Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

29 Kislev 5763 - December 4, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Good Oil

by A. Ben Aharon

It's delicious however you use it: as is, for frying, or in cooking. It's also great as a moisturizer for whoever can afford it. It has almost unlimited uses: as an ingredient in expensive cosmetics, for polishing diamonds, anointing kings, and as baby lotion. Not only is it tasty, but it has remarkable health benefits as well. It is rich in vitamin E, cholesterol free, and maybe even prevents cancer. The ancients used it for food, fuel, and as a preservative. When boiled it was used as ammunition: In wartime, inhabitants of a besieged city would pour scalding oil down onto their hapless enemies. For thousands of years it has played a central role in civilized society. The Mediterranean states recognized its importance and put it to countless uses, including as a medicine and even as currency. Today it is universally acknowledged admired and used. This is olive oil, as The National Geographic so aptly put it several years ago, "The most versatile fruit juice ever squeezed."

Earl Zwingle, a staff writer of the well-known magazine The National Geographic, was sent on assignment to various destinations all over the world to examine olive oil up close: how the olives are grown, harvested, and produced. His first stop was in the heart of Italy, where he experienced his very first olive harvest.

Midwinter. Zwingle found himself at the top of a ladder propped up against an olive tree. In November, the district of Tuscany greets you with a lush, green smile. The sun spreads its golden rays all around. The steep hill is covered with olive trees and vines loaded down with the famous Chianti grapes; but Zwingle did not come all this way just for the view. The olive harvest has arrived. His job was to take part in the frenetic activity of the harvest that has been an ongoing tradition for generations.

Trying to fit in and make himself useful, Zwingle took a rake- like tool used for pulling the olives off the tree. A wide piece of cloth is stretched out underneath the tree to catch the flying olives. This makes them easier to collect and prevents them from spoiling or getting dirty. Not one drop of oil will be lost.

In many countries, olives are harvested mechanically. But not in Italy in the district of Tuscany, and certainly not in Guiseppe Giotti's orchard. With an orchard numbering no more than 600 trees, albeit of superb quality, he cannot afford that luxury.

Guiseppe, sporting a typical Italian moustache, looks up worriedly at the tool-wielding journalist as he balances himself on the ladder. Does he realize how careful he must be? Does he know how to harvest the olives in the gentle manner befitting such a delicate fruit?

A Medicinal Remedy

No more than a few decades ago, all of Guiseppe's customers were fellow Italians. But then all that changed as the formerly "modest" oil stormed the world. It began in the seventies. A study was published that revealed astounding findings: those who live on the coast of the Mediterranean exhibit the lowest incidence of heart disease among all Western nations. Since heart disease is one of the major killers in the United States, this news attracted quite a lot of attention.

Of course, there are many good reasons for the low incidence of heart disease enjoyed by the Italians, Greeks, Spaniards, and others who participated in the study. Not only do the residents of these countries consume olive oil regularly, but also they indulge far less in ready-made and junk foods that have become so typical of American lifestyle. But the Americans, and they were not the only ones, overlooked that point and focused on the benefits of the healthy Mediterranean diet--and rightly so. They began to become increasingly interested in the many merits of olive oil. At the time they did not even realize just how much they would learn.

Did you know that olive oil contains only the "good" cholesterol (it is rich in monounsaturated fat) and not a drop of the harmful kind? What's more, it is rich in antioxidants which prevent the buildup of plaque in the arteries. In less than twenty years, olive oil, by virtue of its medicinal properties, became exceedingly popular. In 1982- 1983, the U.S. imported nearly ten million gallons of olive oil!

And this was just the beginning.

Within ten years, olive oil imports to the U.S. increased to five times that amount. What won't a person do for the good of his health? Especially, when olive oil is so tasty, and lends itself so easily to countless delicious recipes!

The Livelihood of the Elderly

Guiseppe, approaching his golden years, is forced to do the backbreaking labor of hand picking the olives and bending down to collect them, all by himself. His two sons are not interested in olive growing. The olive business does pay, but still he cannot afford to hire workers. And many of his neighbors in Tuscany share the same fate.

Zwingle admits, "It's hard work." He never dreamed that one branch could hold so many olives, nor that there were so many branches hidden in the uppermost reaches of the tree. The small ovals, purple-green in color, are already making him dizzy. He extends the raking tool and pulls it in, repeating this procedure over and over until the tree seems to be empty of all its fruit.

All done? No, not yet. From his spot on the ground, Guiseppe points to a few olives left on the tree. Zwingle gives one last pull on the rake and the remaining olives fall down onto the cloth. Guiseppe nods. Now the tree is truly bare.

Sighing, the journalist climbs down the ladder. Forty- five minutes of harvesting is no easy job. Indeed, the production of olive oil is not a simple task at all. "Behind every bottle of olive oil, I soon learned, is a troupe of tired people in old clothes," Zwingle wrote later.

In the Land of Oil

Most of the world's olive orchards are not in Israel, and not even in Italy, but in Spain. You might find a bottle of first- quality, Spanish olive oil in the grocery or supermarket with the Shearis Yisroel hechsher on it. Now you know why the oil comes from Spain.

Andalusia is the world center for olive growing and olive oil production. The hilly region is covered with the dark green and gray olive trees. The olives thrive in the Mediterranean sun and in the temperate winters characteristic of the Iberian Peninsula and as a result, the harvest is usually of the finest quality.

Archaeologists are also attracted to Andalusia and other districts famous for olive growing as they research ancient oil production methods. Scattered between the orchards, they find relics of ancient olive presses, clay pot shards, and other findings that give testimony to the importance of olive oil in the ancient world, just like today.

Even today, ninety-nine percent of the olive oil produced globally comes from the countries hugging the Mediterranean Sea. This region is the birthplace of the olive, and it supplies the entire world with the precious liquid.

Spain exports over 200 million gallons of olive oil annually. Italy takes second place with 147 million gallons as of 1998. In third place is Greece which exports 117 million gallons annually, and then come Turkey, Tunisia, and Syria. Israel is not even on the list.

Gentle Handling

Guiseppe inherited the farm from his father. The orchards have been handed down from father to son for over a hundred years. He himself was in the Navy but when his father died he went home. Will Guiseppe's sons also come home to take their father's place when the time comes? Probably not. Tradition is no longer a priority among young Italians, just as it is not among most other junior members of Western society.

Earl Zwingle came in November, mid-season, to help out with the olive harvest. In another month, explains Guiseppe, the work will be over. Right now, the most important thing is to store the olives in a safe place before the rain comes. "That is the most important thing," he repeats.

The two men carefully lift up the corners of the cloth and the olives roll to the center. From there they are poured into a huge bucket. In spite of all good intentions, some of the purple-green ovals do end up falling on the ground and getting stuck to the boots of the Italian farmer, bearing testimony to his profession.

Guiseppe's olives are now in a long row of buckets and barrels. If it doesn't rain, (contact with water causes the olives to ferment) Guiseppe will be able to make his trademark, top quality olive oil, as he has done every year. This time, he says with satisfaction, he expects the harvest to slightly exceed two tons. From this amount it will be possible to produce about one thousand gallons of olive oil.

Zwingle's next stop is the factory where the olives are pressed. On the top of a hill, interestingly called the "Mount of Olives," he is awaited by Don Celzo Bidin, who will demonstrate the methods to him.

The word "factory" may be somewhat pretentious to describe this primitive operation. The methods for pressing and extracting the olive "juice" have remained unchanged for the past few hundred years. On the other hand, modern factories with sophisticated machinery are actually performing the identical procedures, the only difference being that they are using modern equipment while the old-fashioned press uses manpower.

At the Olive Press

The approach has remained the same throughout the generations: the olive is ground completely, pit and all. Then the liquid, a mixture of oil and water, is separated from the lumpy olive mass. The final stage is to separate the oil from the water.

The olives from orchards such as Guiseppe's are poured into a huge container. They reach their final stop as they are crushed between two huge millstones. The stones revolve and the olives are ground to a pulp. No, they don't use donkeys and other beasts of burden to pull the millstones anymore. This is done by a high- speed electrical motor.

The machine is turned on and nothing but the sound of olives being crushed can be heard. The workers carefully collect the oily black paste which oozes from between the millstones, spread it out on plastic sheets (another sign of progress), and then a heavy metal plate mashes it at a pressure of 400 atmospheres. Only a hydraulic press can achieve such pressure. Modern technology does, after all, have some advantages over the ancient methods.

The liquid flows from the press into a huge vat where it is allowed to settle for a week. The oil naturally floats to the top, and then it is ready to bottle by hand.

In factories the methods are more sophisticated. Instead of millstones the olives are pounded with steel hammers. The oil is then separated from the water using centrifugal force. The result, however, is the same. The tiny, oval-shaped olives or "trillions of bitter little nubbins," as Zwingle described them, are transformed into something different entirely, an elixir fit for kings and queens: olive oil.

Don Celzo invites the journalist to sit down to a meal, rustic Italian-style: rough, white, bread, which he toasts over a tiny electric grill, some salt, garlic and, on top, a generous helping of fresh olive oil.

Zwingle gives it a try. It tastes rich and alive, with a peppery tang to it. Yes, that is definitely genuine olive oil from Tuscany. And this is what the Italian farmer has been eating for breakfast for the last few hundred years. Bread with oil. What could be more nourishing? Even today, there are many who regularly start off their day with this healthy fare, including many Arabs in Israel.

Thousands of Oil-Years

All the archaeologists agree: The olive tree and olive oil originated in the Middle East, in the lands bordering on the Mediterranean.

The ancient Egyptians knew about olive oil and valued it highly. They told many wondrous legends about it. The Greeks considered it to be a divine gift. The experts claim that the origin was in Eretz Yisroel, and from here the olives migrated northward and westward to all the Mediterranean coastal countries.

The sailors of ancient Phoenicia, today's Lebanon, brought the art of olive growing to neighboring states: the Greeks and the Italians. Eventually, the tree with the delicate fruit reached the far-off shores of Spain which, in the twentieth century, succeeded in making the production of olive oil their number one source of revenue. Over seventy percent of the world's olive oil comes from these three countries.

"But our olive oil is the best," asserts Konstantinos Kokkalis, resident of Athens, Greece.

Perhaps. But the world still buys Spanish oil, making Spain the uncontested oil superpower. Experts claim that in a few more years Spain will control over half the world market. Indeed, one need only to tour Andalusia in order to become convinced of Spain's aspirations. The grayish-green trees cover the hills for as far as the eye can see. It is not by chance that the International Board of Olive Oil is situated in Madrid.

Paco Nunez de Prado is the last in a patriarchal line, going back seven generations, of olive oil growers and manufacturers: "We combine culture with agriculture, and end up with a perfect product." Indeed, de Prado's olives are grown organically, with no artificial fertilizers or insecticides whatsoever. The olives are crushed immediately after being picked, and the olive mass is spread out as in the olden days, before being pressed to release the oil. The end product is sold at specialty stores in Spain and elsewhere, at "specialty" prices.

On to the Laboratory

The oil production in Tuscany is an art. In Andalusia, Spain, it is a science.

Close to Seville is one of Spain's largest bottling facilities, Aceites del Sur. This is the empire of Juan Ramon Guillen and the manager took Zwingle on a personal tour of the huge factory.

"How many different products do you carry?" asks the journalist. In answer he is taken to a room with samples of the factory's many and varied products on display. Rows upon rows of shelves are stacked with bottles, containers, and cans: olive oil in every imaginable size, shape, color, and label.

The products of Aceites del Sur are sold throughout the world, from the United States to India. Guillen shows Zwingle a small green can. This is how olive oil is sold in Saudi Arabia, without any label or identifying picture. In order not to anger the fundamentalist Arabs, the Spaniards are willing to forgo the label that distinguishes their oil worldwide.

There are those who consume the oil and those who use it as a cosmetic. "In India," Guillen says, "they buy a lot of olive oil but they don't use it in food. They rub it on their hair."

Zwingle is now taken to the laboratory, the heart of the huge factory. This is where the quality is tested and where decisions are made as to certain changes that need to be made. "Everybody thinks that the oil is always the same, but there are many different types," Guillen explains. "There is bitter and there is sweet."

In order that their product attract the widest possible market, Guillen's food engineers make certain necessary modifications. "The Americans like their oil very, very thin and with no taste," says Guillen. "In Mexico, they like it darker, and spicier. The Arabs want their oil to be green and sweet. They eat a lot of bread and use the oil as a garnish."

Guillen serves his guest a series of shot glasses, each one containing a tiny amount of olive oil. Zwingle takes a tiny taste from each one.

An expert in the field knows how to differentiate between the flavors. There are about one hundred olive oil products, featuring many different and varied flavors, like apple, almond, and even flowers. Zwingle learns how to distinguish between "Manzanilla," which is smooth and fruity, and the Moroccan "Picoline," which is sweet and delicate.

"What about "Picual?" the guest asks. Guillen hesitates. This is an additive to the oil that is sold to the Arabs. But Zwingle insists on tasting it and Guillen is reluctant to offend him, a representative of a worldwide magazine.

The Picual seems all right: strong, slightly bitter and with a powerful aroma of olives.

The Real Thing

There are oils that undergo processing and oils that preserve the real flavor. In order to enjoy real, old- fashioned, unadulterated, olive oil, one must take care to purchase cold- pressed oil that was mechanically extracted. Such oil should contain no more than one percent acid. The experts will verify and confirm this.

Whatever does not meet these exacting standards will be graded "B." Those oils are sold under labels such as "refined oil," and contain some of the original top quality oil for flavor. If you want genuine olive oil you must make sure the label says "Extra Virgin Oil" or "Katit Me'uleh."

Even so, don't expect the taste to be identical year after year. Real olive oil is different from year to year and from crop to crop. Only processed oils can be consistent over the course of time. In order to achieve a certain taste that appeals to their market, and to keep this consistent, a factory will sometimes mix different kinds of oils according to a tried and true recipe.

We'll let you in on another secret. Spain is capable of producing different types of oil, processed and unprocessed. However some countries such as Italy cannot always meet the local demand and therefore, a bottle of Italian oil may very well contain a percentage of oil originating from Spain or Greece.

Still, the world market does not yet recognize Spain's superiority in olive oil production. A case in point would be the U.S., which imports 73 percent of its olive oil from Italy.

From Oil to Soap

In Kalamata, Greece, Panayiotis Sardelas opened an olive oil soap factory.

"I started this business forty years ago," he says. "I had an olive press, and people asked for soap. I took the chance. I had an old woman working for me and she taught me the secrets of the trade. I started out with fifty kg. and after three or four years I was selling four tons annually."

In order to manufacture soap, there is no need for quality oil meant for eating. Sardelas buys the sediment that is left over from the oil production and mixes it with caustic soda and other ingredients. This is all poured into a vat and cooked for twelve hours. Then, when lumps begin to form, the caustic soda sinks to the bottom from where it can be easily removed. At this point, the soap is rinsed in saltwater in order to remove unwanted additives. The soap is now ready for packaging and marketing.

Although he claims to be doing very well, Sardelas does most of the work himself. He manufactures the soap, distributes it, and even does his own bookkeeping.

"The older generation knows that this soap is better than chemical equivalents," he says. "It lasts longer and is multi- purpose. It can even be ground into flakes and used as laundry detergent. Some doctors prefer it to regular soaps for use when scrubbing."

Olive oil can also be used as is, without even being processed into soap. Some even claim that, together with vinegar, it is the ideal hair conditioner. This concoction is equally effective against burns. And a Cretan farmer stubbornly asserts that olive oil healed his backache. He used the oil for ten days and the pain disappeared. No, he didn't rub it on his back like a liniment; he swallowed two tablespoons of oil every morning on an empty stomach.

We don't have any statistics proving the value of olive oil as a home remedy, but the experts agree that it is highly beneficial from a medical point of view.

Through the Eyes of a Chemist

Geronimo Diaz is a chemist, a professional olive oil taster, and a technical consultant on scholarship. Not only is he an oil expert, but he is in love with his subject. "The world of olive oil is so beautiful that you could be captured by it," declares Diaz.

Eighty percent of the oil contains polyunsaturated fats. Therefore it maintains a healthy level of "good cholesterol," and prevents the level of bad cholesterol from rising. And that is not all. Olive oil is rich in vitamin E and polyphenols, which not only reduce the accumulation of fatty deposits that clog the arteries, but also lessen the danger of contracting certain types of cancer, Diaz reveals.

In order to enrich his knowledge of olive oil, Diaz has travelled all over the world. He has already visited Tokyo, Taipei, and Sydney, Australia. "I don't talk about anything other than olive oil," he says. "I don't read about anything else. Olive oil is my passion."

Chemists at the Technion in Haifa are in full agreement with Diaz. "Olive oil reduces the danger of heart disease and hardening of the arteries. It improves circulation and increases the supply of oxygen to the whole body, particularly the brain. It slows down mental and memory deterioration associated with advancing age. As an antioxidant, it lengthens the life span of body cells, and significantly reduces the danger of certain types of cancer."

"A good name is better than good oil," but no oil is better than olive oil.

Olive Oil Reduces Blood Pressure

The medical benefits of olive oil have long been recognized. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, claimed that an increase in olive oil intake can help patients suffering from hypertension get by with less medication.

The study was conducted in Italy with patients who had moderate to medium levels of hypertension and who were on medication. The researchers investigated the effects of a diet rich in olive oil (not as a supplement, but as a substitute for other fats) on patients as they continued to take their regular dose of medicine. A control group was given a regular diet.

The study's findings pointed to a significant drop in the blood pressure of those patients who were on the olive-oil diet and who, consequently, required less medication. Polyphenol, an antioxidant, is considered to be the active ingredient responsible for these favorable results.

Olive Oil and Learning are Good for You

Current research has shown that a liberal use of olive oil could prevent memory loss and sustain mental agility. A study published in the journal Neurology, shows that a diet high in monounsaturated fatty acids, such as are found in olive oil, protects memory performance and guards against decline of the cognitive processing functions that are often associated with aging.

"A Mediterranean diet of vegetable oils and, in particular, extra-virgin olive oil, protects people from age-related cognitive decline," reports Antonio Capurso of the University of Bari, who carried out the study on 300 people aged 65 to 84.

The researchers believe the effect could be related to the role of fatty acids in maintaining the structural integrity of the brain, particularly those associated with memory.

Previous research showed people who are more highly educated have less risk of memory loss and decline in intellectual ability.

Dr. Capurso and his research team found that increasing the uptake of monounsaturated fatty acids improved everyone's chances of maintaining memory and mental ability but was more noticeable in people with low education.

"High education levels also protect against age-related cognitive decline but high monounsaturated fatty acid intakes strongly protect people with two risk factors for decline -- aging and low education levels," said Dr. Capurso.

This is consistent with the recommendations of the gemora that olive oil is good for memory, and that talmidei chachomim retain their intellectual powers.

Monounsaturated fatty acids can be found in numerous oils including olive, sesame, palm, corn, sunflower, soybean and cotton seed. Fatty acids can also be found in beef, turkey, chicken, eggs, milk, butter, mackerel, herring and walnuts.

Hiddur in Olive Oil for Chanukah

by Badatz Shearis Yisrael

For those who wish to be mehader in lighting the Chanukah candles, Maran HaRav Y. S. Eliashiv said that the closer the oil used for lighting on Chanukah is to the type of oil that was used to light the Menorah in the Beis Hamikdash, the more mehudar it is.

In general, "katit" is more mehudar than "zach" and an oil that is edible is more mehudar than an oil that is not edible. The most mehudar is oil that is 100 percent katit.


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