By Christian Porth,
Every year from early November until late January, farmers throughout Lebanon engage in the timeless ballet that is the olive harvest. Dating back to the Phoenicians in the 3rd century, the production of olive oil has remained one of Lebanon’s oldest industries. With olive oil a key ingredient in most traditional Lebanese foods, including world famous mezzes, it is no wonder that olive oil production has played such a major role in Lebanese history.
On Saturday a group of roughly 50, a mix of both Lebanese and foreigners, traveled north to the Zghorta region, long renowned for its olives, to celebrate and to catch a glimpse of the past and the present, of tradition and modernity, in the production of olive oil.
The trip was organized by CYCLAMEN, a subsidiary of TLB Destinations – a travel agency that promotes mutual understanding. CYCLAMEN specializes in “educational tourism for school groups, as well as family tourism, agro-tourism and eco-tourism,” according to the group’s Web site.
CYCLAMEN’s objective is to “make citizens aware of, and contribute positively to, the conservation of the natural and cultural heritage of Lebanon.”
Nassim Yaccoub, program manager for CYCLAMEN, said that the organization is also focused on taking a responsible approach to tourism. “We like to emphasize themes of responsibility,” he said. “We don’t do things the Lebanese way – we have insurance which covers us and all our groups.”
Yaccoub explained that the impetus for the trip was to celebrate the start of the olive season, but also to bring Lebanese closer to their heritage.
“It’s the season of the olive harvest and we are promoting it in the villages and throughout Lebanon, so the Lebanese can know more about it and their legacy,” he said.
Arriving in the small village Kfarjachit around noon, the group was greeted by Suleiman Dagher, president of the Syndicate of Inter-professional Lebanese Olive Oil Producers and owner of a traditional press, and promptly taken to his olive fields to witness the harvest.
Dagher said that because of traditional techniques, crop sizes vary from year to year. “Because we use an alternate season method, the harvest yields differ. One year they are very large, but the next they would be smaller. It’s done deliberately, so we’re not losing olives.”
“But this year there has been an exceptionally low yield. For instance, in some areas that previously yielded at least a 50 percent harvest are now yielding 5 percent this year,” he added.
The process differs little from how things were done millennia ago, aside from the added benefit of machine power and electricity: “The olives are hand-picked from the trees and brought to our press. They are then cleaned and sorted. The historical traditions we maintain here allow our press to remain clean and ecologically efficient,” Dagher said.
A few kilometers away in the village of Bchininne, however, a new, ultra-modern olive press which opened two years ago threatens the age-old techniques of the traditional press.
Willani, lead by Joseph Khoury, represents a new stage in the history of olive oil production. Clean, sleek, and totally computer-automated Willani’s olive press is “the first of its kind in Lebanon,” Khoury said.
Upon entrance into Willani’s factory floor, the group witnessed firsthand the power of the technologically advanced press; once olives were dropped into the machine, they were not touched again by a human hands until they came out the other end as oil. The entire process was quick, efficient, and clean.
“Because the machines separate out imperfections, because there is no contact with the olives – including the decanting process – and because contact with the air, which allows oxidation to occur, is not allowed the oil comes out totally pure,” Khoury said. “The result is that the olive oil tastes much better.”
To further highlight the divide between the traditional and the modern, professional olive-oil taster Youssef Fares was also on hand at Willani to give a tasting demonstration. “A good olive oil has a good balance between acidity and bitterness,” he told the group with all the same seriousness and sophistication of a sommelier. There are six good qualities and six bad qualities that you should be able to determine from smelling the oil.
“How do you know what you are smelling? Well,” he explained with a chuckle, “you have to be an expert.”