Olives, the Olive Tree and Olive Oil have a large presence in the culture and traditions of the Land of Israel. The olive branch was first mentioned in the Biblical story of Noah after the flood a dove returned with an Olive branch as a sign that there is dry land. Olives are one of the seven species mentioned in the Bible as being cultivated in Israel and it is olive oil that was used to anoint Kings, light the Menorah (7 branched candelabra) in the Temple, for cooking, cosmetics and medicine. In the New Testament Jesus agonised in the Garden of Gethsemane during his last week in Jerusalem – Gethsemane in Hebrew is “gath shemanim” which means “olive oil press” – today on a visit to the Garden of Gethsemane you can view olive trees about 900 years old.
Today, olive pits have an important use in archaeological excavations, being organic matter they can be carbon dated to give evidence of the period of activity at an archaeological site. This method was employed in one of the recent contentious discoveries in Israel – the site of Khirbet Qeyafa. This site in the Ella Valley, has been dated according to olive pits found at the site, to have been active during the period of King David. This is an important finding because there is limited archaeological evidence regarding the Kingdom of King David from 3000 years ago. Walking around the site of Khirbet Qeyafa you could literally be walking in the footsteps of David because of the dating of a few olive pits. It is a fascinating site and is thought to be associated with the Biblical city of Sha’arayim meaning “two gates”, since there are two gate complexes that have been uncovered there. The dating of the site is not unanimously agreed upon and so the findings are subject to debate, but if you rely on the olive pits, then it is pretty remarkable.
A visit to Neot Kedumim – a Biblical Landscape reserve, enables one to experience what farming methods were employed in Biblical times as well as what crops were being produced. Nogah Hareuveni the founder of the reserve explains something unique about the placement of the Menorah (7 branched candelabra) in the Temple Sanctuary. The Menorah was placed in the south, and the table with the showbread (bread offerings) was placed in the north – why was this? It is explained in the Talmud (Jewish Oral Law) that “ The northern wind is beneficial to wheat when it has reached a third of its ripening and is damaging to olive trees when they have blossomed. The southern wind is damaging to wheat when it has reached a third of its ripening and its beneficial to olives when they have blossomed. This was symbolised by the table in the north and the menorah in the south” Baba Batra 147a. This teaches us that the placement of these articles in the Temple Sanctuary had meaning, it was an entreaty that the winds would come at the right time –the northern wind when the wheat and barley are ripening but the olive buds are closed, the southern wind one the grains have hardened and so the olive flowers can be pollinated.
At Neot Kedumim you can also see various oil presses used throughout antiquity to crush olives into oil. Ancient production of olive oil involved three stage:
Olives are first crushed into a pulp, using a stone press
Liquids and the pulp are separated. The pulp is put into sacks, and weights are placed on the sacks to press out the juice. The most ancients presses used a lever system and later presses used direct screw pressure.
Separation of oil and water by skimming the oil off from the top of the water
Like good wine, olive oil should be sampled first in a tasting ceremony whereby first you sniff the oil, then it should be swirled in a cup until it reaches 28 degrees at which point it may be tasted and rolled around in the mouth. Ideally it should have a fruity, bitter or sweet taste however a vinegary or burnt flavour is a bad sign.
In Israel Olive oil consumption in Israel stands at about 2.5 litres per person per year, a total of 18,000 tons, and there are 330,000 dunams of olive groves. Hundreds of ancient olive presses have been found throughout Israel throughout different periods and it is amazing that today production still continues an ancient tradition.
Different types of ancient presses are also on display at the Talmudic Village in Katzrin, worth a visit! There are also lots of boutique Olive Oil mini factories – here are some to name a few (there are so so many):
Galili Olive Oil
Avtalyon Olive Oil
Sindyanna Visitor's Centre