Hilla Wenkert 88 248.
(photo credit: Ilana Epstein )
Israel to me is many things. Most are intangible; more about thoughts and ideas, and much less about stuff. But I believe there are some concrete things I will always associate with Israel; no matter where, no matter what. A Kova Tembel (sunhat) for example - chances are they don't even make them any more, and the last time one was sighted was probably 1978, but in my mind it will always be something intrinsically Israeli. "Scorching hot summers with temperatures and temperaments sky rocketing" - sure, they happen around the world, but they will always be Israel to me. With all due respect to "Moshe Falafel," who makes an incredible falafel from his stand on 42nd St. and 5th Ave in New York's Times Square, eating falafel outside Israel feels slightly sacrilegious.
It is not surprising, then, that as I prepared to meet with Hilla Wenkert - the owner, founder and CEO of boutique olive oil producer Olia - I was prepared for a wholly "Israeli" experience. Boy, was I wrong. It's not that I received an "un-Israeli" experience, it just wasn't what I had grown to expect from an "Israeli experience."
Though I had seen pictures of Olia's neat shelves, and seen and tasted their beautifully packaged items, I still expected some rough and tumble. Perhaps the owner would be a farmer who, while we talked, would say little while contemplating each answer slowly, deciding whether my questions were worth answering, or - if he were more comfortable - picking dirt from under his nails.
Wenkert, like her products, is slick, put-together, articulate and passionate about her business; and olive oil is her new love. She has embraced it as any one of us would embrace, say, Donald Trump's millions landing in our lap: with fervor and dogma.
A graduate of New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, who for the last 20 years has been involved in marketing textiles for some of Israel's top brands, she had had enough of flying around the world, although from each port she would bring back food: soy sauces from the Far East and oils from the Mediterranean.
When the travel took its toll, she gave up her job, jumped into her car and drove North to clear her head, meet friends and figure out what to do next. A farmer friend introduced her to first-pressed extra virgin olive oil, and with one taste, Wenkert was hooked. She began driving from one corner of Israel to the next, finding out everything and anything she could about olive oil: the dozens of different varieties of olives that grow in Israel, the diversity of flavors in each olive, the technique for extracting oil, the health benefits of olive oil and the taste benefits. Once she had amassed as much information as possible, she knew she had a stellar idea on her hands.
Wenkert then gathered a team of professionals, from taste architects to structural engineers, and Olia was born. The Olia olive oil is definitely the queen of the show. With nine different varieties, all the oils are extra-virgin, which means that the oil contains less than one percent acidity. Every single olive that goes into making the oil is picked - none are collected from the ground or shaken down. The carefully picked olives are then taken to a hyper-clean cool environment where they are cold pressed, which extracts only the finest, least acidic oil in the olive, and the process remains cool and collected throughout. The benefit in Olia not owning any olive groves is that the company can pick and choose the variety of olives that go into each oil, designing the exact flavor it's after.
Olia is much more than an olive oil brand - it's an olive brand. In fact, it's a celebration of olives. Aside from the gorgeous, different types of olive oil, it offers olives packaged in brine and tapenades (spreads of crushed olives) flavored with sun-dried tomatoes, parmesan and za'atar. There are even spice rubs and, fascinating to me, personal hygiene products - all derived from olive oil. One can buy moisturizer and conditioner, soap and shampoo, all under the Olia brand name. The shop is nothing short of an olive oil overload.
Please don't get the wrong idea. Olia is much more than a cleverly branded great product. There is true passion behind it. During her travels, Wenkert spent much time as a guest in the homes of Druse and Beduin families, an experience that was one of the driving factors in the Olia store. Wenkert explained how in various Arab homes the table is set with olives, olive oil and za'atar and the oil is called the aruse taula ("the bride of the table"). In Arab homes, the olive garners the same respect as a bride on her wedding day.
When walking into Olia, the table in front of you boasts olives set out in beautiful handmade bowls, and oil set out as if it were whisky in a bar, with nozzles and shot glasses from which to sip. There is fresh bread to dip in the za'atar and tapenades, and every guest is welcome to taste. The store assistants know so much about what they're selling, and they don't mind sharing their knowledge with customers.
In a country where olive trees grow on the side of the road, there has been no tradition of boutique olive oils. It is high time Israel started branding itself, because the sooner we figure out that Israel is more than just sunhats and scorching tempers, the sooner we can get on with living our lives.
Olia, 73 Rehov Frishman, Tel Aviv; Tel: (03) 522-3235; Hours: Sun-Thurs: 9:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m., Fri 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m. www.olia.co.il