Culture

Olive oil for everything, everywhere, always and forever

Review

BEIRUT: Drizzle it over your hummus and moutabel, pour it into your tabbouleh with an equal measure of lemon juice, douse your loubiyeh bi zeit, your foul mdammas, your labneh and your balila with a healthy portion of it. Use it as a moisturizer, a cuticle softener, a hair conditioner and a makeup remover. Mix it with crushed figs for a homemade colonic, with herbal tea to heal blisters, with water to soothe a sunburn. Prolong the life of cut flowers by soaking their stems in it. Use it to shine furniture and floors, to polish pearls, to grease snowboard bindings, to loosen a stuck zipper or ease a squeaky door hinge. "Green Gold: The Story of Lebanese Olive Oil" details the many modern and traditional uses of olive oil to a degree so dizzying it borders on obsessive.

Written by Sabina Mahfoud with recipes by Mary Elizabeth Sabieh and photographs by Roger Moukarzel and Kamal Mouzawak, "Green Gold" is a vivacious, colorful coffee-table tome and many books folded into one.

It is a swift introduction to Lebanon geared toward a readership of outsiders and a counterweight to the country's international media profile as a war-torn basket-case. It is a story about farmers and rural food producers. It's a journalistic account of sustainable development and a personal narrative of discovery and deep affection. It is a cookbook, a beauty guide and a how-to reference on the process of harvesting olives from start to finish. It is a source book for those interesting in organic products, replete with maps and lists of olive oil producers, distributors and the non-governmental organizations that serve their interests in Lebanon. It is a quick flip or a long slog, depending on your own interests.

Mahfoud, who was born in the UK, raised in Austria and lives in Lebanon with her husband and children, has written a kind of love letter to her adoptive country through the story of its most tenacious trees and the essential ingredients they yield. Her text is littered with historical references (the first Olympic torch was a burning olive branch) and literary allusions (Homer allegedly called olive oil "liquid gold," though Mahfoud admits the reference doesn't exist is her battered translation of "The Iliad").

To structure her narrative, Mahfoud sets out to visit Lebanon's olive harvesting regions and meet the farmers who have been pruning, picking and pressing olives for generations. In Zgharta, she speaks to Sheikh Suleiman al-Dagher, president of the olive oil producers' syndicate. In Akkar, she seeks out Youssef Fares, an agricultural engineer who uses a modern press to extract his own brand of olive oil called Zejd. She ventures to Sidon to catch up with Zahia Abboud, a third-generation olive farmer who uses a stone press that dates back to 1932.

With such subjects as Jamil Bou Farah in Kfar Aqaa, farmer-musician Marwan Khodor in Baakline and Suhaila Bannout Sinai, Mahfoud's purpose is that of recording oral histories for the sake of posterity. She asks the farmers how they tend to their olive groves and whether they irrigate their trees or depend on rainfall. She questions their methods for determining when the harvest season should begin. She tests out theories and proverbs and bits of mysticism she has picked up over the course of her research.

At times, she seems eager to romanticize or exoticize her material - she asks Bannout if the lunar calendar guides her to her ripest olives and if she picks them under the cover of moonlight. "No, I just squeeze the olives on the tree," Bannout replies bluntly, "and when they are juicy enough I know it's time." No-nonsense farmer 1, high-minded city folk 0.

If olive oil is Lebanon's green gold, as Kerala's peppercorns were once the South Indian state's black gold (thus attracting numerous waves of colonial exploitation), then this book is also an appeal for the country's rural villages to turn the tables and package their goods as a potentially lucrative gourmet export. "Green Gold" gives olive oil the wine treatment - full of fast facts, tasting guidelines and edifying lists that delineate the differences among olive tree varieties and percentages of oleic acid content in the final product.

The Hasbaya region produces olive oil with a hint of bitterness, Mahfoud tells her readers. Zgharta's olive oil has a faint taste of apple. South Lebanon produces olive oil with a flavor of green banana or artichoke. North Lebanon makes olive oil evoking grassiness. Both the North and the South produce olive oil reminiscent of green almonds.

There are times when "Green Gold" irks with its missionary zeal. With lines like  "Divinity seems to flow through the branches of the olive oil tree," the text is cloying at times. But the book's faults are minor and are amply counterbalanced by striking photographs and a veritable glut of useful information.

If nothing else, "Green Gold" will save you loads of cash once you realize that you can trash all those expensive mass-produced beauty products and content yourself with a few jugs of all-purpose home-grown olive oil instead.

"Green Gold: The Story of Lebanese Olive Oil" is published by Turning Point

 

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