SIDON, Lebanon: Issa Semaan is 80 years old and has undergone open-heart surgery, but that isn’t stopping him from climbing up trees to pick this season’s olives.
Across the country, from Akkar to south Lebanon, generations of families are beginning the olive harvest, which usually starts in mid-October and lasts into December.
Olive orchards blanket Hasbaya, Marjayoun and Bint Jbeil, all of which are known for their production, but the crop is also important for the villages to the east and south of Sidon and Zahrani.
“Olive trees are mentioned dozens of times in the Bible and the Quran,” says Maha Najem, who is overseeing the harvest in her orchard in the village of Darb al-Sim, southeast of Sidon.
“Lebanon is blessed to have them,” she says, adding that there are three types of trees.
The first is the local “baladi” variety, which has the best quality and the finest taste. The second – which produces small, black olives, known as “smeiemi” – are used to produce olive oil. The third is the Italian tree, which was introduced to the country by the Romans.
Most farmers here still use traditional methods to harvest the olives, by hand or with a stick. After collecting the harvest, the olives are ready to be transformed into an array of products.
According to Najem, the plump, fat ones – soaked in salt and water – are destined to be table olives.
Olive oil, golden and rich in monounsaturated fat (a so-called “good fat”), is made with a press. Whatever is leftover will be used for products such as olive oil soap, which leaves skin soft and smooth.
A small olive tree will typically produce around 70 kilos while large trees provide roughly 100 kilos. For 16 kilos of oil – the amount found in a typical metal canister – 75 kilos of olives are necessary. A kilo of raw olives sells for around LL6000.
To ensure bountiful production, olive trees require care, including pruning and natural fertilizer. But for orchard owners, the connection to the crop goes beyond business.
“The olive tree is sacred for Muslims and Christians. Jesus Christ held an olive branch as symbol of peace,” Najem says.
In the Quran, olives are praised in the Sura at-Tin, in which God swears to figs and olives – products He deems valuable and precious – that He created humans in a perfect form.
At midday, Najem invites those who are helping her harvest, mostly migrant workers from Syria, to come to lunch. Everyone enjoys their sandwiches of eggs, potatoes and yoghurt, which they pull from lunch boxes brought into the orchards in a long-followed tradition.
Not everything is the same as when Semaan was a boy. He says that some of the very old olive trees are being uprooted to be replanted in the gardens of wealthy residents.
“They don’t cut it down, but it still hurts my heart,” he says. “It’s like removing someone from their land.”
The nearby towns of Tanborit and Maamarieh are considered by many to be the olive orchard capital of the Sidon district. Here, town residents are waiting for the weekend to harvest their olives when parents are not at work and the children won’t have school.
“We have already started our harvest in Tanborit with the help of workers from Syria,” Maroun Khaatar says. “But it hasn’t reached its peak yet.”
To the west of the town in the village of Maghdousheh, Nakhle Esper, an elderly resident is excited for the season even if he can’t participate like he used to.
“I love the smell of olives, but I can’t climb the trees anymore,” he says.
Esper has an older brother who visits the family orchard using a walker in order to watch the harvest.
“We need to protect our heritage. This is what our great grandparents have left for us,” Esper explains. “We keep some but sell most of the harvest. You might not see me next harvest but this tree will always be here.”
Nearby, Mohammad Moussa is in the middle of the harvest and things aren’t going smoothly.
“Faster, faster,” he yells at the workers, who are picking olives by hand. “I need you to be fast because we need to be productive,” he says, his voice echoing throughout the orchard.
Moussa owns an orchard in the village of Zaghdraya.
“We have no problem selling all of our olives – they are usually sold even before we pick them,” he says, explaining that orders are made ahead of time. Sidon consumes most the olive oil produced in the surrounding villages, and there’s enough to satisfy the demand of city residents.
“We are small villages that sell our harvest to big cities,” Moussa says.
Though rich in tradition and popular for thousands of years, olives and olive oil are enjoying something of a renaissance. In recent years, olive oil began to be thought of as more than just an ingredient. Now attention is given to the quality – way beyond the general categories of virgin, extra virgin, etc. – as well as the diversity of oils.
For local olive oil connoisseurs and fans, the Beirut restaurant Tawlet holds an olive oil tasting on the last Thursday of each month.
Each tasting features a local olive oil producer and the public can learn about what makes their oil unique.
But for orchard owner Ghassan al-Helou, the importance of olive oil lies in its essential role in Lebanese cuisine.
“We eat labneh, foul, [and use it] for zaatar and hummus. None of these can be made without olive oil,” he says. “It’s the sheikh of Lebanese cuisine.”
For more information on Tawlet’s
olive oil tastings, check out the restaurant’s Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Tawlet The next tasting will be held Thursday, Nov. 1, and will feature olive oil from Biomass.