Israel becoming powerhouse of first-crop olive oil

Several family olive groves in Israel are specialized in first-crop olive oil, a cloudy oil containing very fresh, very strong flavors.

al-monitor A picture taken Oct. 21, 2017, shows olives from millennium olive trees at the Franciscan Hermitage of Gethsemane in the Mount of Olives, just outside of Jerusalem's Old City. Millennium olive trees from this hermitage produce one of the best-quality olive oils in the world, according to specialists.  Photo by THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images.

Topics covered

olive oil, trees, consumers, business, olive trees, galilee

Nov 26, 2020

Neta Degany is busy. The harvest period of olives is expected to stretch out this year through almost two months because of a great variation in ripening, so time is of the essence. More so, most of the future production of Degany family olive oil has already been commissioned way before the olives have been picked off the trees. “This year we will sell almost exclusively only first-crop olive oil. Our customers have placed their orders long ago," Degany tells Al-Monitor.

By customers, she means mostly restaurant owners and chefs, but also simple connoisseurs. She notes that their boutique olive oil has become a product much in demand both locally and abroad, especially the first-crop oil. “Our oil is extracted from olives of the Nabali variety, which is an ancient local one. The Nabali fruits produce less oil than other varieties, but anyone who appreciates olive oil knows that the taste of the oil extracted from Nabali trees is really exceptional," she explains.

The Degany olive orchard is located at the foot of the Tel Gezer archaeological hill. It is very spacious, with relatively few trees per dunam. This way, each tree gets light from all directions and can also make better use of rainwater. Degany says that they do not irrigate their trees and do not use any fertilizers or pesticides. Everything is natural. The customers obviously love that.

Iddo Pinkas is also an olive oil enthusiast. Iddo and his two brothers run the family grove at Karmei Yosef village. Iddo is a scientist at the Weizmann Institute, his brother Erran is a career air force officer and Assaf comes from the high-tech world. “In 1988, having lost our parents to cancer, we — the three brothers — decided to continue running the family farm as a way of keeping together," Iddo tells Al-Monitor. They too, he says, offer first-crop olive oil.

“First-crop or first-pressed is the unofficial reference to olive oil that is freshly milled. It’s a unique product, as it is packed and sold immediately as it comes out of the olive oil mill," Iddo says. But what exactly makes this first crop so special? He explains that this oil is not filtered. “The milling process with its high-quality centrifugation is not enough to remove all the particulates from the olive juice. And so, you get a cloudy oil that contains the freshest flavors produced by the olive." In other words, those who buy the first-crop oil would usually use it quickly to enjoy it at its best.

“Over a long period of time — three or four months — chemical reactions would take place, slowly degrading the virgin olive oil. In order to get the full 18 months or so of shelf life, we need to remove the particles responsible for these chemical reactions, and this is done by filtration. The product is a clear oil rather than the cloudy one that is gathered directly out of the mill in the first press," explains Iddo. He says they sell the first-pressed oil until February or March and then switch to the filtered oil.

The Pinkas brothers fell so deeply in love with olive oil that they decided a few years ago to have their own mill alongside the original grove. “Our mill serves for milling the olives from our own groves, but we provide this service also to our neighbors. Over the years we found out that we have not only constituted a circle of loyal customers for our oil, but also for our mill. The same farmers show up year after year to have their olives pressed by us.”

Talking with several olive oil producers, one gets the impression it’s not just a business but almost a life mission. And it's more than often a family affair. Such is also the case at Rish Lakish. A family press situated in the ancient village of Zippori in the Lower Galilee, it’s an environmentally friendly farm that also offers organic vegetables and with its own water-purification system. It even produces olive oil-based cosmetics.

"We started producing olive oil 20 years ago. In excavations conducted in ancient Zippori, archaeologists found ceramic pots from the Neolithic period thousands of years ago with traces of olive oil. One of the oldest olive-oil-presses in the world was discovered near Haifa, also in the north of Israel. So our region is truly where the olive culture was born, and the most befitting place to continue the olive tradition. In our press, we produce olive oil from eight different varieties, including first-crop oil. This year we also produced, for the first time in Israel, Anpikanon — which is the Talmudic name of an oil produced from olives that have not yet reached one-third of their growth. In the ancient times, this bitter, luxurious oil was essentially used for cosmetics and medicine,’’ recounts Ayala Noy Meir of Rish Lakish.

Uri Yogev, head of the Olive Branch of the Plant Council, explains that the Israeli olive oil industry is divided into two sorts. The first is dryland farming, which consists of about 240,000 dunams in the Galilee region in the north of the country. The second is some 80,000 dunams of irrigated olive trees all over Israel. Together these groves produce 15,000 tons of olive oil, most of it of very high quality and sold online.

Yogev says that one of the major tasks of his department is guaranteeing the origins of the oil to distinguish Israeli-made olive oils from those imported. “Contrary to the imported oil, most of which is aged one year or more, Israeli-made olive oil is fresh. To the Israeli consumers, I say, it is now the time to buy the first-crop oil directly from the press without it being filtered and with strong and unique flavors. That’s a privilege of our local consumers — buying newly produced, Israeli-made oil!"

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