As more people around the world reach for a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil for dressing salads, frying, baking and even drinking, a revived ancient industry in Israel is getting attention in global markets and competitions.
Interest in Israeli olive oil mirrors the burgeoning Israeli wine scene, but it’s a newer phenomenon, says Hilla Wenkert, an international olive-oil judge and owner of Olia, a concept store in Tel Aviv stocked with oils made of Leccino, Coratina, Koroneiki, Souri and other varieties grown in Israel.
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“People started to be more aware of their well-being and the health benefits of olive oil. It started as a trend, and now it’s part of daily life,” Wenkert tells ISRAEL21c.
In the past few years, Israeli land devoted to modern olive groves has increased to some 330,000 dunams (81,000 acres) from a mere 2,000 dunams. Every year, between 15,000 and 16,000 tons of extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) is produced. Only about 1,000 tons get exported – a tiny stream compared to Spanish and Italian oil.
However, at the recent Summer Fancy Food Show in New York, distributors showed much interest in Israeli olive oil, says Wenkert.
“The world is full of Italian, Spanish, Greek, Turkish, Moroccan and Tunisian olive oil, but most of it is lower quality because many people cannot afford the good stuff,” she says.
Israeli EVOO rates as the “good stuff” for which discriminating consumers are willing to pay more. Israel’s growers and oil producers work with agricultural researchers on methods to yield premium unrefined extra virgin. “Virgin” means it comes from the first pressing, while “extra” signifies low acidity, both critical factors in a high-quality oil.
“Virgin oil is a fresh fruit juice, while refined is an industrial product,” says Zohar Kerem, a food chemist specializing in olives at the Hebrew University’s Institute of Biochemistry, Food Science and Nutrition. Though refined oil is cheaper, flavor and health benefits are lost in the process, he tells ISRAEL21c.
‘From the tree to the stone’
Argentinean émigré Moshe Spak decided it’s high time Israeli olive oil got its due.
“Everyone knows about Israeli expertise in other areas, but not about olive-oil quality,” says Spak, founder and director of the Terra Olivo Mediterranean International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition in Israel, founded four years ago.
The 2013 contest, judged by an international panel of 25 expert tasters, drew 489 entries from 21 countries. The overall Israeli champion was a Picholine variety from Meshek Achiya.
Several factors account for the exceptional profile of Israeli olive oil, Kerem explains.
First, most Israeli olives are irrigated with salty (brackish) and purified wastewater. This adds natural fertilizers to the soil and does not compromise the fruit’s quality.
Second, harvesting is completed within the ideal window of October to December. In many other countries, the process goes on through March, when olives are past their prime.
Israeli growers do not store the fruit for long before extracting the oil, abiding by an old Arab aphorism in the industry: “From the tree to the stone.”
“That means when you want to make good olive oil, the sooner you get the detached olives to the mill the better the oil you will get,” says Kerem.
Finally, whereas in most other olive-oil-producing countries only regional native strains are grown, Israel’s farmers learned how to make cultivars from other Mediterranean countries flourish here. Differences between varieties can be vast.
“If you want to be a gourmet, you have one olive oil for salad, one for baking, one for frying and one for cooking,” Kerem says. Scientists from the Ministry of Agriculture’s Volcani Center work on issues such as optimizing the date of harvest to get the specific properties that Kerem’s team is seeking.
Boutique olive farms
Both wine and olive oil were produced in the Middle East thousands of years ago and continued on a small scale to the present day. Israelis have propelled these industries into the modern age with cutting-edge research and technology.
Reuven Birger, the Israel Ministry of Agriculture’s chief specialist for olives and almonds, tells ISRAEL21c that the invention of drip irrigation enabled Israeli farmers to begin planting dense olive groves in the early 1990s. These groves now account for at least 10,000 tons of Israel’s annual supply of olive oil.
“If we depend on rain, each tree needs a lot of area to thrive. More densely planted trees have greater yields,” Birger says.
It takes approximately 1,000 olives to make a liter of oil.
Birger says Israel has several large producers, about 150 boutique producers and at least 100 small farms that sell their olives directly to producer-retailers such as Olia and Pereg. Some of the boutique oils have been picking up prestigious medals at Terra Olivo and at international competitions in Japan and Argentina.
“We have our own specific taste in Israel,” says Wenkert, who likes experimenting with blends. “Compared to, let’s say, Greek or Italian oils that are smooth and fruity and quite aromatic, ours are more pungent and a little more aggressive. I think it’s because of the water, the soil and the specific climate here.”
During harvest time, Wenkert travels around looking for new varieties. Olia’s “library” includes a new mild organic oil for babies and toddlers, as well as a line produced from olives grown by Israeli singing star Yuval Banai, who several years ago began his own farm in the countryside.
Like Banai, Israeli city-dwellers sometimes move north or south to try their hand at agriculture, says Wenkert. Olives are a good choice for first-time farmers because professional expertise is readily available to them.
“People here really have something emotional toward olive trees,” Wenkert observes. “It’s part of their tradition. Even on Tel Aviv roofs, the most popular tree is the olive tree. It’s very symbolic and beautiful.”