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The Joys of Olives

By Dr Jehad Al-Omari

Here in Jordan, the olive harvest and processing season is well into its first month with just under two months remaining of hard work, family solidarity and nostalgia. At the beginning of October, the government announced the opening times of its olive-pressing factories. A few days ago, the Ministry of Religious Affairs announced the Zakat rates* on olives grown across Jordan.

The olive season is celebrated across the Levant. In Jordan it is also the season for pomegranates which are largely grown in the northern regions of Jerash, Ajloun and Koorah. However, whereas the pomegranate has a special festival every year, the humble olive, which is far more important historically, culturally and economically, does not; maybe because every household, especially in the north of Jordan, has its own private festival! Several years ago, I was managing a workforce of nearly 140 semi-skilled workers in southern Amman. Many came from the north. We had to make a roster for them to go home and help their families pick olives - what we call “Frat Az-Zeitoon”. It’s a labour-intensive process, requiring the collaboration of all members of the family, even though it is becoming more mechanized.

The bulk of olives being picked these days are mainly for pickling rather than pressing, although some would prefer their oil pressed this early so that they can get the almost phosphorescent green colour and the sharp, bitter taste. So, shops in Jordan now abound with freshly-picked olives which households will start pickling for their yearly supply of olives. The olives are mainly pickled in brine with lemons; some add hot chillies. Some like their olives crushed before being pickled whereas others will prefer that they are simply crossed with a knife at either end of the olive. Some go a step further: once the olives are reasonably pickled they will take out the stones and add chunks of crushed walnuts, carrots and possibly hot chillies. However, stuffed olives as one would see in Western restaurants are too fancy for Levantine Arabs and rarely, if ever, eaten.

The olive is an acquired taste, just like caviar, blue cheese and anchovies. Personally, I could never get the hang of anchovies! I like my olives to taste bitter, as they usually do during the first few months of pickling. By the year’s end they become almost tasteless. To circumvent this, industrial pickle establishments will keep the olives refrigerated and pickle them on demand. The majority of pickled olives on offer in Western supermarkets do not compare with the home-made pickled olives of the Levant. They lack that strong bitter kick as well as the lemony, spicy taste. In my early days in the UK, how I missed that taste.

The olive tree is Mediterranean in origin and can be found across the region. However, it is a holy tree in the Levant; it is mentioned no less than seven times in the Koran. In the story of Noah in the Old Testament, it was an olive branch that was brought by the dove to indicate the end of the flood. Universally, the olive branch is associated with Peace; many national flags and emblems include it. In his speech at the United Nations in 1974, the late Yasser Arafat began by stating that he came holding an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun and beseeched the world not to let the olive branch fall from his hand. For most Palestinians in the West Bank today, the olive tree is not only a source of livelihood but a symbol of resistance especially against marauding settlers who frequently plunder Palestinian land, burning or uprooting olive trees. Below is a photo of a woman clutching an olive tree before it is uprooted by Israeli occupying forces.

Within the Levant, olive oil is an essential part of the cuisine and is present in almost every conceivable dish. Not only that, but most Levantines believe strongly in the medicinal benefits of olive oil in more ways than I can hope to describe. We have a saying that states that “olive oil is like nails to knees” suggesting that it is excellent for all kinds of joint ailments whether it is consumed orally or rubbed on the affected areas. Moreover, people believe that it is good for the hair and much better and more natural than modern hair treatments. My 90-year old father swears by it; he believes that his lifetime usage of olive oil on his hair has been the prime reason for him not going bald. Others believe that it is good for the heart, and I know several people who will swallow a couple of teaspoons every morning believing that it will prevent certain ailments.

Olive oil comes in a variety of qualities, flavours and colours. Some believe that the best comes from the West Bank especially the northern parts. Others, me amongst them, believe that northern Jordanian olive oil when cold-pressed can compete with the best in the world. In the case of hot-pressed olive oil, the olives are heated to nearly 60 degrees Celsius before being pressed. This increases the yield but at the expense of more acidity in the olive oil. Without going into too much technical detail, cold-pressed olives result in a smoother, less bitter yield which is more to my liking. Heating olives rather destroys the delicate taste of the oil but most Jordanians do not mind it.

A hundred years ago all olive oil produced across the Levant used traditional techniques. It was cold-pressed but with the mechanization of production it became hot-pressed. Only in the last few years has cold-pressing become fashionable again. Jordanian producers have recognized that to export to the European Union, they need low-acidity, cold-pressed oils to compete successfully with the Italians and Spanish. Secondly, Jordanians have become more refined in their tastes, preferring minimal rates of acidity and interference, and a return to traditional ways. But this is not all. There are those who prefer phosphorescent green oil where others prefer yellow. When the olives are pressed early they are not fully ripe and the oil is green. There are those who prefer to wait till the olives turn dark brown or grey and begin to fall off the tree before they are pressed. In our family we normally wait till the beginning of December before pressing; the trees are well-watered by rain and the olives are dark grey. The resulting oil is either yellow or yellowy- green.

Most olive groves in Jordan are small to medium-sized allotments and are family-owned rather than commercial enterprises. Typically, the family will grow the olives for its own use and only sell the surplus. Our family saves little by growing our own olives instead of buying them from our cousins but the sense of joy and pride in consuming one’s own olive oil is huge. It reminds us of our farming roots. Moreover, olives do not require much care in comparison to other fruit-bearing trees and are largely non-irrigated or what we call Baal. Baal was the Canaanite “god” of rain, wind, lightning, seasons and so on. It was the Phoenician Canaanites who first sailed from the Levantine shores to colonise many of the lands around the Mediterranean; it is said that they brought the olive tree to Spain.

An important ritual for olive growers is taking their harvest to the olive press factory. There they socialise with others awaiting their turn for the pressing, comparing notes both on the quantity and the quality of the yield. Typically, they will bring some bread with them to have first taste of their freshly-pressed oil. They will publish photos on social media of the oil flowing out of a spout. At this stage the oil is rather murky with olive dregs. It takes a few weeks for the dregs to settle at the bottom of the container (mainly made from tin and weighing approximately 16 kgs). The dregs are usually thrown away but in the West Bank city of Nablus they are used to make the traditional Nablus soap, famous throughout the Arab world as a natural product, superior to modern soaps. What is left over after the olives are pressed, mainly stones and skin, does not go to waste. It is called Jift and is used like wood or coal in traditional stoves; in countries such as Morocco, it is used in the manufacture of glass. It is a rather smelly by-product. You know when you are within a few hundred metres of an olive press factory by the smell whiffing in every direction. The olive tree itself is also famous for its reasonably hard wood. Many ornaments are made from olive wood, especially those sold in the Holy cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. In Jordan, it is used to make a Mihbash which in the old days was used for grinding coffee.

Today Spain and Italy are by far the biggest producers of olive oil in the world ranking 1st and 2nd respectively. According to recent Jordanian media, Jordan is in the top 10, although other available statistics rank it as number 14. Unlike Spain and Italy the olive oil industry in Jordan is still largely family-owned with few large producers. The Spanish word for olive in Spanish is aceituna and for olive oil aceite de oliva, both deriving from Arabic zeitona and zeit, suggesting that the predominance of the olive in the Spanish way of life and economy was mostly established as a result of the Arab Conquest from the seventh to the fifteenth centuries CE. One of my fondest memories dates back many years ago when I was on holiday in Spain. I was driving back from the mountainous area of Ronda to Malaga, and I stopped at a bar on the edge of an olive grove. It was such a dark place that I almost decided against the idea when the owner offered to lay a table for me under an olive tree in the adjacent grove which I accepted eagerly. The meal I was offered consisted of bread, cheese, tomatoes, olives and olive oil which so reminded me of the Levant with its simplicity. I was also delighted to discover on the outskirts of Granada local people dipping their bread in olive oil and then sugar just as we used to do as children in Jordan.

Talking of dips, the most important Levantine dip besides hummus is what we call Zeit wu Zaatar. This combines zeit (olive oil) with zaatar - rubbed thyme leaves mixed with sumac, roasted sesame seeds and a pinch of salt. This dip is common across the Levant with varying family recipes. It almost universally eaten at breakfast but also sometimes for dinner. Westerners who have lived long enough in the Arab world will know well Manaqeesh which is a Levantine pizza made of bread and Zeit wu Zaatar eaten hot and traditionally consumed with very sweet tea.

The olive season is also celebrated by Jordanians and Palestinians with two traditional dishes. Musakkhan (literally means heated) is indisputably the Palestinian national dish. It is made from large pieces of bread sprinkled with olive oil, fried onions and sumac, and with fried chicken on top, arranged in layers and heated in the oven.

The other dish is the pride of north Jordan and is called Makmoorah. This is made from thin layers of dough, each one sprinkled with onions and layered on top of one another with uncooked chicken or meat between every few layers and also placed in the oven for a couple of hours. Both dishes use copious amounts of olive oil and are therefore very heavy. So they are usually consumed with fresh live yoghurt which is believed to soften the impact of these otherwise stodgy meals.

As we say in Arabic Sahtain wu Afieh - Health and Nourishment!

*Zakat is a type of alms-giving to the poor and is one of the five pillars of Islam. It takes the form of a percentage of value above a certain threshold. This year, the Ministry advised Jordanians that the minimum weight above which the Zakat is due is 611 kgs of olives. Zakat can be paid either in cash or in produce (olives in this case). They differentiate between irrigated olives and those which are not-irrigated; the rate for the former is half that of the latter.


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