Lebanon’s olive oil on a slippery slope
Beirut - Most of the 1.5 million visitors to Lebanon in 2015 enjoyed the country’s many restaurants. They might be surprised to learn the olive oil they poured over their mezzeh was almost certainly imported and probably smuggled from Turkey or Syria to avoid import duties.
Lebanese themselves buy cheaper oils for cooking but they cherish small supplies of olive oil acquired from friends or relatives, often from their home village, which they keep for mezzeh and salads.
Lebanon is probably where olive oil originated. In her book Green Gold: The Story of Lebanese Olive Oil, Sabina Mahfoud writes that olives were cultivated in the Levant before the Phoenicians took the tree to the Greek islands around 1600BC and later to the Greek mainland, Italy, France, Spain and North Africa.
Millennia later, while olive oil is very popular across Europe — its status as the best-selling oil in Britain is down to celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver — Lebanon’s production remains small scale using traditional methods.
Agriculture has not been a priority for successive governments and farmers, usually working part-time on small plots, are unable to borrow for investment due to high interest rates resulting from a public debt of $69 billion.
As a result, according to government statistics, with 3% of mills automated and 15% semi-automated, 82% rely on old pressing technology. About 17,000 olive growers tend 14 million trees, of which half are more than 50 years old.
In mountain areas with steep valleys, vehicle access is impossible and farmers use donkeys. Many orchards are not irrigated and so depend on the weather, meaning annual production can vary from 12,000 to 32,000 tonnes.
Estimates of a crop of 21,000 tonnes in 2015 can be compared with 1.3 million tonnes in Spain, 350,000 tonnes in Italy, 143,000 tonnes in Turkey and 140,000 tonnes in Tunisia.
Yusef Fares, a 36-year-old alumnus of the ESSEC Business School in France, is among those who say that such low volume and traditional methods should be seen as a strength and not a weakness. He produces organic oil from his own land. In 2013 he opened a shop in the upmarket area of Achrafieh in East Beirut. “People appreciate the chance to taste the oil before they buy it,” he said.
The traditional way of making oil is time-consuming. The best olives, of all sizes, that become green gold, are ground slowly by a large, vertical traditional grindstone around a metre in diameter, producing a paste of oil, pulp and water, which passes into a hydraulic press and is compressed to extract a mixture of oil and water. It is then put through a centrifuge for separation.
Extra virgin olive oil — with a very low acidity — comes from the first press of the olives and it is the traditional grinding that, for connoisseurs, gives the oil its authentic flavour.
About a decade ago, Lebanon was awash with optimism about olive oil. The Stanford Research Institute produced an export plan, funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), that highlighted growing international demand for olive oil in international markets, especially as awareness grew among high-income customers of its taste and health benefits.
Like so much else in Lebanon of recent times, this seems a lost opportunity. A decade later, of the 298.8 tonnes of olive oil imported by the United States in 2013, 48.6% came from Italy, 19.7% from Spain, 11.9% from Tunisia and 2.5% from Greece.
Lebanon’s share was bracketed in the 1.2% of “others” behind both Argentina and Chile.
Under a 2002 agreement, Lebanon could export 1,000 tonnes a year to the European Union, which consumes 70% of the world’s olive oil, but is exporting only 40 tonnes, largely because the oil is not certified as meeting exacting European standards. Around half of Lebanon’s exports of around 6,000 tonnes go to South America and Canada.
Rather than wait for the government to carry out promises to establish a laboratory and introduce certification, some companies have taken their own initiatives. Fares’ business, OliveTrade, launched in 2006 a new brand of organic oil, Zejd, that has reached France, the United States, Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, Japan and Switzerland.
The company expanded from Fares’ own 24 hectares of land with 6,000 trees in the village of Baino, in the northern district of Akkar, to press olives from other growers.
OliveTrade has also developed a line in soaps based on olives in years when quality is affected by the weather. For Fares, diversification is essential.
While he says government testing and certification would be a significant boost for producers looking to produce high-quality oil for home and abroad and would give greater confidence to consumers, he has not been prepared to wait.
“In Lebanon, such things are just too slow,” he said.