Cheryl Sternman Rule is the author of RIPE: A Fresh, Colorful Approach to Fruits and Vegetables (Running Press, 2012) and the voice behind the award-winning food blog, 5 Second Rule. Find her on Twitter @sternmanrule.
When you think of olive oil, Italy, Spain and Greece probably come to mind. Maybe even the US, as California olive oils have gained greater prominence. But Israel makes olive oil, too, and I recently had an opportunity to visit a family-owned, environmentally-friendly olive “press” while traveling through that country’s Moshav Tzipori region.
Named after a Talmudic-era scholar, the Rish Lakish Olive Press sits squarely in Israel’s lower Galilee, a region known for olive production. As we walk into the serene, earthen building that houses the press, Ayala Noy Meir, whose family owns the operation, points to the imposing, silent machinery. “The press doesn’t work on Shabbat,” she says simply.
Right. Today’s Saturday.
One of 6 children, Ayala and her siblings have degrees in agriculture. About 10 years ago, their parents began to build the environmentally-responsible olive press as a way to tempt their now-grown children into embracing a family-operated business. They constructed the building out of sustainable materials like stone, hay, and clay, and sealed the structure with both olive oil and egg whites.
In many parts of the olive-growing world, farmers employ huge tractors to harvest the fruit, shaking the trees vigorously to release olives from their branches. Some orchards also spray their trees with hormones and pesticides. These methods take an environmental toll, one the Noy Meirs wanted to avoid.
At Rish Lakish, the all-organic olive trees are combed by hand, with small, plastic rakes about as high-tech as a child’s beach toy. Large nets under each tree catch the olives, which are then quickly transferred to waiting boxes.
The boxes are then brought to the room we’re standing in, a room with a huge mechanical press, so the olives can be pressed as quickly as possible. What’s the rush, exactly? Olives begin to oxidize as soon as they’re harvested, so it’s important to extract their oil immediately. “That’s why we bought our own press,” Ayala explains. It’s also why the family doesn’t press olives brought in from other orchards; there would be no way to guarantee their age, and thus their quality. Plus, olives from other orchards may harbor disease, or have been mishandled. Directing each phase of the process onsite gives the Noy Meirs maximum control.
Ayala walks us through the production process, which starts with the sorting of the fruit from the olive leaves. (Leaves can render the oil bitter, so they must be removed.) Because olive leaves are becoming increasingly popular among natural foods advocates, and there’s a booming market for olive leaf tea and supplements, the Noy Meirs give the cleaned leaves to friends, who process and sell them.
The olive “meat” and pits are then cold-pressed together under stone. Acidity levels are measured, and as long as the “free acids” register below 0.8 percent (an indicator of high quality oil), production continues in large tanks. (If the acidity is too high, the oil gets diverted for cosmetic use; a local woman uses it to make soaps and creams, which Rish Lakish sells in its small shop.)
One of the most special parts of our visit to Rish Lakish took place outside the stone building and under a tent. Here, the Noy Meirs have constructed an outdoor stone oven where visitors are invited to bake bread brushed with – what else? – glossy olive oil. The bread is wonderful – drizzled with additional oil, and baked with fresh tomatoes and herbs from the family’s garden.
Organic olive oil, a family orchard, a small, sustainable press, a sunny day… we eat our bread, happily lost in the moment, and come away with a new appreciation for one of our favorite pantry staples.
All photos by Cheryl Sternman Rule.