29 Nov

USAID-funded training helps growers improve quality of olive harvest

Palestinian Growers Boost Production of Premium Olive Oil

By Grace Bradley,

Jerusalem — “Don’t think of it as oil. What you’re tasting is freshly squeezed olive juice,” says Ali Anabtawi, a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) partner and manager of Near East Industries and Trade, a company that blends and bottles virgin olive oil from West Bank groves and markets it internationally. “It’s delicate. Handle it with care or it can go off. We keep it airtight.”

Anabtawi is a man on a mission: to preserve the oil pressed from some of the most venerable olive trees in the Mediterranean at the pinnacle of its flavor. Once oil is pressed, ideally within 24 hours from the time olives leave the tree, its hue can range from pale amber to deep burnished chartreuse, depending on the variety and ripeness of the olives used in the blend.

Anabtawi strains olive oil through silk and blends varieties like a master vintner would to achieve a consistent taste, aroma and texture with layering and depth. Extra-virgin oil comes from the first pressing and must have a distinct flavor — fruity and peppery with a slightly bitter aftertaste. No hint of 16 official undesirable off-flavors, ranging from “grubby” to “musty” or “fusty,” is permitted.

Anabtawi’s immaculate factory in Beit Iba is lined with thermostat-controlled stainless steel storage tanks and equipped with a state-of-the-art bottling plant. He is a co-investor through the Palestinian Agribusiness Partnership Activity (PAPA), which brings private startup capital to projects eligible for American aid funds. Osama Odeh, with a boutique olive oil operation, and ZAYT, a middle-sized agro-industry, also work with USAID to lift local quality standards for exports.

The demand for premium extra virgin olive oil recently has surged by 35 percent in southern Europe, its traditional market, and by more than 100 percent in North America, where the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet widely are sought. Snob appeal is a factor, too, at gourmet olive oil bars in the West.

In the Palestinian Territories every November, most families that own olive trees still press oil for their home use. “Each one thinks theirs is the best,” says Yousef Awad, a small-scale grower. Such pride can make farmers reluctant to mix their olives with those of their neighbors’ at cooperative presses, but if they hold onto them for more than 36 hours, the olives become too acidic and the taste degrades. Because storage in plastic damages olive oil and changes its chemical composition, keeping it in steel, glass or traditional fired clay vessels is encouraged.

With USAID courses and technical assistance to farmers, cooperative mills and marketers, local olive oil can meet high export standards and bring in much more money to cash-strapped families in the West Bank. Up to 65 percent of Palestinians live in rural areas and can benefit directly from making local olive oil more competitive internationally.

Many Palestinian olive trees have gone untended in recent years due to restricted access and water shortages. Anabtawi, who studied in the United States before returning home to the Middle East, began leasing untended groves in order to commercialize the industry. “These are mostly small groves, and no Palestinian wants to sell out the land his family worked for generations,” he explained.

Anabtawi recently was awarded an ISO 22000 (food safety) quality certificate from Lloyd’s of London. “Mine is the first olive oil anywhere in the world to meet their hygiene standard,” he told USINFO. Now, Anabtawi aims to export this classic Palestinian product to gourmets around the world.

Tradition is on his side. Two millennia ago, Egyptian pharaohs demanded imported olive oil from historic Canaan, and archaeological evidence shows that oil was pressed here 6,000 years ago on enormous millstones. Even a century ago, travelers swore that the oil pressed by Palestinians rivaled the very best olive oil from Italy. “Palestinian olives and olive oil are equal, if not superior, to the Italian products, but the growers lack facilities for purifying the oil and extracting its bitterness,” said one 1906-era encyclopedia.

Several thousand local olive growers have learned, step-by-step, how to keep their harvest intact. USAID helps fund and organize an educational outreach program to teach best practices for pruning the branches and picking the ripe fruit efficiently with big combs and thick tarps to cushion the fall of the fruit.

It also subsidizes ventilated plastic crates that can prevent damage to olives before they are transported to one of 21 cooperative presses. About 60,000 crates are in use at the height of the season and keep ripe olives from fermenting in transit.

American aid also supplies fly traps to protect the fruit on the tree, since no insecticide or fertilizer is used on Palestinian olive groves. Certifying this olive oil as an organic product may further increase profits.

The olive harvest remains a cherished family affair for Palestinians, who clamber up to pick the ripe fruit and prefer traditional olive oil for all culinary, medicinal and cosmetic uses. And without these ancient trees with gnarled trunks, there would be no way to extend an olive branch, the traditional peace gesture.

USAID is the U.S. government agency responsible for administering foreign development assistance.

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