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Bechealeh’s ancient trees still producing high-end olive oil

It is very unusual for olive trees to grow at such a high altitude. (The Daily Star/T.K. Maloy)

BECHEALEH, Lebanon: Olive trees have yet to be found – and perhaps never will – that are older than the 6,000-year-old grove aside the sleepy hamlet of Bechealeh, in northern Lebanon.

Perhaps most intriguing of all is that these trees are still bearing olives, whose oil is once again being sold far and wide. George Billing is one of their de-facto protectors under the auspices of his non-profitable “Sisters Olive Trees” association.

While his various other affiliations – he belongs to three other preservation-oriented groups, including the Association for the Preservation of Lebanese Heritage – have him tilting at bureaucratic and commercial construction windmills in favor of keeping alive the past of Lebanon, his most recent venture with the “Sisters” is working to save what may be one of the most ancient olive groves in the world.

Billing and his group are also working to launch a business enterprise selling the product of Bechealeh olive trees in order to not only preserve the old grove but establish a learning center in the village about the history of olive farming, build local nature trails, and along the way help promote Lebanese premium olive oil to the world.

The trees of Bechealeh are unusual due to the altitude they grow at and for what some experts say is their added healthful nature.

“It’s a simple act, trying to save what’s left of the grove – but we are adamant that we do that in the most professional and scientific way available,” Billing said.

The “Sisters” trees are rented from the Maronite Church – which owns various plots in Bechealeh – with the design that most profits go back toward the preservation of the tress and the funding of local initiatives.

“Here you have Lebanon, an often war-torn country – but amazingly with this most recognizable peace symbol on the planet [the dove and olive branch],” Billing added. “This grove is the olive trees of Noah, according to ancient legend that dates back to the classical Greek period some 2,500 years back.”

Abbe Antoine Maroun, the Maronite father for Bechealeh, says in all serious that it is nothing short of a “miracle” for trees to grow at this higher than usual altitude of 1,311 meters and live so long.

Billing is Lebanese and grew up near to Bechealeh in a family of landowners. He chooses not to identify his family, preferring to work toward his preservation goals without any fanfare.

After traveling and living abroad for over 15 years he returned to his native Lebanon, where he works toward tracking down unique and forgotten fragments of Lebanese heritage that could benefit from preservation assistance and awareness.

It was within the last two years that his thoughts began to return to the olive trees of Bechealeh and their special qualities, particularly the old grove.

“Nobody seemed to be taking care of them or telling their story,” he said.

However, not being privately owned proved a plus a year ago when Billing wanted to step in and assist in the tree’s preservation, and to revive the marketing of their chief product – olive oil.

“Our ambitious project aims to bring the public attention to this treasure,” a prospectus written by the association notes.

Artisanal foods, olive-derived products, an open air museum, and a library are among the many planned projects aiming to make of Bechealeh and its millennial trees a touristic, cultural and historical sanctuary, for those of us who seek a glimpse of an ancient spirit who’s still among us since the dawn of humanity.”

The group’s prospectus adds that it is dedicated to bringing back to market the “finest and most luxurious organic olive oil products that our olive trees and village produces to this day.”

Amid these arguably ambitious but laudable goals, the association has begun pressing olives from the grove to produce ultra-premium, extra virgin oil that is following a luxury retail strategy.

According to Billing, the “Sisters” brand is targeting the high-end section of its category on a global scale, marketed through word-of-mouth and luxury communication channels.

The premium oil is currently available at several upscale gourmet stores and luxury-chic hotels around the world, with online purchasing available on the group’s website.

Lebanon has an estimated 13 million olive trees under cultivation, with most of the olive oil produced consumed domestically.

It is a common staple of every Lebanese kitchen, and “most homes have a bowl of zatar and olive oil at hand for dipping bread and for drizzling over plates of labneh.”

Billing and company hope to get a World Heritage Site designation for the Bechealeh site based on its historical value.

He noted that the trees are ancestors of the Baladi-Ayrouni olives, one of the “most acclaimed olive tree varieties in the Mediterranean and the world.”

Billing explained that the olives are processed and bottled by hand with zero oxygen exposer, unfiltered, and “have a very low acidity ... are very high in polyphenols and [are] made through the exclusive process of cold crushing under vacuum.

“The olives are pressed within a maximum of four hours after picking ... [and] packaged in a flask-like ceramic bottle designed from the ancient Lebanese kitchen bottle, the ‘Ibrik.’”

For more information, see: www.sistersoliveoil.com.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 31, 2012, on page 5.

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