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Olive Oil: Where It All Began - Green Gold Book – The Story of Lebanese Olive Oil

They are twisted, they kneel to pray, and they raise their arms, members tyrannized by movement, all elbows and knees. The bent roots suck the golden oil from the heart of the earth for the lamps of the saints and the salad of the poor”

Stratis Myrivillis, Greek poet

The olive plays a fundamental role in Lebanese life, and olive oil has been treasured for generations. It is certainly valued in my family. I will never forget the story my husband Henri told me, of how his grandparents left their village of Hadath el-Jobbeh in northern Lebanon to seek a new life in Africa during the 1920s. As they sailed overseas, leaving all their possessions behind, they insisted on taking a few gallons of their precious olive oil with them. Now, whenever their grandson travels for work, he always takes some with him, too. He insists that the taste of Lebanese olive oil is unsurpassed.

Years ago, when Henri was driving down the mountain from Faraya Mzaar, Lebanon's largest ski resort, he came across an old olive wood trunk, abandoned in the fields, destined to be sold as firewood by some farmer. With help from our dear friend and restoration expert Nagi Chartouny, he turned the trunk into the base for our unique dining table.

I imagine that many of you only know Lebanon from the news headlines as a country torn by war and riddled with political strife. In fact, it is one of the most diverse and hospitable countries in the world and hides amazing riches within its borders.

Lebanon is a country of some four million people all crammed into just 10,452 km2 of land along the Eastern Mediterranean between Syria and Israel. Lebanon is shaped by the twin mountain ranges that separate it from Syria. Its heavily inhabited, narrow coast is lined with orange and banana plantations, behind which the slopes of Mount Lebanon, the range that gives the country its name, rises steeply. The mountains, which are carpeted with pine trees and olive groves, rise to a maximum height of just over 3,000 meters and are covered in snow each winter. Lebanon is blessed with plentiful supplies of water and is the only country in the region that has no desert. The Bekaa Valley, which lies between Lebanon's twin mountain ranges, is one of the most fertile regions in the Middle East.

Because of its natural bounty, Lebanon has always attracted outsiders. It has been invaded by everyone from the Egyptians in the 13th century BC, through to the Assyrians, the Persians, the Romans, the Ottomans and finally the French, who withdrew in 1946. The mountains have traditionally provided refuge for those fleeing war or persecution, and Lebanon's villagers are every bit as welcoming today. Coastal dwellers have been traders and entrepreneurs ever since their Canaanite and Phoenician ancestors took to the seas thousands of years ago and even now, the Lebanese are renowned for their culture of enterprise and business.

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The countryside is full of olive trees, some centuries old, some more recently planted; an estimated 13 million olive trees account for 20% of Lebanon's total cultivated area. Almost everyone you speak to in Lebanon, from city executives to the village grocer, has a connection to olives. They either own a couple of trees themselves – or at least their neighbor does – or they own an immense grove somewhere in the mountains.

Most of the oil that comes from them is produced using traditional methods of cultivation and pressing, handed down from generation to generation, that elsewhere would be deemed outdated, although more modern methods have also been gradually introduced in recent years.

Olive oil is essential in the Lebanese kitchen. Most homes have a bowl of zaatar (dried wild thyme) and olive oil at hand for dipping bread and generally have several bottles stashed in a cupboard for drizzling over plates of labneh, a type of strained yoghurt which is the staple of any Lebanese table. All Lebanese emigrants miss their oil and there have been many attempts to market it abroad, but it is fair to say that for the most part, Lebanese olive oil is underappreciated and has yet to attract global consumers. That may soon change. Just as people are becoming more discerning with regards to Lebanese wines, Lebanese olive oil lovers are increasingly demanding only the best. The local industry's reputation has grown rapidly and as Lebanese olive oil becomes better tasting, and of higher quality, it may begin to attract the global recognition it deserves.

The mild winters and temperate summers of Lebanon's mountains, where the bulk of olives grow, are perfectly suited to growing olives. So ubiquitous is the olive tree, from ancient colossi to younger striplings, that it is impossible to imagine Lebanon's countryside without them. They are crucial to the village way of life, which is closely tied to the cycles of cultivation. Olives and olive oil are also essential to the moune, the winter preserves and pickles prepared by villagers each autumn.

My journey of discovery into the world of Lebanon's olive traditions began with a meeting with Dr Rami Zurayk, professor of agriculture at the American University of Beirut. An advocate of organic produce, he introduced me to a range of olive oils marketed under the name, La Route des Oliviers, the Olive Route. I took these oils as the starting point of a journey that I now want to share with you - a route that will allow you to discover Lebanon not as the biblical 'Land of Milk and Honey' but rather as the 'Land of the Olive'. It is a journey that took me from the beautiful hidden valleys of the South to the terraced terrains of the North, every step of the way leading me to welcoming and hard-working people who will remain etched in my memory, and hopefully in yours too, forever.

Lebanon is home to 19 different, and sometimes conflicting, religious groups but its villagers are all united in their overwhelming hospitality and love of the land. Whilst researching this book, I entered the homes of perfect strangers who were only too happy to tell me their stories over cups of Arabic coffee or tea and often a tiny glass of their olive oil as well. Such villagers have resisted the winds of change and remain true to their traditions, leading resolutely independent lives.

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The Origin of the Olive Tree

The Olea Europaea, the olive tree as we know it today is one of the oldest cultivated trees in the world. It is descended from the oleaster, which was just a humble Levantine evergreen until some clever farmer grafted it with a fruit-producing tree and created the olive.

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The northern villages of Amioun and Bshaale are home to some of the oldest olive trees in the world, many of which date back at least 1,500 years. If you have visited Lebanon, you may well have driven past them without giving them a second thought, but generations of villagers have cherished these ancient survivors and have kept them standing even when they no longer produced fruit, while village children have for centuries played in their hollow trunks and hidden their treasures in them. We have become so accustomed to these natural monuments that it is hard to imagine a time when they were not here.

Prehistory and Antiquity

Bronze Age – Canaanite Period (3500 – 1200 BC)
Olive oil shipped to Egypt for trade. It is used to anoint kings, embalm the dead and light temple lamps. A wall painting in a Theban tomb depicts olive cultivation.

Iron Age – Phoenician Period (1200 – 300 BC)
Phoenicians introduce Greece to the alphabet and the olive. They spread olive cultivation around the Mediterranean.

Hellenistic Period (300 BC – 64 BC)
An olive branch and oil is awarded to winners of the Olympic games. New pressing methods are developed in the Levant.

Roman Period (64 BC – 399 AD)
Romans develop a taste-based classification system for olive oil.

Byzantine Period (399 – 636 AD)
Thousands of distributors trade in olive oil and use in cooking, massage, body-care and lighting is widespread.

The Ancient Roots of the Olive Tree

Standing on Lebanese soil, you get the feeling that this country is thousands of years deep and that beneath you lie centuries of hidden treasures.

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Certainly, it is true that the Phoenicians, one of the ancient inhabitants of modern Lebanon, played a major role in spreading the tree around the Mediterranean. As far back as 1600 BC, they introduced olive trees to the Greek isles and later to the Greek mainland, Italy, southern France, Spain and finally North Africa.

For many centuries, the Phoenicians were the main traders of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. They established trade colonies in Spain and North Africa and on many Mediterranean islands, including Cyprus, Sardinia and Malta. These early merchants laid the foundations of many Mediterranean port towns, including Marseille in southern France, which today is a major producer of olive oil soap.

During the Bronze Age (3500 -1200 BC) the coast of the Levant was inhabited by the Canaanites, a people thought to be descended either from Chalcolithic (4500 – 3500 BC) or Neolithic (7500 – 4500 BC) settlers.

One of their settlements, Byblos, a coastal town in central Lebanon, became the major port of the Mediterranean. From here, cedar wood and olive oil were exported to Egypt, the former for shipbuilding and tomb construction, and the latter for use in funeral rituals and cosmetics. In return, Egypt sent gold and papyrus to Lebanon.

A wall painting in a late Bronze Age tomb in Thebes, which dates to the reign of the Pharaoh Amenhotep, attests to this trade and shows Canaanite merchants carrying jars from their boat to the marketplace. Jars like those in the painting have been found during excavations in Athens and are believed to have contained olive oil. This makes sense, as the Egyptians did not produce olive oil themselves. The Egyptians used olive oil to light temple lamps, for conditioning the skin and hair and also for massage and embalming.

The Levant has been home to the olive tree for millennia. Sites in the ancient southern Lebanese city of Sidon contain evidence of clay jars, used for storing olive oil, dating back to the Bronze Age. Both the museum at the American University of Beirut and the Beirut National Museum have such jars on display, as well as smaller vessels used as oil lamps. In the village of Oumm el-Amed, there is a stone basin used for the crushing of olives that is thought to date back to the Hellenistic period (300 – 64 BC), further evidence that the Lebanese were pioneers of olive oil pressing methods. Meanwhile, at archaeological sites in Beirut, traces of olive wood and carbonized olive pips dating back as far as Roman times have been uncovered.

The most significant discoveries, however, were in the southern Lebanese villages of Shimm, Marjiyat and Ras el-Ain, where large pottery jars used for storing olive oil dating back to the 4th millennium were found. Archaeologists even unearthed the remains of Roman houses and a temple as well as several intact olive presses – the oldest ones found in Lebanon so far – and stone basins with shallow channels, all of which suggests that southern Lebanon was a significant centre of olive oil production in Antiquity. Khan Khalde, a few kilometers south of Beirut, and the Metn region mountain village of Beit Mery, which had its own Roman olive presses, also appear to have been centers of oil production.

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Myths, Symbols and Legends

Divinity seems to flow through the branches of the olive tree. It has been used as a religious symbol of peace, life or fertility by all of the civilizations of the Near East and Mediterranean. In ancient Greece, courageous soldiers were honored with a crown made of an olive branch; mythology tells us that Hercules, who is credited with founding the Olympic Games, gave them to valiant players as a celebration of their victory. The first Olympic torch was a burning olive branch. Later, the Romans used the olive branch as a symbol of peace and the tree was considered so sacred that those found guilty of cutting one down were condemned to death or exile. For early Christians, the olive was a symbol of renewal. It was with an olive branch delivered by a dove that God told Noah of the end of the Flood and the beginning of a new world.

Olive oil has been regarded as sacred for thousands of years. Modern excavations of Egyptian tombs have unearthed containers of olive oil. As Egyptians were only buried with their treasures, this is proof of how precious this substance was. In the temples of Baalbek in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, oil was offered to the gods at the end of a good harvest to give thanks, and since Antiquity, olive oil lamps have been used to light temples and later, churches and mosques.

The ancient Egyptians believed that it was Isis, the Mother of the Universe, who taught mankind to extract the oil from the olives. Greek legend tells of how Athena, the goddess of Wisdom, during a dispute with Poseidon, god of the Sea, over ownership of the land where Athens was later built, planted an olive tree where the Acropolis now stands. The olive tree that grows near Athena's temple on the Acropolis, the Erechtheion, is supposedly descended from the tree that the goddess and founder of Athens planted there millennia ago.

The belief that olive oil conferred strength and youth was widespread, which is why ancient Greek athletes rubbed olive oil on their bodies before tournaments. All over the ancient world, olive oil was infused with flowers and grasses to produce medicine and cosmetics. A text found in Mycenae, in the Peloponnesus, listed aromatics like fennel, sesame, celery, watercress, mint, sage, rose and juniper as some of the ingredients added to olive oil in the preparation of ointments.

Literary references to the olive tree date at least to the Greek philosopher Sophocles (496 – 406 BC) who referred to the tree in his play Oedipus at Colonus. In Homer's Iliad, the olive gets numerous mentions, proving its importance to the Greek economy – although in my battered old translation, I have never come across the "liquid gold" reference mentioned by so many writers, but perhaps this is only in the original version.

I visited Bshaale, a small village in northern Lebanon, where local belief has it that the massive olive tree on a hill overlooking the village is the oldest in the country and possibly the world. They say this is the tree from which the dove took the branch to Noah. This seems more plausible if you believe, as many Lebanese do, that Noah eventually died in the Bekaa Valley.

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The Bible itself is packed with over 140 references to the value of olives and olive oil. In the Old Testament, it is said that men who worked the olive harvest were exempt from the army. In Jeremiah, the olive becomes a metaphor:

"The Lord called thy name, a green olive tree, fair, and of goodly fruit: with the noise of a great tumult he hath kindled fire upon it, and the branches of it are broken." (11:16)

Elsewhere, it is a source of sorrow, as we learn that the worshippers of the pagan god Baal are punished by having their most precious possession, their olive trees, taken from them; it was on the Mount of Olives, just outside the walls of Jerusalem, that Jesus spent that fateful evening with his apostles, waiting for Judas and the Roman soldiers. Trees, which are believed to date from that time, some 2,000 years ago, still stand today in the garden of the church built to mark the site.

Even today, the olive plays an important role in Eastern Christianity. During Lebanese Easter celebrations, olive branches are handed out on the last Sunday of Lent in memory of the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem. Oil is blessed by bishops and then distributed to churches to be used during baptisms and confirmations, to ordain priests and consecrate churches, as well as for anointing the sick and the dying. Pilgrims visiting religious sites like Harissa and Mar Charbel in northern Lebanon take home small bags containing oil-soaked cotton balls, which they give to other family members as a blessing. The bag is often put under a child's pillow to ward off evil spirits.

During a Greek Orthodox wedding, the couple is anointed with oil, much in the way newborn babies are baptized in a Maronite (Lebanese Catholic) or Roman Catholic ceremony. In both cases, this signifies entry to a new life. For their part, Greek Orthodox babies get a more comprehensive soaking and are completely covered in oil. If a part of the body is missed, it is said that area will remain weak for the rest of the child's life. The parallels with the ancient Greek myth of Achilles and his weak heel, the only part of his body his mother had forgotten to dip in the death-defying waters of the river Styx, are unmistakable.

It isn't just Christians who value the olive. In addition to being named as one of the trees growing in Paradise, both the tree and the oil are often mentioned in the Koran. In the Sura of the Light (24:35), olive oil appears as a symbol of light:

"God is the light of the heavens and earth… lit from a blessed tree, an olive, neither of the East or West, whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it...” Oil fuels the lamp, which gives light. As light is divine, so is the oil that lights the lamp.

The olive was also the blessed tree of the prophet Mohammed.

"Olives and pomegranates, similar (in kind) and different (in variety): eat of their fruit in their season, but render the dues that are proper on the day that the harvest is gathered. But waste not by excess: for God loveth not the wasters." Sura of the Cattle (6:141).

Today, olive oil is given as a traditional gift to pilgrims coming to Mecca for the Hajj.

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If its spiritual significance is shared by many religions in the Middle East, both past and present, the power of the olive branch as a Roman symbol of peace and hope has transcended its early origins to become universal. Today, all over the world people talk about “offering an olive branch" when they wish to make peace. In Lebanon, olive groves were planted right up to the barbed wire border with Israel, after the latter withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000 after an 18-year occupation. Liberation, rebirth, renewal, peace: the olive tree encompasses them all.

Extract from the Green Gold Book – The Story of Lebanese Olive Oil

Decree N. 2385 of 17/1/1924 as amended by law N. 76 of 3/4/1999 ( articles 2, 5, 15, 49 and 85 ) lays down as follows: The author of a literary or artistic work, by the very fact of authorship, has absolute right of ownership over the work, without obligation of recourse to formal procedures . The author will himself enjoy the benefit of exploitation of his work, and he possesses exclusive rights of publication and of the reproduction under any form whatsoever. Whether the work in question comes under the public domain or not those persons will be liable to imprisonment for a period of one to three years and to fine of between five and fifty million Lebanese pounds, or to either one of these penalties, who 1-will have appended or caused to be appended a usurped name on a literary or artistic work; 2-will have fraudulently imitated the signature or trademark adopted by an author, with a view to deceiving the buyer; 3-will have counterfeited a literary or artistic work; 4-or will have knowingly sold, received, or put on sale or into circulation a work which is counterfeit or signed with a forged signature. The punishment will be increased in the event of repetition.

 

 


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