Hanukka recently passed and my thoughts turned to oil – olive oil to be precise. This is because only olive oil can be used in the Hanukkia, the special eight-branched candlestick, one candle more of which is lit each night of the holiday. This usage derives from Jewish history: consecrated olive oil was originally used in the Hebrews’ portable sanctuary (Mishkan), which they carried with them during the Exodus from Egypt.
When the Temple was built in Jerusalem by King Solomon about 1,000 BCE, olive oil continued to be used in the seven-branched Menorah (carried off to Rome by General Titus in 70 CE). The oil was obtained by squeezing the first drop from a great quantity of olives and stored in special containers. It was then consecrated by the Kohanim (priests) to be used exclusively in the Temple.
Olives are primarily cultivated in the Mediterranean region, where 95 percent of the world’s olive trees are located. Spain is the largest producer by far, but my wife Michal and I didn’t have to travel far from home to find a boutique olive oil factory. We buy our olives and olive oil at the Shamna establishment down the road from Alfe Menashe, on Moshav Hagor, a rural, cooperative community. There we met Erez Abramov, whose family immigrated to Israel in 1922 from Russia. In 2004, about 40 years after Erez’ family moved to the moshav, Erez started his olive oil producing company. Erez, whose hobby is building racing cars, designed the machinery to his own, unique specifications and had it made in Italy. Afterwards, he made additional adjustments, in the Israeli tradition of finding ways to make improvements. The manufacturer came to see the changes Erez had made when the equipment produced twice as much as was expected.
We were proudly told that Shamna is the the most productive olive oil producer of its size in the world. Because of the competition from supermarkets, which sell industrially- produced oil at low prices, Shamna olive oils must be sold at a relatively low price. Since olive oil is a commodity, Erez’ equipment was built to economize on production costs. Furthermore, Shamna products are not sold in supermarkets, but only on site. Since there is no middleman, Erez is able to make a profit despite selling Shamna olive oil at reasonable prices. He also sells olive oil to selected restaurants. Shamna is a member of an association of producers which includes about 15 boutiques. Only extra virgin olive oil is produced in the factory, which is located in a small building divided into production and retail sections. Extra virgin, cold press olive oil is the highest quality that can be obtained, and Erez is careful that the olives undergo only one “press” and that no water is added, that no heat is applied to the oil, and that it is unfiltered.
We watched as the olives, which are purchased from area growers, were loaded into the complicated press from large plastic containers. First, the leaves are separated, then the olives are washed and sent to a grinder, minus the pits. A paste, called “pasta,” goes into a mixer for 40 to 45 minutes to open the oil cells, without heating and with no added water. The oil remains on the top with a type of sludge below, which is recycled as fertilizer, cattle feed, or burned in fireplaces and heaters. A thick liquid emerges from the press, which takes two months to stabilize before the flavor matures.
The operation reminded us of a boutique winery. Israeli oil makers like Erez use progressive, hi- tech production methods. In most other places, the olives are picked by hand, which delays production for more than 24 hours. At the Shamna factory the production process is completed in less time – olives arrive in the evening and are made into oil in the morning. The fresh oil is stored in tanks and drums until bottled, protecting it from air and light. Erez’ recipes use specific olives for each of the three blends Shamna sells. Only half-ripe olives are used, producing less bitter oil. We learned that though there are about 1,500 types of olive trees, only about 20 are grown in Israel. Irrigation, weather, and picking times are all factors which differentiate the flavor of each type of olive, resulting in thousands of variations, similar to varieties of wine.
Olive trees grow and strengthen during a one-year period and then produce their fruit in the following year. Olive picking season is in the fall and lasts for only two months.
Besides watching Erez’ ingenious machinery at work, we enjoyed tasting the three types of olive oil, from light to heavy, produced right there, along with a selection of boutique cheeses and olives. We learned that there are various weekend events held during the olive harvesting season … that and being able to buy our olives from this shop down the road are a couple of the many reasons why living in Israel is so special. Many thanks to Yafa, who arranged our tour, for her help and hospitality.
Steve Kramer is an expert in touring Israel and he also blogs for Travelujah. See his new book at www.encounteringisrael.com. People can learn, plan and share their Holy Land tour and travel experiences on Travelujah.