28 Oct. - 3 Nov. 1999
Issue No. 453
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
A golden harvestAcross the country, olives are being harvested and the first bottles of precious oil have been set aside to mellow. Fayza Hassan and photographer Randa Shaath sample the season's crop
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My love affair with olive oil dates back to the week I spent in Amman around five years ago. I was staying with Palestinian friends and on the first morning, as we sat down to breakfast, a small plate of strong-smelling olive oil, a basket of hot pita bread and a pretty porcelain jar containing zaatar (an aromatic mixture of dry herbs and sesame seeds) were placed before us by a well-groomed Sri Lankan maid. There were other scrumptious dishes on the table (a creamy lump of goat's cheese, butter, honey and fruit), but I was potently attracted by the fruity redolence of the golden liquid and, copying my friends, I dunked a small piece of bread in the oil then sprinkled it with the herbs. It was delicious beyond description.
Back in Egypt, I tried to emulate the practice, but could never get the savour right. This is how my search for the perfect olive oil, of which piquancy would truly exhilarate my taste buds, began. Only once did I come close to experiencing the same delight. It was at a pasta restaurant in Florida, where cannelloni stuffed with mushrooms and linguini a la Napolitana were preceded by an "appetiser" consisting of warm olive oil served in a heavy iron pan, seasoned with coarse salt and pepper and accompanied by an oven-fresh loaf of bread. When I asked the smiling waitress about the brand of the oil, she shrugged and said that they used whatever "good quality" oil they could find. A costly trip to the nearest supermarket yielded only disappointment. Two years after this memorable repast and shopping spree, my hosts are still seasoning their salads with the balance of my unctuous purchases.
On the threshold of the 21st century, the affluent world is being forced to re-learn frugality. Too much of the good life seems to clog up the arteries with unwanted little fat cells, bringing untold misery in their wake. The alarm has been sounded by the medical profession, which, short of being allowed to plaster stern warnings on the walls of supermarkets and butchers' shops, seizes every occasion to lambast animal fat in each and every one of its various forms. The health-conscious, having been let down by the various polyunsaturated products which promised more than they could deliver, are turning once again to legendary olive oil, whose fine reputation spans over 6,000 years.
On less historical grounds, too, cardiologist Dr Ibrahim Iskandar of the National Heart Institute in Imbaba, an ardent advocate, says olive oil -- a genuine monounsaturated fat -- has the power to lower levels of bad cholesterol, the main culprit in many types of heart attacks. "Olive oil is good for the heart in that respect, but it is also claimed to retard the ageing process and promote well-being in periods of exceptional stress, such as puberty and menopause. As an added bonus, taken before breakfast, it acts as a mild laxative; furthermore, it improves the texture of the nails and the skin. Some research points to a decline of breast cancer incidence among olive oil users, but the data is not yet conclusive," he explains. According to Iskandar, even healthy individuals can only benefit from replacing animal fat with olive oil in their normal diet.
Confronted with a glut of brands, however, shoppers are having a hard time deciding on the origin and manufacturing process they should choose: Spanish, Greek, Turkish, Egyptian, Moroccan or Tunisian? Cold-pressed, virgin, extra virgin? The tantalising Mediterranean beauty presents itself in diverse garbs, from the elegant flask stuffed with green and black olives, aromatic herbs and peppercorns (Italian, Spanish or Greek) to the badly sealed, slightly greasy bottle (Egyptian). Do not let appearances -- or price -- fool you. The pricey, classier vessels do not necessarily contain the finest liquor. In their cheap containers, some Egyptian brews can sometimes make fair alternatives to the exceptional brew from Amman.
Olive oil is produced in Egypt, of course, but in relatively small quantities of inconsistent quality. Raouf Mishriki, who has a small grove of olive trees in Saqqara, has recently been experimenting with the production of olive oil, with which he supplies his friends on an irregular basis. Having found out that the season was now in full swing, I called him, hoping for an invitation to visit his plantation. Mishriki sounded rather disillusioned, however. He does not produce much oil because he does not own a press himself. "It is a hassle when one has to rely on others," he said. He had tried the monasteries' presses (the monks of Wadi Natroun are known for their production of a delicious but scarce olive oil), but the results were rather disappointing, he explained. "Once I used the Giza Governorate press and my oil was delicious, but the following year the taste was not the same. Now I just pickle my olives."
Mishriki suggested that I visit Shahira Mehrez and Abdel-Hayy El-Shishini, who have 150 feddans of olive trees in Al-Khatatba. This is the right time for a visit, he explained, since olives are harvested from September to December. Besides, they have their own press and produce excellent olive oil that they sell to the hotels around Cairo, Mishriki added.
A few days later, we set out in the early morning for Khatatba. On the way there, I had been entertaining visions of the silvery trees of the Greek village of Kalamata, their branches heavy with green and black fruit, and reflecting on the Godfather's Sicilian groves and the deadly power he had managed to derive from something as pristine as his Genco Olive Oil. I was therefore quite excited as we turned off the Cairo-Alexandria road and began to drive through the sandy, bumpy lanes among thousands of greyish-green trees laden with ripe olives. A few more jolts brought us to an abrupt halt in front of Shahira Mehrez's rambling pink house.
The spot could have fit perfectly in a remote Greek village, except that the sea was absent from the picture. Weren't olive trees traditionally associated with the Mediterranean? I wondered. Here we were, in the middle of nowhere, completely surrounded by the desert. At least the rich colours of the bougainvillea covering the walls did not in any way indicate a Mafia connection; nor did the dog that barked at us perfunctorily resemble a ferocious Doberman. On the other hand, the account of the fights Shahira had waged with the Bedouin of the area before she could establish herself on this land, which is part of a government reclamation scheme undertaken with the cooperation of USAID, were clearly reminiscent of the Wild West. "Now," she assured us, "ten years into the project, the place is secure." She herself lives alone in the house during the oil-making season, going to Cairo only once or twice a week. Her partner, Abdel-Hayy, prefers to come for the day, returning to the city every evening.
We sat at the back of the house in a small enclosed patio, drinking coffee and tasting the green and black olives served in large bowls with home-baked bread, tomatoes, mozzarella and sprigs of mint. Several bottles of olive oil stood on the table and we were invited to try the different tastes. I had several spoonfuls of each and declared them all delicious. Randa, less of a glutton for the stuff, sprinkled small morsels of bread with the golden liquid and was equally impressed. Meanwhile, Shahira, vigorously working her walkie-talkie, was locating some of the olive-picking teams, headed by their chief, Abu Zeid Rizq, her right-hand man in the picking operation. We drove around for a bit, Shahira pointing at the different trees with their exotic names: Frontoyo, Coratina, Picholin and Cairo 7. We finally stopped in front of a group of men armed with plastic combs, with which they were gently raking the branches of certain trees. Thin grey pipes ran from tree to tree on the ground's surface: the irrigation network.
I extracted a thick volume brought along for the ride, Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat's aptly entitled History of Food, from my bag, and discovered that Virgil, and before him the Ligurians, claimed that'Olives...require no cultivation"Olive trees planted in the desert, away from their natural Mediterranean habitat, which is more humid, obviously will require more water," explained Abdel-Hayy, who had been pruning a tree and had left his task to join us. "Many of our neighbours who have bought land like us, are planting vegetables that require much more irrigation than olive trees. If they keep drawing so abundantly on the natural underground water reservoirs, we will all be in trouble pretty soon," he said gloomily. Abdel-Hayy also warned Shahira that they had to hurry up with the harvest as he had observed a few moths trying to settle on the leaves. These can spoil the entire crop in no time. As one should not spray any pesticides on the trees at this point, in order to preserve the true taste of the oil, olive growers live in fear of the little white butterfly. "We will just have to hurry," said Shahira.
And have no use for the sickle knife or the stiff-tooth rake
Once they have dug themselves in on the fields and stood up to the winds.
Earth herself, by the crooked plough laid bare, provides
Moisture enough for the plants and a heavy crop from the plough
Thus shall you breed the rich olive, beloved of Peace.'
As the men stripped the branches, the olives, green with dark spots called "chocolate", our hostess told us, tumbled down onto large plastic sheets spread under the trees. "It is sometimes believed that green and black olives are different qualities, but they are just the same fruit at its different degrees of ripeness," she explained. Young boys hastened to fill large plastic crates with the fruit, pushing the full containers quickly into the shade. The sun apparently accelerates the process of oxidation (fermentation), damaging the olives and spoiling the taste of the oil. "These are Cairo 7 trees, which yield very small olives," said Shahira. "The variety is peculiar to Egypt. We make only oil with their olives, because Egyptians favour the larger sizes for pickling. In Lebanon and Palestine, the small olive is esteemed, but not here. On the other hand, the Picholin, a Tunisian strain we have been planting for several years now, produces olives that are delicious, but not so good for oil-making."
The men were hurrying. It was important to get the picked olives to the press at once. "From the tree to the stone: they used to say it in the old days, and this remains equally true now," commented Shahira. "If the olives are not picked at once, when the tree is ready -- and we know that it is when the fruit starts falling of its own accord -- they are no longer suitable to make good oil. The moment they are picked, we have to rush them to the press, otherwise they lose their taste. The olives that stay on the trees longer than necessary, or have not been pressed as soon as they are picked, are only good for pickling. Besides, if the ripe olives are not harvested on time, their weight weakens the tree itself." As we headed towards the press in hot pursuit of the truck carrying the crates of olives, Shahira, adroitly steering her 4x4 over the rocky terrain, explained that it was not enough to get the olives to the press on time. The press had to be thoroughly cleaned before the new olives are put through.
"Remember in the olden days, when our mothers bought minced meat at the butcher's? They always demanded that he grind a large piece of bread in the machine to clean it before processing their order. With olives it is the same. Any remnants of old olives will adulterate the taste of the new oil." To clean the press, some fresh second-grade olives are put through and then the whole machine is washed with hot water until it is absolutely free of residue. Shahira, who has a state-of-the-art installation, does not have enough olives to make full use of the large hydraulic press, for which she has a separate electrical generator, but she and Abdel-Hayy, who oversees the technical aspects of the operation, are reluctant to press other people's olives. "They are often of a lesser quality, having been left on the tree or in the sun for too long. By the time they come to us, the oxidation process has started and we have a hard time ridding the press of the smell afterwards."
We watched the olives being poured by the crate-load into a trap in the ground from which they will start their long journey. They will be washed and mashed, then emerge as the coveted golden liquid at the other end. Shahira gave us detailed information on what one should expect from a good product: "Olive oil belongs to different groups of taste, the Italian [the best according to her], the Spanish and the Middle Eastern. But," she added, "there is very little 'extra virgin oil' -- the only one which lowers cholesterol -- in Middle Eastern production. Furthermore, contrary to the popular belief, it is not lower than other oils in calories.
She recently attended a seminar for professional olive oil producers, during which the participants were told the official properties of extra virgin olive oil, which must have less than one per cent acidity and less than 20 per cent peroxide lumber. These properties are only determined by means of a chemical analysis. "Our oil has a lovely taste, but don't count on it to lower your cholesterol," commented Shahira. "Besides, if you heat the oil to fry food, it loses all its properties, though it remains on the whole less harmful than animal fat."
It was time to move into the well-ventilated shed housing the press, which was by now churning a mixture of olive flesh and stones. Before we went in, Shahira made sure that we were not wearing strong perfume, which may alter the aroma of the oil. Drops of heavy yellow liquid had already begun to trickle through a pipe into a small barrel. "This first oil is not the best because it may still carry some left-over impurities," Shahira said. Once the container was filled to capacity, the signal was given for the huge stainless-steel vats screwed to the floor to begin pumping up the uncontaminated liquid. The oil was ready to be bottled and stored in a dark cool place, where it will age for a few months to rid it of its rawness. Unfortunately, commented Shahira, approvingly licking a few drops of oil off her fingers, though Egyptian olive oil can compete favourably on the international level as far as quality goes, "it has priced itself out of the market, because the European Union is subsidising European olive oil producers to the tune of $1 a litre, while Egyptian exporters have to pay $1 per litre in taxes to the Egyptian government."
The sun was setting fast, and we said our good-byes. Shahira made sure that two huge jars of green olives were placed in the car before we left. When I arrived home I tasted the olives at once: they were of an appetising brownish green, ripe and plump, stuffed with carrots, green chilies, coriander and lemon. They were incredibly delicious.
Oil as symbol
"ALL THE ancient peoples of the Mediterranean claimed the discovery of the olive tree and its uses for their own gods. The olive has general positive connotations: peace, fertility, strength, victory, glory and even purification and sanctity," writes Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat in History of Food (transl. Anthea Bell, Blackwell, 1999).
"Six thousand years ago, the Ancient Egyptians believed that Isis, the greatest of the goddesses and wife of Osiris, had taught mankind to grow and use olives. The Greeks claimed that honour for Pallas Athene. In Rome the olive tree was sacred to Minerva and Jupiter...
"One day, Pallas Athene and Poseidon, god of the sea, were contending for Attica in the assembly of gods. Poseidon... caused the horse to rise from the depth of the sea, 'handsome, strong, able to pull heavy carts and win battles'. Athene made an olive tree grow from the rock behind the Erechtheum, able to provide a flame giving light by night, to soothe wounds, and to generate a precious food, rich in flavour and full of energy.
"The immortals thought the tree which symbolised peace even more useful to mankind than the horse, the symbol of war. They granted the goddess sovereignty over Attica and the city... which was thenceforth called Athens.
"In the Book of Genesis, the dove sent out by Noah at the end of the Flood returned to the Ark with an olive branch in her beak, evidence that the divine wrath had abated... Jesus suffered his passion in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives... the cross itself was made of olive wood... During the Exodus, Yahweh taught [Moses] to make an anointing oil of olive oil mixed with spices and aromatics for the consecration of Aaron and his sons, as priests... This oil or chrism, used to anoint the priest-kings of Israel and thus giving them authority, power and glory in the name of God and the Holy Spirit, gave rise to the word Christ, from the Greek khristos, meaning... 'the anointed one'... Early Christianity practised baptism by anointing with oil... The Franks instituted the ritual of anointing their kings with virgin olive oil, contained in... the Holy Ampulla, said to have been brought by a dove to the bishop of Saint Denis when Clovis was baptised a Christian...
"The Greeks, who would allow only virgins or men of pure life to tend and process olives, used to anoint the faces of the dead with oil... the gesture symbolised light and purity beneficial to the dead in the darkness of the underworld.
"In North Africa, the ploughshare is oiled before it cuts the first furrow... In the Japanese Shinto religion, the primordial waters were made of virgin oil... [it is also] the oil in which new-born babies have been washed the world over before being dressed for the first time."
Reaping bitter riches
"Growing olives, traditional in North Africa ever since the Roman conquest, was a family activity. The olive groves of Tunisia, originally planted to induce unruly nomads to settle down, provided the entire Roman Empire with its supply for centuries," writes Toussaint-Samat.
Picking olives in Tunisia, drawing by E Girardet, 1884; harvesting the crop at Al-Khatatba.
Few olive oil producers still press in the traditional way, but food critic Jeffrey Steingarten, better known as The Man Who Ate Everything (Vintage Books, 1997) travelled to Tunisia where he visited Les Moulins Mahjoub, an estate near Tunis, "where the olives are grown, harvested and pressed into oil using the same traditional methods...[used] in Tuscany and the south of France.
"It was December and the picking had begun two days before; the first olives had been brought to the mill and were stored outdoors in two whitewashed cribs... We entered the mill building and watched the first olives, green mixed with black, as they were pushed under the huge millstone. A little girl rushed in excitedly, waving what appeared to be a small, white translucent balloon with a pool of dark liquid inside.
"Mahjoub explained that they had just sacrificed a sheep in the courtyard to ensure that the harvest and the pressing would be a success. The sacrifice is made to God, he told us, but the meat goes to everyone. In the girl's hand was the gallbladder or bile duct of the sheep; the more bile it contains, the more money your future holds... Everybody seemed happy with the message of the entrails. As I watched the old engine turning a long pulley attached to the millstone, I noticed that a lucky horseshoe had been tied to the engine, just in case. The new extra-virgin olive oil was raw and bitter, as it would remain for some days after the pressing, but a sample of last year's oil was excellent."
From the tree to the stone
Watching the first oil emerge from the Khatatba press;
16th-century engraving by P. Galle
"The oldest known technique of oil extraction was the stone mortar, spherical or conical, in which olives were crushed by foot," according to Toussain-Samat. "Later on, they were crushed by hand, with a pestle. Then the job of crushing was done by a large millstone turning in an open tub in which the olives were tipped whole to come out as a paste. Depending on the oil manufacturer's wealth, these crushers were worked by slaves, a mule, a donkey - or even his wife. The molea olearia, the Roman oil mill, was of this type... It was still used in Provence a few years ago... (In Europe, [the wedge press] was ousted by a type of press using a winch with a vertical axis which remained in use until before the last war and was then replaced by the hydraulic press.)
"Next the paste has to be pressed. To this end, it is divided into small portions. The only satisfactory procedure over thousands of years has been to use the scourtin or escourtin as it is called by the people of Provence and Languedoc: a kind of very shallow basket made of esparto grass, or nowadays of synthetic fibres. These containers are piled in stacks of 25 or 50, with a thick layer of olive paste between each disc. The resulting sandwich is mechanically compressed... Virgin olive oil is oil from the first pressing... It has a wonderful flavour of olives, and is low in oleic acid. It must be consumed fresh and transported in cans, sheltered from the light, since it does not preserve its properties... [T]he refined oil of the second pressing, which is steam deodorised... has few beneficial properties. 'Pure oil'... is a mixture of virgin and refined oil."