Like many other Mediterranean countries, Israel is blessed with the climate suitable to grow an array of fruits indigenous to the region as well as the land’s history. Olives are one of the oldest fruits known to man and have been mentioned in biblical texts all the way from the story of Noah in the Book of Geneses: “And lo, the dove returned to Noah, this time with a freshly plucked sprig of olive branch in her mouth”. Both the fruit as well as the oil are used extensively, not only in Israel, but all over the world. The benefits of using non-saturated olive oil in cooking is well known; and is gaining in popularity everywhere, despite the higher price for it, as compared to vegetable oils made from soy beans, corn, peanuts, and even canola. Olive oil was used to anoint kings in many ancient lands, and was used extensively by the ancient Greeks as both a protection against sunburn as well as to make their bodies ‘glisten’ during athletic competitions.
Olive oil comes in many varieties, and flavors, ranging from more acidic (and bitter) natural varieties, to the more refined types which foreign households are accustomed to using.
Today, one sees olive trees all over Israel; and many parks, private homes, and apartment buildings have olive trees gracing their lawns and gardens. Olives are ‘in season’ from mid-September to late March, depending on location and type of olives picked. The most popular type of olive is the round Maraschino which is grows in most locations as ranges anywhere in size from around 1 cm to 2 1/2 cm in length. These olives are either picked green or ripe, and can either be found in cans, jars, or in barrels in many grocery stores and open air markets. My favorites are the extra large Greek olives, most of which are imported either from Greece, Turkey, or Cyprus. They have a unique taste that appears to be from secret recipes handed down from generation to generation. One of the favorite types more indigenous to Israel and the Middle East is the Syrian olive which is longer and more pointed than the Maraschino. It is often found in open air markets and is usually ‘cracked’ or partially broken during processing to enhance its flavor, together with the addition of lemon wedges and garlic cloves.
I like to process my own olives, which, if done properly, taste better than the commercially processed ones. A simple recipe involves taking about two kilograms of freshly picked olives and soaking them in water for about two weeks, changing the water daily. After this process, place the olives in clean jars with intermittent layers of salt, lemon wedges and garlic cloves. Olive leaves can be added as well for both taste enhancement and eye appeal. Fill with water until full. Before closing the jars, add a layer of olive oil on top to enhance the flavor and prevent mold from forming. Place the filled jars in a dark place like a pantry for a minimum of 2-3 months before opening. It’s a good idea to write the date when the jars were filled so as not to open them too early. Olives not stored long enough will have a bitter taste.
Olive production has been recently hampered by pests like the Med-fly, which damages and deforms the fruit. For this reason, especially if you are ‘going organic’ and want olives from unsprayed trees, you will probably have to ‘cull out’ at least 20% or more of what you pick. The results are worth it, for you will not only have the pleasure of eating home processed organic olives, but the satisfaction of partaking in a tradition that is as ancient as the Bible itself.