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A symbol of excellence, strength and purity, olive oil has long been a part of the Israeli diet. The Bible contains many references to the culinary and religious uses of the olive and its oil. In the Book of Genesis, the dove sent from the ark by Noah returned with an olive branch, thereby making the olive the Western world's symbol of peace.
A variety of Galilee associations band together every year to create the two-week Olive Branch Days festival in celebration of the olive harvest.
The 12th annual festival opened on Tuesday and continues through November 19. It offers a broad range of activities, but those that attract the largest segments of the public are scheduled on its two weekends. Some 40 venues are involved, with activities that highlight all aspects of olive and olive oil cultivation through tastings, tours, lectures, performances and multimedia presentations.
The nerve center for Olive Branch Days is the Hananya Ranch, which is being set up with a registration and information booth. Located near Hananya Junction, the ranch is also host to harvest-themed fairs each Saturday of the festival, with activities for the entire family.
Planners have emphasized that peace has returned to the Galilee. All the area's ethnic groups will be on hand for the celebration of the harvest that reverberates with the biblical era.
In ancient times at this time of year, crushing was done in circular stone basins, when granite rollers turned by animals ground the olives into a paste. Today, olives are crushed by stainless steel "grindstones." The oil is separated from the paste by centrifugal force. This produces olive oil known as first cold-pressed oil; no heat or chemicals have been applied. Five kilos of olives are required to produce one liter of such oil. While in the past some olives were eaten, most were pressed to produce oil for cooking and lighting.
It is the cold-press method that allows olive oil to maintain its flavor, color and nutritional value. In fact, olive oil is the only oil that can be consumed as it is removed from the fruit.
The terms "cold press" and "first press" are similar and were used in the past when pressure applied by hand-powered presses produced only a limited amount of oil from the olive paste. To extract more, hot water was applied to the paste - that's how the terms "cold pressing" and "first pressing" came about. Today, some producers use these terms on their labels to reaffirm that extra virgin olive oil is an unrefined, natural product that has undergone very little processing and will retain its nutritional value.
Following the harvest, the fruit is transported to the press, where the processing begins:
Delivery of the fruit and weighing
Removal of the leaves to prevent a bitter taste
Breaking and milling (whereby the fruit gets ground)
Kneading of the olive pulp
Centrifugal removal of the stones
Collection of oil from the olive pulp
Final separation, when the water is separated from the oil and the oil is cleaned.
OLIVE DAYS offers several events aimed at giving participants a glimpse of all these stages, revealing the intricacies of both the ancient and modern techniques. These include visits to some of the Galilee's premier oil presses, including those at Moshav Yogev, Kfar Hasidim, Kfar Ikhsael and the organic Moshav Tzipori. Some even provide hands-on encounters.
The physical conditions of the mill are very important, with sterility and temperature control determining the final attributes of the oil. Like wine, no two batches of olive oil are alike; each is a unique product of soil, climate and fruit. Oils can be fruity or flowery, delicate or mild, and can range in color from pale green to golden.
Originally, the only way to judge olive oil was by tasting it, but today chemical tests have been developed to determine acidity levels. The lower the acidity the better the oil, although variations in acidity are difficult to taste.
Extra virgin olive oil is the top grade and the most natural and flavorful. It is unprocessed and must have an acidity level of not more than 0.8%. The oil must also have perfect aroma, flavor and color and be free from defects. Extra virgin olive oil is more expensive than other olive oils because it is produced in smaller quantities from select olives and offers the widest range of taste.
Blended oils vary from sweet and mild to bitter and pungent. Oils also vary in how peppery a taste they have, though it is often incorrectly assumed that good olive oil should be very peppery. There are excellent oils in all styles; the choice is a matter of personal preference. Educate your palate and discover new dimensions of the olive over the next two weeks in the Galilee.
For a full schedule of Olive Branch Days activities or to register for events, visit the festival's Web site at www.galil.gov.il/zait or call 1599-506061.