Israel’s olive oil industry is central to Israeli culture, history, and cuisine. Olives are one of the seven natural products native to the land of Israel and mentioned in the Bible, along with wheat, barley, figs, pomegranates, date honey, and grapevines. Olive oil is a culinary treasure and is used for many things like cosmetics, home remedies, and fuel. The leftover pulp is used as fertilizer for the very trees that produced the olives, just as it was in ancient times. Today’s olive oil industry in Israel may be hi-tech, but some ancient traditions still hold strong. It is widely accepted by scientists that Mediterranean countries can attribute their long life expectancies to their olive oil-rich diets.
The history of Israel’s olives
Olive pits have been discovered in Israel dating back 6,000 years, and centuries-old olive orchards still continue to thrive here. The first trees of Israel’s modern olive-oil industry were planted in the early 1990s.
Today, Israel has around 81,000 acres of olive orchards producing around 16,000 tons of extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) every year. Most of the oil Israel produces is for domestic use, while about 1,000 tons is exported, mainly to the United States. At least 10,000 tons of Israel’s olive oil production comes from modern orchards, while the rest is produced by traditional and family-run orchards kept by both Arab and Jewish farmers. These are located between Metulla, Israel’s most northern town on the border between Israel and Lebanon, to southernmost Eilat. The village of Deir Hanna in the lower Galilee has perhaps the oldest olive tree in Israel, estimated to be over 900 years old.
A one-liter bottle of olive oil contains the oil from four to six kilograms of olives, equal to about 1,000 individual fruits, and as a nation, Israelis consume about 2.5 kilograms of extra-virgin oil per person per year.
In Jewish law, olive oil was the only fuel used in the seven-branched menorah during Biblical times and later in the permanent Temple in Jerusalem. It was obtained by using only the very first drop from a squeezed olive, was consecrated for use by priests, and stored in special containers. The kings of the Kingdom of Israel were anointed with olive oil, starting with King David.
What sets Israeli olive oil apart
Israeli olives are irrigated with salty and purified wastewater, which is environmentally beneficial, does not diminish the fruit’s quality, and allows farmers to use fewer fertilizers. The olives are harvested within a tight and specific timeframe, not being allowed to ripen on the trees any longer than absolutely necessary. The oil is then extracted immediately after harvesting and not permitted to be left lying. In the Mediterranean, the prime time is usually from October to December. The olives begin ripening in October. When frost begins to hit the land in December, the olives start to over ripen. When olives are just ripe, the olives have enough oil and are at the ideal stage for easy harvest and extraction.
There are many varieties of olives that grow here, producing a wide range of flavors. The Israeli Ministries of Agriculture and Health carefully supervise what goes into every bottle of Israeli olive oil, ensuring consistent quality and purity. Olive oil is the only food item in the world whose trade regulations include the evaluation of taste and aroma. Extra virgin and virgin have to have positive attributes as defined by the regulations with no essential defects. Currently, Israel only produces virgin olive oil, the least refined of all olive oil.
Visiting Israel’s olive groves
There are many boutique olive oil producers throughout Israel that are open to the public, particularly in the Galilee and Golan Heights. Here, you can partake in olive oil tastings, watch the production process, and buy olive oil to take home from their stores.
It is not only olive oil producers that are worth visiting; there are a number of Israeli cosmetics companies that use olive oil as the focus ingredient in their beauty products, such as Olea Essence, Sindyanna of Galilee, Galilee Olive Oil Soaps, and Lavido.
Every year in November, Israel holds the Olive Branch Festival where visitors can witness olive pressing, participate in olive picking and bottling, meet different ethnic communities in the industry, enjoy food tastings, free tours, and take guided hikes through olive groves. The dates for the event change every year and reservations for specific workshops and tours must be made in advance.
Our private tours can be tailored to include any number of oil producers and cosmetics you may be interested in. Contact us to discuss your interests and we will put together a wonderful package for you.