In Israel, fall is olive season. Local markets fill with olives – uncured – ready to be brined and preserved for eating over the next year. Most importantly, olives are pressed for their oil, each variety of olive with its own flavor profile. The new oils of the season from the first pressings are richly green, with a strong taste, the perfect oil for drizzling on salads and roasting vegetables, a plate of hummus or creamy, labane cheese.
How do you know that your olive oil is any good? Well, judging from a recent scandal in Israel, it isn’t always straightforward. The discount Rami Levy grocery chain recently pulled oil from the shelves that originated in Spain and Greece and wasn’t intended for human consumption – it was filtered in Israel, then sold to the store. Consumers were horrified but demand for increasingly cheaper olive oil has driven stores to purchase from Europe where government subsidies enable growers to make a living and sell their product cheaply in the marketplace.
There are also the politics of olive oil, as some West Bank farmers attempt to access their trees – often only with special permission – in order to pick and process the fruit of their trees for primarily home use.
What’s a consumer to do? Consider spending more and supporting smaller growers – someone whom you can actually visit and see their operation for yourself – one of the many small, and often organic, olive oil producers in Israel who are dedicated to preserving this ancient livelihood, and some of whom export their fine oils.
The Makura team – Orna, her husband Guy and their adult son, Stav – have been growing, harvesting and producing olive oil for the past 30 years on Moshav Kerem Maharal, not far from the historic town of Zichron Yaakov. Twenty two years ago, they trained and received organic certification, part of a 2-year process of restoring the health of the product being grown. “Most people think that olives are grown organically…but they are not,” explains Orna. Growing olives organically, she says, means the product is truly healthy, and that the process does not cause ill effects to the air, the groundwater, as well as the farmer — a real concern of theirs — something that chemical sprays do.
They produce about 50 tons a year from about 300 dunam, or about 75 acres of olive trees, and while interest in quality oils is up, something that the Russian immigration to Israel of the early 90’s helped, prices are down due to stiff competition from many small producers. The Relov’s recently bought a new olive press, so that they could fiddle with the taste and strength of the end product. Their oils are made from eight varieties of olives that grow on their land, including Syrian, Nabali, Greek, Italian and Spanish varieties, and are only cold-pressed. They also brine and preserve Syrian and Calamata olives for eating. Make sure to buy a jar for eating at home after sampling and tasting the Syrian olive oil and the other varietals for sale – they’re excellent. Makura sells to small health food stores as well as some of the larger grocers interested in bringing high quality, reputable olive oil to their consumers.
Leave yourself time to walk over to the Amphorae winery next door, taking time to admire the vista – mountains, trees, rocks and grape vines – along with the magnificent aged-brick building which puts you in mind of Tuscany, or the Napa Valley depending on your reference point. The winery, which was established in 2000, makes about 60,000 bottles a year, all for local drinkers, who visit and take part in seasonal festivals. Take a seat indoors at one of the rough-hewn, wood tables, or while away the time outside admiring the lush gardens with a glass of their excellent rose in your hand.