, three months ago, Pnina and I and my twin girls, Romy and Maya, age 13, decided to return to Israel after having lived in the Los Angeles for 32 years.  Michelle, 27, my oldest daughter who married last summer, and Vanessa, 25, my little one, remained in the U.S.  More about the move to Israel in future writings, but now, let’s get back to the subject at hand: olives.

There’s an olive tree outside my bedroom window.  If I lean far enough and extend my arm, I could grasp the leaves, the branches.  This lonesome tree is what’s left of an entire olive grove that once grew here.  Six years into the building boom in Israel, groves and orchards are being razed to the ground to make room for new houses in my new village: Kfar Tavor.

In 2005 Pnina and I stood in front of the olive grove with Mr. Nahum, the landowner.  Trees extended in every direction, spaced at even intervals like soldiers at roll call.  The gray-green leaves flickered against the blue sky.  Nahum, a longtime Kfar Tavor farmer with hands as rough as sandpaper, walked the length and breadth of the property, stamped his heel in each of the four corners to mark its dimensions.  “You’re the first to buy,” he’d hollered from behind a tree trunk.  “There will be more coming.  Soon.”

The next day we signed on the dotted line, handed him our dollars and weeks later we were the proud owners of dozens of olive trees planted in the heavy, terra-rosa soil.

The bulldozer came next.  The trees were uprooted.  Some were replanted elsewhere, others Nahum sold to landscaping companies who turned around and sold them at a premium to city slickers who wanted the “country feel” in their back yard.  Next, a cement mixer rolled in and poured foundations to the house.  Blocks were laid.  Windows were installed, paint was splashed on the walls, tile went in the kitchen.  A year later, in 2006, the house was complete.  The house stood as an island surrounded by a sea of olive trees.  But not for long.  Within 4 years all were gone.  Roads were paved.  Street lights went up.  Kfar Tavor, a sleepy village for 100 years, joined the building craze.

If you’ve ever seen an olive tree, its trunk is gnarly, poked with crevices and holes.  The fruit, yes, the olives are a fruit, a distant cousin to plums and cherries, cling to every branch by the hundreds, by the thousands.  They’re green, hard as rock.  During the summer months they ripen to dark green, purple and black.

Then comes October and November – the beginning of the harvest frenzy.

Olive oil is big business in the Middle East and throughout the Mediterranean.  It traces back to antiquity.  Roman and Greek men wrestled and bathed in it, attributed medicinal qualities to it.  Even Christ, from Greek Christos, meaning the “anointed one” – anointed in olive oil, could not resist its power.

Where there’s money there’s crime.  Olive oil is no exception.  A 2007 article in the New Yorker uncovered the slick methods Italians use to promote the “Extra Virgin” mystic.  In fact, much of the olive oil is adulterated.  It’s blended with cheaper oils such as hazelnut, canola and sunflower-seed.  The process is so sophisticated — colors and dyes are added — that few can detect the fraud.  These inferior oils are loaded on tankers in Turkey and shipped to Italy.  There the oil is mixed with olive oil.  Pure, extra virgin olive oil costs about $30 per bottle.

What do you think you’re getting for $8 at your grocery store?

This disturbing revelation prompted Pnina to go after the olive pickers in and around our village and insist on the real thing.  Picking olives is very labor-intensive.  Jewish landowners search everywhere for available help.  It’s a race against time.  If the olives stay too long on the trees, they over-ripen, rot, fall to the ground.  The typical Israeli farmer has 2 kids.  Few of the kids pitch in.  They’d rather go out partying or be on Facebook.  It’s a slight exaggeration but the point is that there’s hardly any nice Jewish boys to do the work.

In the past, Jewish farmers relied on Arabs from the West Bank.  But now that the wall is up and security is tight, this source of manpower is gone.  Arabs living in Israel are runners-up.  There are other solutions, too.  In come the Boys from Sudan.  Sudan?  Yes, those refugees you hear about from Darfur somehow cross the Egyptian Sinai, trek up to Galilee and are sometimes seen climbing up olive trees.  Thai and Chinese men make up the rest.  I’ve seen them slurping noodles during their lunch break in the fields.

The Arab landowners, on the other hand, are proud and traditional; they rely on no one but their own.  Everyone’s enlisted to the cause: elementary, high-school and university kids are pulled from classrooms, mechanics are pulled from under cars, wives are released from the kitchen, and old men give up on strong coffee and cigarettes and lend a hand.  Two hands.  They first spread a giant canvas or tarp at the foot of the tree.  They use a wide-toothed comb-like tool to “comb” the branches.  It’s not unlike a mother using a comb to pull lice from her daughter’s hair.  The olives, dark and big now, fall to the blanket below like raindrops.

The bounty is collected in large sacks where they’re assembled by the roadside and transported to the oil-press plant.  The olives mustn’t stay in the sacks for long, especially on warm days, or they’d risk fermentation.  It’s a fruit, remember?

Two weeks ago we were fortunate to witness the making of olive oil in Daburiyyah, an Arab village just down the road from Kfar Tavor.  We drove past the village mosque and its minaret, past narrow streets and a warren of houses until we reached a clearing alongside — you guessed it — an olive grove.  The oil-press is housed under corrugated roof and closed on three sides.  During the harvest season it’s open day and night.  People eat, drink, smoke, and take turns sleeping.  Cars and trucks pull up.  Men start to unload their sacks.  The women, dressed in head coverings, watch over the sacks like hens over their brood.  It’s going to be a long wait.

The first order of business is to dump the thousands of olives into a conveyor belt.  The belt whisks the olives and the errant leaves into a cold bath.   Then the rinsed olives are poured into a large vat where two to three men sort through them, disposing of the leaves.  A lever is pulled and the olives drop to ground level.  Next the olives make their way into the oil-press machine, Italian-made, of course, where they’re crushed by sheer weight and force.  It’s noisy but not ear-shattering, more like a constant hum.  The air smells peppery.  On the other end of the machine, the family patriarch guards over the spout.  The spout pours the milky-green oil into a stainless steel sink.  It’s an even, steady flow.  No one’s in a rush.  The oil drains from the sink to a plastic funnel.  The oil trickles into an awaiting Jerrican on the ground.

I walk to the back of the oil-press structure.  A wide ventilation pipe sticks out from the wall, blows olive leaves in the wind like confetti.  The leaves will be picked up later and dumped.  A man seated in a tractor scoops up mounds of green-brown slush from the ground and forms a large pile at the end of the yard.  “What is it?” I ask him between engine roars.  He tells me it’s the leftover sludge from the olive skin, the pits, anything that wasn’t crushed to oil.  He explains the enormous paste has many uses.  Animal feed is one.  Many years ago, they formed bricks from the dry waste and threw them in the fireplace.  The oils in the bricks burned and warmed their homes.  “Now we turn on the heater, instead,” he says.

I return to the oil-press.  It’s time to buy the real thing.  Pnina’s sister, Dalia, and her husband, Hezi, accompany us and introduce us to the Arab farmer they trust.

“How much does he want for a Jerican of olive oil?” Pnina asks Dalia.

“Typically, six hundred Shekels.  But Hezi advises him on how to raise his chickens.  He’ll take five hundred.”

Pnina hands him the money happily.  It takes her but a few seconds to do the math.  A bottle at the market is 750ml (same as a bottle of wine).  The Jerrican contains about 20 bottles.  It comes to $6.75 each.

“Taste it,” the Arab farmer tells us, and motions us to a chair on which there’s a plate with his olive oil, fresh goat cheese and pita bread.

I’m the first to taste.  The peppery, bitter flavor is inescapable.  It burns the throat mildly, in a good way.  I tell him: “At the grocery store the oil is clear.  Yours is cloudy.”

“The grocery store stuff is not olive oil,” he chuckles.  “Why do you think they put it in green bottles?  To fool you.”  He gestures to the Jerrican in my hand.  “In time the sediments will sink to the bottom.  It’s like wine.  In three weeks time the oil will clear up, turn milder.”

We say good-bye, smiles all around.  The Extra Virgin Olive Oil slushes in the trunk of our car as we drive home.  Once alone in the bedroom, I ask Pnina, “Do you want to wrestle in olive oil?”

13 Responses to “Olive Oil – It’s a Slick Business”

  1. Rachel Canon December 1, 2011 at 6:56 pm #

    Very interesting. Good to hear from you, Maurice. Keep it up!

    • mauricelabi December 2, 2011 at 8:10 am #

      Hi Rachel, I meant to write to you earlier but got bogged down with unpacking America and shoving it into an Israeli house…

  2. yuda A. December 1, 2011 at 9:40 pm #

    Very nice indeed. keep writing !

  3. Avi December 1, 2011 at 11:24 pm #

    Hi Maurice. Great article!

    Indeed, what we buy in the store is not olive oil. I heard 100% olive should cost as much as $70 – $80 a bottle in California.

    When my brother in-law (in the Galil) takes his olives to be pressed, he insists on stand inside to ensure that what they give him back is made of 100% of what he takes in. These folks in the villages are experts at skimming some of the loot and replacing it with fake stuff… This is something to keep in mind when you deal with these guys.

    Also, it is somewhat sad to hear that farming the land has become the work of illegal workers. It follows the same trend we have seen in the USA. I suppose young Israelis would much rather spend their time protesting in Tel Aviv. Naturally, Israelis cannot compete with this supply of cheap illegal laborers from Africa. Israelis will undoubtedly demand better pay and better treatment, which will drive the costs. On the other hand it will reduce the social costs of unemployment and welfare.

    • mauricelabi December 2, 2011 at 8:08 am #

      Yes, Avi, farming is a complex issue. Food is the most basic need, yet growing it doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

  4. rachel bar December 2, 2011 at 4:19 am #

    So I see that you figured it out all by yourself! Nice start! I don’t care to know about harvesting olives but you wrote beautifully!

    • mauricelabi December 2, 2011 at 8:07 am #

      Thanks, Rachel. I’ll try and find a topic that’s dear to your heart next time

  5. Vanessa Labi December 2, 2011 at 6:00 am #

    I’m dying to try the real stuff now that you’ve exposed my green-bottled impostor oil! Great job, Dad, fascinating stuff.

    • mauricelabi December 2, 2011 at 8:05 am #

      Maybe green bottles should not be used for olive oil? Shampoo, anyone?

  6. Meg McIntyre December 4, 2011 at 6:49 am #

    Hi Maurice:

    Good to hear from you. Wonderful sense of place/time – felt like I was there with you – & LOVED finding out how true olive oil is made. No more “gee, it’s Italian – it must be 100%” for me.

    Glad to know you/your family are settling in. Looking forward to eye-sharing your next adventure.

  7. Pnina December 4, 2011 at 10:21 am #

    Hey -this is good!

  8. daphna December 6, 2011 at 1:43 am #

    Hi Morris,
    Fun to hear from you,
    The truth is that Olive oil deteriorates more rapidly when exposed to light, heat, and air so it is best stored in a dark bottle. It should be stored like wine in a low, cool, dark cupboard, or in the refrigerator if you use it infrequently―never next to the stove. If you buy oil in a clear glass, it is best wrapped in foil.
    If you buy in bulk: you can pour it into a clean dark wine bottles.

    I am sure your neighbor knows better 🙂

    Nice to hear from you


  9. Jennifer Avventura September 21, 2012 at 11:02 am #

    Great blog! I’ve just subscribed to your posts! Found you through WP’s Expat Blog post. Looking forward to learning more about your life.

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