If you were to travel with me, you’d quickly learn that I am relentless about hunting down good food and partaking of food-related experiences unique to the region I’m visiting. Cooking classes? Sign me up. Food markets? No question. Tours of food production plants? Affirmative. When I travel, my passion for discovering new foods and ingredients becomes unparalleled and I’ve been fortunate to meet generous people who teach me about their cuisine, and chefs in restaurants who share their incredible recipes. Most recently, I stumbled upon one of my most cherished foodie finds!
As we drove out of Tel Aviv in our rental car and hit the road, Hebrew signage littered the highway. Now, I can read a little Hebrew if I already know the gist of what a sign might say, but on this stretch of road nothing was translated into English and I remained relatively clueless about what the billboards said. What was immediately recognizable was the abundance of olive trees planted throughout the terraced hillsides. Israelis serve olives fairly often and olive oil is part of every single meal!
We stayed overnight at a peaceful hotel called the Amirey Hagalil. This beautiful inn and spa, nestled in the hills of the Upper Galilee, was surrounded by ancient olive trees. So the next morning I asked the front desk person “Dona” about the possibility of touring an olive oil facility, and she happily directed us down the road to Kibbutz Farod – purveyors of the olive oil used at the Amirey.
The stars were aligned perfectly. We drove the short distance downhill, found the Kibbutz driveway about two blocks away…and the entrance to the village was gated and locked. Luckily a truck carrying supplies entered and we zipped through the entrance before the automatic gate closed. I got out of our white Toyota in 90 degree heat and found a woman at the “Saba Habib” olive oil plant. (“Saba” in Hebrew translates to grandfather.) No tours were being offered but the secretary of the facility happened to be there with her two month old son, and she kindly gave us a private, one hour tour of the facility. Even more fortunate – she spoke English!
I was in awe. The small, homey factory building is apparently rented from kibbutz members by fourth generation Arab Christians – the Habib family. I even had a chance to meet the Habib men and watch one of the women prepare some breakfast items in a small kitchen out back. As you might imagine – .
Here is the short version of processing olive oil, as best as I recall (sadly, I didn’t take any notes … silly me):
1) Small olives from trees grown all along the road adjacent to Saba Habib are hand-picked when ripe, then carefully washed to remove stems, leaves and debris.
2) The large stone (pictured above) crushes the olives to form a paste; the pits and skins that are strained from the oil, or Pomice, is sold for cattle feed and fuel for stoves.
3) The remaining oil is then poured into a chamber and slightly heated. Water separates from the oil, and is removed. The remaining oil is then stored at about 65 degrees to stabilize. Light, heat and air are eliminated this way, and the oil is kept for 30 days before bottling.
I purchased a bottle of kosher organic extra virgin olive oil for my Seattle kitchen. While I can’t read a lick of the Hebrew on the packaging, its beautiful label constantly reminds me of our visit to this stunning part of the world. In my eyes, olive oil will never be the same. Now I know how it is produced, and when I add the fragrant oil in salads, coat vegetables or drizzle it on fish fillets, I’ll always think of Saba Habib.