Land of Olives

Artisan, Jordan
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Rolling countryside near Jerash, full of olive trees.

It’s the tail end of olive oil pressing season here in Jordan. What traditionally begins with the first big rain (in early September this year) which cleans the olives from the summer’s dust, and continues until mid-December (or until all of the olives are pressed).  After my tour of a large-scale oil pressing factory, I had hoped to include in my post a comparison of new vs. traditional methods, but alas, I’m told tat the old school presses only still exist over in Palestine.

When you think of olive oil do you first think of Italy, Spain, Greece, maybe France?  Well, you’d be wrong!  The olive tree was first cultivated in the Greater Syria region (today Jordan, Syria, and Palestine) in 6000 BC and it wasn’t until 3000 BC that traders and sailors took the trees to Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, North Africa as a commodity. Then, in 800 BC – more than 2000 years later, olive trees hit Europe’s shores! So you can say that the olives we get here are the original originals.

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The tanakeh.

Olive oil is shrouded in all sorts of reverence and mythology here, as not only is the land considered holy, but olive trees are specifically mentioned in the Quar’an. A spoonful of oil in the morning is for good health, an olive branch on the family doorstep as a sign of peace, my vet even asked for our olive oil to clean my sick kitten’s ears and face. Olive oil is used as a lotion, a potion for aches and pains, turned into soap.  Most families here have some amount of land bearing gnarled olive trees, and from that the oil goes into tanakehs, large tins, full of the pale green liquid which are given to family members. We got our tin from my mother-in-law’s trees when we arrived in February. I only just used the last of it….in time for the arrival of our 2015 vintage.

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Piles of olives waiting to be pressed.

In search of more information, I was lucky enough to tour Zaitt Olive Oil press with Tala Saket, who oversees much of the operation, marketing, and business side of her family’s business. South of Amman, down the airport road and located in one of the industrial zones, we pulled up among stacks of hundreds of bags of olives and the many, many farmers who accompanied them. Tala explained to me that farmers from all over the region bring their olives to be pressed for their own consumption….and they watch their crop as it goes through the process, hawkishly, as they seem to think they’re getting short changed with the amount of oil that comes out.

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The bottling facilities.

In addition to providing this service, Zaitt also produces their own brand of olive oil. Tala is passionate about the quality of her family’s oil. Packaging this precious commodity is a relatively new concept here, but for the many expats and visitors without access to those wonderful tanakehs of family oil, her Nabali variety is a special treat, available locally.  In addition, she’s working to set up an NGO to fund organic olive farms and works hard to maintain the various organic certification processes required for exporting her special products to Switzerland, Japan and the US. If you’re curious, in the States you can find Zaitt’s olive oil for sale online under the name Artius.

Pressing oil is a simple process, but there are many variables along the way that produce different end results. First the olives (black and green all go in together) are cleaned and any extra branches are removed, then they’re crushed into something akin to olive tapanade and heated to between 28-30 degrees centigrade which helps to extract the oil. This relatively cool temperature is what classifies Zaitt’s oil as “extra virgin,”  which means the oil has retained more of its freshness thereby maintaining a higher percentage of antioxidant polyphenols. If you crank up the temperature you will likely produce more oil, but the quality will be inferior and the healthy benefits lessened. Once the tapenade has churned for about half an hour, it is moved into a centrifuge where the water and oil are separated, any residue is extracted, and the oil slowly emerges. The husk residue, the pits and any other gunk, is pressed together into small logs which then burn for hours as free fuel in the press’s boilers. Amazing, right? Zaitt’s three lines of presses run in two 12 hour shifts during the autumn olive harvest season. Last year they pressed approximately 200 tonnes!

How best to keep your stash of precious olive oil?  Light, heat, and air are the biggest enemies. Tala strongly recommends decanting your tanakeh of family oil through some cheese cloth to ensure that all of the impurities are removed.  Don’t open your main storage tin more often than you need – decanting into dark colored storage bottles while being sure to keep everything cool.  Seems to me there should be some occasion, some celebration of the olive harvest, much like those that take place during the grape harvest at vineyards, to mark this wonderful, bountiful gift that nature has blessed this region with. Next year, maybe?

 

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