In the Land of the Olive Tree

The olives that dot the Galilee landscape tell a story of coexistence and livelihood for Arab women. The outstanding oil extracted from these olives, which for years has made a name for itself abroad, is a great reward. 

Israel Today / 3 December 2020 (Link to Hebrew version)

Written by Hilah Alpert / Translated by Connie Hackbarth / Photos by Itiel Zion

This is the last call for the harvest season of the Galilee villages. The last to harvest are those that previously had commercial ties with Lebanon, villages like Rama, Peki’in or Tarshiha, which would sell their olives northwards and only from the last olives would they make oil. This is how their palates became accustomed to the delicate, rounded taste of oil pressed from very ripe olives.

Unlike the pungent taste of the oil pressed in villages along the coastal plain, where villagers rushed to harvest immediately after the first ripening due to raids by thieves, and who to this day love the green taste, the intoxicating fruitiness that kicks in the mouth and nostrils.

“We are somewhere in the middle” tells me Abed al-Majid Hussein, the eldest of four sons of Diab and Salwa Hussein from Deir Hanna, in the heart of the Lower Galilee. Their parents bequeathed them over a hundred dunams of olive trees and now three of them, together with their wives, are using hand shakers to rain the olives down on sheets spread out on the ground. Raif is a doctor of politics who arrived on vacation from Germany, where he established a home. Muhammad owns an event hall that is now shut down, like the youth hostel where his wife Muna cooks or the school where Ghada, Abed’s wife, teaches, while Abed himself has for years taught at the agricultural high school in Rama.

All the brothers have passed the age of fifty, but as they climb the trees, laughing at the arduous work of the harvest, one can see the small children they once were, helping Grandpa, the first in the village to lay down cotton sheets, making it easier to pick the olives. As is the case with traditional crops, the olives were grown without irrigation or chemicals. The oil produced was used in part by the family, while the remainder was sold to merchants from the West Bank.

When Abed returned from studying agronomy in Germany in the early 1990s, he was quick to understand the changes in trade following the first intifada. He recognized the burgeoning interest in olive oil by the Jewish market, so he arranged the paperwork needed to formally make the olive grove organic. In 1996 he joined an Arab Jewish organization named after the oak trees that grow on the edges of the olive grove, Sindyanna in Arabic. Sindyanna of Galilee is a fair trade association that, among its many activities, produces first-class olive oil. The oil we tasted, from the 2020 harvest, is nothing short of outstanding.

The story of the birth of Sindyanna of Galilee begins with Hadas Lahav, aged 67, who worked as a typist in the Schocken press chain and decided to concentrate on social work instead. She studied Arabic and in 1993, together with teachers from Majd al-Krum, led a project designed to give mothers tools to help their children with homework. “We called it the ‘additional factor’,” she says as we sit in Sindyanna’s visitor center, the path to which is studded with hydroponic planters of herbs and species of insanely crunchy lettuce intent on flowering within the dusty industrial area of Kanna.

“No one took the mother seriously, Lahav continues.” She had to clean, cook, serve the men. We taught enrichment classes in math and reading comprehension and through this work, realized that women want to be able to make a living, make an impact, buy independence and support themselves. We started thinking about what could be done. There were no industrial areas then and who even had the money to dream of a high-tech incubator. All we saw around us were olive groves.”

The olives that create the Galilee landscape provided the answer for which Lahav was searching. Friends introduced her to Abed Hussein. She says it was clear to both that West Bank traders who come with dollars in one pocket and dinars in the other were not the way to develop the industry, and Abed proposed to make his grove organic.

Volunteers came to the harvest, and the oil was distributed half and half between the landowners and Sindyanna, which sold it to the bubbling world of Tel Aviv restaurants. Among the first clients were Haim Cohen’s renowned Keren restaurant, chef Erez Komarovsky and Rafi Adar’s restaurant, Pronto.

“They loved the oil and the story that comes with it. It’s not that we were big experts. We rented a small room in Majd al-Krum and would pack the oil in plastic yellow Jerri cans – the less said the better . We didn’t even notice the Jerri cans had a ‘non-edible’ label printed on them,” laughs Lahav. She remembers those beginnings: the memory of medals from all sorts of small competitions that they received almost by surprise, the lessons she learned from Dr. Fathi ‘Abd al-Hadi, an olive man and a great cultivator of the industry, who four years ago went to press oil for God.

But then came the October 2000 events and the painful rift that accompanied the early 2000s. Israelis avoided contact with the Arab community. Lahav says there was fear in the air and then the moment to decide whether to continue or not.

Then came a deep realization that they could not rely on the local market. “After a long process, we were accepted into the fair trade organization (WFTO),” she says. “We had to convince them that even though Israel is a rich developed country, we were working with a weakened population. We passed this test and were accepted. ”

Exports to countries like Japan, Germany, Belgium, England and the US, and participation in exhibitions, have spawned a rigorous work protocol and Sindyanna’s deep understanding that romance is not enough. It must strive for the highest level of professionalism to stand out in the increasingly competitive olive oil market and excel so that at the end of each year, despite the challenges, profits remain to provide a livelihood for the women.

Sindyanna of Galilee, according to Lahav, is happy to receive donations and state budgets for its social and economic endeavors, “but we are not sitting idly by and waiting for them.” All collaborations for expansion purposes are carefully selected, like in 2010 when an oasis was planted, in Wadi Ara. There, on 100 dunams that were previously used as a shooting area of the army, and in cooperation with the Al Juzur company from Ara and a fair trade organization from Milan, Sindyanna planted thousands of olive trees of the Barnea and Coratina varieties and a one of a kind, modern organic orchard blossomed on rocky soil. The oil produced this year from this plot, Coratina with a touch of Barnea, is hard to forget. How many aromas, how many tastes in every drop.

Two years later came the Abu Khatum family, metal merchants from Yafia who had no idea about agriculture, but whose mother inherited land and refused to sell it. They contacted Sindyanna, which together with The Church of Scotland planted a 30 dunam orchard. In the heart of this orchard is an experimental plot of the Volcani Institute, an agricultural research center. Here various types of olives from the Israeli olive breeding program are planted and from there come olives sold in jars in the visitors center. These olives, found too hard for pressing oil, were pickled one year ago and if you put them between your teeth, you will know happiness.

It’s noon. A wonderful salad from the lettuce we first encountered in the planters, and cooked dishes that rise and fall on the quality of the olive oil in them. The food is delightful, as is listening to Nadia Giol, Sindyanna’s training coordinator and an educator whose Hebrew sings [early Israeli poet] Hayim Nahman Bialik. Hadas’ phone rings. On the line is Ehud Soriano, a great olive oil expert who has accompanied many of the country’s leading oil producers. Since 2015 he has also accompanied Sindyanna of Galilee. From the orchard to the oil press, which was opened by Raed Hussein, a charming man who a few years ago established a great oil press in the Deir Hanna Valley. The press features a separate line for organic olive oils that seek to connect tradition with the revolution in quality of the olive branch.

It was a short conversation that made Hadas happy. Acidic values are extremely low, and any oil manufacturer knows that low values on the label mean more sales. Later Soriano tells me that there is nothing to get excited about, that low acidity is meaningless when it comes to the health values or resilience of the oil. That this is a remnant of a world that knew how to test this, and therefore that is what stood out. He conveys to me that what determines is whether the oil is delicious or not. The 2020 oil of Sindyanna of Galilee, although there is less of it this year, is of excellent quality.

You can find all of Sindyanna’s products in their online store, but I suggest you drive to Kanna, to the Visitors Center. They are insanely careful about wearing masks. Buy a tool or braided hairpin created in one of the workshops they conduct, discover the taste of the oil, buy a jar of carob syrup, the likes of which I did not know, and if you are lucky maybe some of the pickled olives I told you about will still remain.

See the works of art hanging on the walls, donations by artists, both Arabs and Jews, for “Bread and Roses”, the exhibition curated by the artist and director of the Visitors Center, Dani Ben Simhon. If you have the strength, go downstairs to the small packing plant where your senses are filled with the smell of olives and hyssop. The smell of the extraordinary making of a “bubble in itself,” as Hadas says. “We’ve been through a lot of wars and conflicts. Periods where you can’t turn on the TV because it destroys your soul, and then you come here and relax. There’s no stress. From a young age I came to the conclusion that we cannot live together if there is no way to cooperate. A way to recognize and respect each other. Love is a heavy word. Isn’t that right, Nadia? ”

In honor of those who insist on olive branches, in honor of women who insist on women and in honor of their wages, an extraordinary olive oil, I bring you recipes we enjoyed at Sindyanna of Galilee.

Mjadara (Nahida Zreiki)

  • 2 cups of brown lentils
  • 2 cups of burgul (wheat groats)
  • 6 medium-sized onions, cut in half and thinly sliced
  • Olive oil
  • 1 heaping teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon of the Ras alHanut spice. (blend of the shop’s best spices. Varies from shop to shop)

Wash the lentils, add 6 cups of water and bring to a boil, lower the heat and cook for about 25 minutes, until the lentils are almost completely soft. At the same time, in a pan over low heat, fry the onion in half a cup olive oil until browned. Rinse the burgul and add to the pot of lentils. Add the caramelized onion and the spices, cook together until the burgul and lentils blend and are tender. Drizzle with more olive oil and serve hot with a salad or yogurt, and pita or bread to soak it all up.

Delicious Okra (Nadia Giol)

  • 1/2 kilo of fresh, clean okra
  • 6 ripe tomatoes, grated
  • 5-6 fresh garlic cloves
  • Olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1-2 fresh hot peppers, without seeds

In a large pan, pour a cup of olive oil and over medium heat, fry the okra pods with the fresh garlic until lightly golden. Add the tomatoes, salt and peppers and continue to cook, uncovered, until the liquids have completely evaporated. Add a little olive oil and serve with pita.

Endives (Nahida Zreiki)

  • 1 kilo of carefully washed and dried endives, cut into 5 cm cubes
  • 3 medium-sized onions, finely sliced
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • Salt to taste

Cook the endives in a pot of boiling water for about 7 minutes, transfer to a colander, rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process and squeeze the water out with your hands. In a large skillet and on low heat, fry the onion in olive oil. Add the endives, salt and mix well.