The Israel Olive Branch Festival occurs in October-November each year and extends from the Negev to the Galilee. I joined a tour to one of the Druze festival sites in the Upper Galilee, hoping to bring some olives home to pickle, and remembering how long I ago I picked olives on Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu.
… I was very new in Israel then. In fact, I got off the plane and went straight to the kibbutz to join the Ulpan program, where I worked in the fields in the mornings, and studied Hebrew in the afternoons. I learned enough Hebrew to get by. Picked up all kinds of other information too, like on the first day we students went olive harvesting.
At the ghastly hour of 6:30 a.m., we climbed onto the back of a rusty old truck and bumped over dusty fields in the growing light, stopping at the olive orchards. I stood and looked at the trees laden with green and purple fruit. How do you pick the fruit, I asked the dour kibbutznik in charge. I meant, one by one, with your fingers, or how?
He said impatiently, “It’s just like milking a cow.”He made a gesture of pulling his fist downwards.
Oh, er, right. I’d just come from urban Caracas and Rio de Janeiro, and had no idea how to milk a cow. Or a sheep. Or a nanny goat, for that matter.
But I learned. That is, I learned to pick olives. And the feeling of plump olives against the palm of my hand, and the scrape of the wood as the olives come away from the twig, stays with me. So partly from nostalgia, and partly because I love everything about olive trees, I jumped at the chance to travel north and stand in the soft blue light between olive trees again.
Our jeep stopped at the edge of an irrigated orchard.
The guide told us that at first, local farmers resisted irrigating. After all, olive trees have thrived on rainfall alone since the world was created. Like this one, said to be over 2000 years old, and still bearing fruit.
Wouldn’t it be amazing to plant a tree with the serene assurance that your descendants, in a time so distant as to be unimaginable, will continue picking its fruit? I wonder who those first farmers were, and what hopes they had when they planted their saplings. Did they dream that the work of their hands would endure 2000 years?
But systematic watering allows trees to be planted closer together than those that live on rainfall. More trees per dunam (1000 square meters, or 0.247 acres), and juicier olives. Olive oil yields from irrigated trees are four to five times higher. A pretty good reason to irrigate. And Israel’s olive oils have begun to garner international awards at the TerraOlivo competition.
The top photo shows another innovation: harvesting with a mechanical tool. Traditionally, workers have beaten the trees to knock the fruit off, which broke valuable branches. The Italian-made stick with rotating blades on top just knocks the olives off without harming the tree.
But some things remain the same. Laborers gather up the tarp onto which the olives fall, then select them by color. Dark olives are ripe and give the best oil. Half-ripe olives are good for pickling. One worker taking a break didn’t mind our group standing around and taking pictures.
And this Druze grandmother didn’t mind either. She’s separating the leaves from the olives. To enjoy a healthy old age, sitting in the shade with your bare toes to the sun, doing useful work in the fresh air …I can think of worse things.
I closed a fist over a well-laden twig and pulled down. Yes – that satisfying weight of fruit in the hand, the easy gesture of throwing the olives onto the tarp – it was there.
This sheikh asked us to come visit his house. Our guide seemed anxious not to decline his offer, out of respect. In fact, demonstrations of respect and good feeling between men seems to be very important in Druze culture. So off we went. It was a short walk through the peaceful groves.
The ladies of the house set out an oil tasting for us. Their homestead oil had been pressed that day, in this little home crusher.
You can see how vibrantly green the oil is in the (blurred) photo below.
There were freshly-baked flatbreads,
home-pickled olives, oil for dipping, and za’aatar.
But what za’atar. I didn’t taste, for kashrut reasons, but brought the dish to my nose and sniffed. It was pungent and strong. It made the commercial mix you pick up at supermarkets look pale. It was The Real Thing. The olive oil was for sale, but not the za’atar – the family makes it for themselves and let us tourists have some as a courtesy.
The sheikh, whose name, I’m sorry to say, I never caught, and his wife. I love how calm and forthright they are, looking straight into the camera.
The wife took me into their house and showed me their wedding photograph.
And pantomimed that the beautiful young woman in this photo is herself.
She is no less beautiful now.
And this is what it’s all about.
The Olive Branch Festival is almost over, but will revive for Chanukah. Israeli readers can click on this link to get more information about it.