Expanding the olive branch in Israel

The 13th annual Olive Branch Festival sheds light on new initiatives in an ancient Galilean olive industry.

olives 88 (photo credit: )
olives 88
(photo credit: )
"Thou shalt have olive trees throughout all thy borders"Deuteronomy 28:40 In the Galilee, the olive branch is not just a symbol of peace, but a catalyst for peace. Olive is the traditional crop of the Mediterranean basin, and northern Israel is home to Israel's olive oil industry, with olive groves dotting the landscape. The olive binds the different cultures represented there: Druse, Christian, Muslim and Jewish, for whom the production of olive oil is an ancient and modern art and science. Olive oil has been a family affair for centuries among Arab families in Israel, with families pressing their own oil in their backyard. Ancient Jewish tradition is dripping with allusions to olive oil. Olive oil was used to anoint Israeli kings and to light the menorah. With the olive season under way in the north, the Israel Olive Oil Board and the Galilee Development Authority are holding their 13th annual Olive Branch Festival until November 11 to celebrate the historic versatility of the fruit; the growing sophistication of olive oil production in Israel and the cultural tolerance that the olive fosters. While some themed events simply tack on the word "festival" as a marketing device, the Olive Branch Festival promises to be a bona-fide educational and gastronomic event for the whole family, with an array of activities, workshops, tours and special treats. A sneak preview of the festival offered insight into the culture, production, trade and health benefits of the olive and its derivatives. HANANIAH OLIVE RANCH Since its founding 10 years ago, the Israel Olive Board has sought to revolutionize the olive oil industry in Israel - to set quality control standards and raise the Israel's worldwide reputation in the field. The board's quality assurance label printed on local olive oils means that the oil has passed its laboratory tests. Some olive oils sold at stores can be diluted with other oils. "Always look for the label of the Israel Olive Board on the olive oils you buy," advises Amin Hasan, director of the Israel Olive Board, from his headquarters at the Hananiah Ranch, northeast of the Kinneret. Hasan, 51, a Druse resident of Sajur, has experienced firsthand the wonders of olive oil as a social lubricant among Arabs and Jews. He served in the Israeli security forces for 17 years before trading in his gun for the olive branch. In 2002, he lost his daughter to a terrorist attack on a bus at the Meron junction. Despite his personal loss to Palestinian terror, he is proud of "the good cooperation with the PA and Israel in the olive field." The board works with the Palestinian Authority to improve olive oil production in the West Bank, where olive oil production, mostly by traditional methods, reaches five times that of Israel. There are over 900,000 dunams of olive groves in the West Bank, compared to Israel's 220,000 within the green line. Israel produces about 9,000 tons of olive oil annually, almost half the amount it consumes. Hasan has another source of pride: "I succeed in bringing Jews to their roots, which is the olive branch." EIN CAMONIM DAIRY & OLIVE PRESS Amiram Ovrutsky, owner of the family-run Ein Camonim dairy and olive press, is one of the first Jews to revive Jewish olive production in the north, but before embarking on his olive path, he took a wrong turn. When he first settled in Galilee in 1979, he imported Barbary ducks, a delicacy in France, for commercial purposes. "It was a failure," said Ovrutski, 75. Ovrutski is a sabra, but his parents are from Russia. "We needed something else to do that would support a small family." He observed the potential of his land for olive groves and goat farming, and he and his family turned to cheese and olive oil production. "The Polish Ashkenazim only broke into the industry about 25 years ago." They started with labane, and today Ein Camonim produces a rich variety of delectable cheeses which they sell at a shop on the premises and serve in a charming outdoor café as part of a country-inspired meal. Ein Camonim's delicious olive oil is produced in a nearby press where olives are ground on millstone in the traditional way and modern equipment is used to extract the oil. Olive press demonstrations will be offered to the public during the festival. SABA HAVIV OLIVE OIL AND SOAP Not far from Ein Camonim at Kibbutz Parod, the Haviv family sells its award-winning olive oil named after "Saba Haviv" or "Grandpa Haviv." Haviv started making his mark as a soapmaker in 1913. The story goes that families would give the young boy their personal olive oil, and he'd use it in his soap. Haviv means "pleasant" in Hebrew, and that word aptly describes the Haviv family, a Christian clan consisting of Haviv's six grandsons and a granddaughter, who together run the business. The pride in their tradition and their hospitality comes through in their friendly demonstrations and explanations. At their visitors' center, the 26-year-old Wahil often gives lectures on the uses and health properties of olive oil. As he speaks, the tehina press crushes sesame seeds into tasty, organic raw tehina paste. For NIS 25, visitors can buy a jar of tehina paste made right here. During the festival, booths will be set up at their premises to offer demonstrations of olive curing, jam making and samples of the family's products. Soaps made from Haviv's original recipe are on sale at the family shop in Kibbutz Parod for NIS 10. AYA NATURAL COSMETICS Soap and other skin care products made with olive oil are sold at Aya Natural, a natural cosmetics company headquartered in the Druse village of Beit Jann. It's a winding, uphill road to the rather secluded Beit Jann, home to some 10,000 Druse. But the two founders, Dr. Ziad Dabour, a senior pharmacist, and Jamal Hamoud, a senior chemist, deliberately built their boutique and visitor's center in the village of their birth. "It's difficult for women to work outside the village and we wanted to give employment to married women," explained Hamoud. He employs about a dozen women from the village. Beit Jann is turning towards country hospitality to boost internal employment; at present about 100 guest rooms are available for tourists. Beit Jann has long exploited the benefits of olive oil in preserving and strengthening the skin and body. "In the Druse tradition and in Beit Jann in particular, we wrapped babies in olive oil and myrtle powder for immunization," explained Hamoud. "We wanted to combine pharmaceutical knowledge with tradition." Aya sells its products across Europe and Israel. Most products are 100% natural and biodegradable, made from Galilean olive oil and other essential oils. Their tie to the land of Israel is captured in the name of Aya, which is the Hebrew acronym for "Israel the Beautiful." Olive Branch Festival Hotline: 1-599-50-60-61,www.galil.gov.il/zait. Check with the hotline to find out times and places of events. Ein Camonim: (04) 698-9680 Saba Haviv: (04) 684-9074 Aya Natural: (04) 980-5066, www.ayanatural.com