BEIRUT: Alongside the commercially packaged balsamic vinegar and vegetable oil in our kitchen cabinet is a 2 liter bottle of 7UP filled with fragrant golden olive oil so local that the anonymous maker, from somewhere outside Nabatieh, made do with whatever containers he had.
Local and delicious? Yes. Exportable? Absolutely not. One can hardly imagine rows of elegant canisters of Italian-made olive oil sharing shelf space with unmarked, recycled soda bottles. Enter Yousuf Fares, one of the country’s 17,000 olive farmers, who is trying to elevate the “made in Lebanon” brand in the global marketplace.
Lebanon is already the world’s 17th biggest exporter of olive oil, according to statistics from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Fares says he believes Lebanese olive oil could be more competitive internationally but, like the bottle sitting at home, lacks the marketability.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have the market yet. Only where there are Lebanese do they want to buy Lebanese olive oil,” he adds.
Advocating for one of the oldest and most traditional products in the country seems like an odd cause for a young man like Fares, who runs the olive oil brand Zejd. But he’s become an expert of sorts, one that’s attracted the praise of local food writers like Barbara Abdeni Massoud. And his brand Zejd is a model of how the country’s staple cooking oil could be turned into a delicacy that appeals to foreign gourmets.
One only needs walk by his shop, located on a side street in Ashrafieh, to be convinced.
Hung on the walls and neatly stacked on shelves is Zejd’s range of products made primarily from olive oil farmed and pressed at his family orchard in Beino, Akkar, in northern Lebanon. There are attractive wooden gift boxes, baskets of olive oil soap and a wall-mounted guide to Zejd’s varying products: certified organic premium, tapenades and flavor-infused oils.
Along a shelf, various local ingredients float in 100 ml baths. These are a line of flavored oils, one of Fares’ many creations born from the desire to infuse, literally, a very local flavor into his product. Tastes of thyme, Aleppo pepper, garlic, lemon and orange zest mingle with the pungent smell of olive.
Creating something uniquely local is part of the challenge. One of his most popular products, for example, is a fusion of pomegranate molasses and olive oil. It’s an obvious pairing to the Lebanese, but in places like the U.S. the innovation won Zejd accolades, he says.
“You know pomegranate is getting a huge hype, not only in Lebanon but everywhere,” he says. A foreign customer proves him right minutes later, when she walks in and heads straight for the pomegranate infusion.
“I’m a sucker for pomegranate,” she says before carrying her purchase out the door.
His interest in promoting the local olive also led him to create a line of tapenades, ones that include unorthodox but indigenous ingredients like figs and sumac. And for the health conscious, he’s imported the spray bottle trend to help Lebanese control the amount of olive oil consumed. “In France, [spray oil] has had a huge success,” he says. After all, “even though olive oil is a good fat, it’s still fat.”
The store’s concept is about more than promoting Fares’ Akkar-grown olives. Oil makers outside Nabatieh and Majdaloun will soon have a tanker in the shop, where customers can fill up on olive oils sourced from his fellow producers. In fact, The Daily Star first met Fares manning a stand at the HORECA tradeshow in early April, where he was dolling out tastes originating from Batroun and Koura in the north to Hasbaya in the south.
But getting Lebanese olive oil up to international standards requires more than a good marketing scheme. When Fares took over his grandfather’s olive groves, he and his uncle had to make the tough decision to replace the old, traditional presses and install updated equipment and modern storage facilities.
There are bigger challenges to regulating Lebanese olive oil, such as preventing fraud. Perhaps the biggest olive oil scandal made news several years ago, when it became known some Italian producers resold cheap Tunisian olive oil as an Italian product. Similarly, some Lebanese mix their product with the less expensive, and even less marketable, Syrian olive oil.
There’s also the challenge of education, which Fares is trying to tackle through cooking classes and tastings. “We teach the difference between a good olive oil and a bad olive oil. We bring some bad olive oil and ask them: Which one was bad? Which one was good? What did you taste? Then we’ll make some recipes with them,” he says.
For example, he suggested pairing a plate of couscous with orange-zest olive oil or coating a plate of roasted potatoes with a thyme infusion.
And despite the challenges, Fares says he sees a way forward into specific markets such as Brazil or the U.S. where a local expat community can help promote the product. “But this cannot be done by one person.”