A Hannukah Olive Oil Miracle

 

 

Balkees in the branches

As you may know, we made plenty of olives this year – green and black – from our beloved Suri olive tree.  But making oil was not on the agenda. Until Balkees pointed out that, to leave the massive amount of olives on our one other tree, of the Barnea variety, would be a shame.  On Tuesday she and her teenage son Fares came over and, for the next five hours we picked the olives off that huge tree.  During that time I had two realizations: 1) picking olives is extremely hard work; and 2) Balkees is happiest in the top branches of an olive tree. 

On Thursday, we loaded up our cardboard boxes full of olives into the car, picked up Balkees and Fares, and drove to the village of Arrabe, near Sakhnin, to the press.  We chose this press for two reasons – 1) because it is the end of the season, most of the presses are already closed, and those that are still working will only take massive quantities. Even though we only had the equivalent of about 2 sacks, the press in Arrabe agreed to take us.  2) This particular press, in addition to operating a modern, industrial style milling system, is one of the last in the Galilee that still has the old-style millstone and press set-up.  This was something I have long wanted to see.

When we got there, we had a number of surprises.  1) weighing our olives, we found that we’d picked 95 kilos! (our most extravagant estimate was 70);  2) They will only operate the stone press if you have at least 300 kilos.  But undaunted, we poured our olives in the hopper, watched as the twigs and leaves were washed away and the fruit was crushed into a purple slurry (particular to black Barnea olives), and then positioned our jerrycan at the spigot where the oil comes out. 

  

into the hopper

 
  weighing the olives
 

Feeling optimistic, Ron had brought an 18-liter jerrycan with us.  And as we watched in amazement, not only did the jerrycan fill up entirely, but the owner of the press had to bring us 3 empty 1.5 liter soda bottles to contain the rest.  We hadn’t dreamed that we’d get so much oil from our work on this single tree!

Of course, as we were watching this, on what happened to be the third night of Hannukah, the parallel was inescapable.  Here was oil that was miraculously extending beyond all expectations.  And in the joyful atmosphere at the press, this was the best holiday spirit that anyone could ask for!

18 liter jerrycan

fresh Hannukah oil

Olive Harvest 2008

Every year, come Fall, we happily take part in the Galilee olive harvest ritual.  Until this year, this meant picking several buckets of olives – mostly green and one or two black – and curing them for our own and our friends’ enjoyment.  This year, however, we decided to be ambitious and make our own olive oil. 

Ron and our friend Tzvika scouted out potential trees in our respective villages – Alonei Aba and Bet Lehem Haglilit, and found several of the “Suri” variety which is considered to produce the most flavorful olives and oil.  Over 4 days Ron and Tzvika did most of the picking but my friend Miriam and I helped, joined by another friend Ruth.  Starting out first thing in the morning, we spread large plastic tarps under the trees to collect the olives, which we tried to pick efficiently without damaging the trees.  It is common in these parts to whack the branches with a long stick to bring down the fruit, a practice we do not subscribe to. 

The time between picking and going to the press is critical, as are the storage conditions during the interim period.  We kept our olives spread out in a thin layer in a shed near Tzvika’s carpentry workshop – dry and aerated.   On the appointed day we collected all the olives into 12 sacks  and set off for the village of Iksal at the foothills of Nazareth, to the press. 

group1

There are dozens of presses scattered around the Galilee and during the season, they work around the clock. At our press there is a festive atmosphere in the cavernous industrial space as each person in turn spills their olives into the hopper and watches as they enter the complex of machinery.  We load our 12 sacks onto a scale and are amazed to see 450 Kilos registered on the screen. 

After about 45 minutes of washing, pressing and separating, the fresh oil pours out in a lovely green stream into the waiting jerrycan.  Such suspense leading up to this moment!  How much oil will we get?  We bought 4 yellow plastic jerrycans – each holding 17 liters.  To our amazement, we needed to bring a 5th one. 

me-w-jerrycan

All in all, 72 liters of oil – enough for each of us for an entire year.  Pungent and aromatic, the oil is now settling in our basement and soon we will transfer it into glass bottles. 

We still found time to prepare a few buckets of olives and this year, Ron’s black olives cured in salt are the hit in our house.  Our friend Mahmoud Nassar taught us to add an herb called “paygam” (in English, African Rue) to the black olives which, in spite of its noxious smell, brings out a delightful flavor.