This Chanukah why not light your Menora (Chanukiah) using olive oil to celebrate the existence of this elixir, and while you are at it, give your host a special bottle of Israeli olive oil as a gift? Wine is well covered by Jewish festivals and lifestyle events. There is no lack of opportunities in the Jewish year to say the blessing over wine and enjoy a few glasses and feel righteous at the same time. Chanukah though is a festival that I am at a loss to decide which wine to write about, which is great, because it gives me an excuse to write about olive oil, and it really is the festival of olive oil!
I personally feel the olive and the vine are Siamese twins. They are ever present all over the Mediterranean, certainly no less in the Eastern Mediterranean, but also may be found everywhere in Israel. The beauty of every Israeli landscape contains vines standing up like soldiers or the shimmering green, silvery leaves of the olive tree. The look is Biblical and yet it also is contemporary.
Each of the Seven Species are considered blessed. They survive with less water than most fruit trees. Someone knew what they were recommending for this water parched land. Yet the olive and vine particularly thrive in the same stony, unfertile terrain where other things are unable to grow.
Yet I have always regarded wine and olive oil to be superior and in a world of their own. The final products of the vine and olive tree are so elevated and extraordinary that it is hard to believe that they come from a mere fruit like the grape and olive. They stand out for me as the ultimate symbols of Eretz Yisrael, The Land of Israel, almost more than anything, because they are grounded in earth and not besmirched by politics or gimmicks.
Quite apart from this being the year that we welcomed my newest granddaughter, who is named Olive, there is nothing about the tree and its produce that I do not like. I love the beauty of the olive grove, the silhouette of the tree and its leaves, the tastiness of the fruit and also the olive oil which is a magical product. An Israeli salad with olive oil and lemon juice, beats a vinaigrette any time. There is nothing better than fish cooked under the grill with nothing added apart from olive oil & fresh herbs. How about bruschetta with olive oil drizzled on it? Look at the Mediterranean diet today and then understand that in Biblical times, grain, wine and olive oil were the mainstays of the economy. Olive oil and wine go back to the very dawn of the Jewish people in Israel. Like a thread they connect Ancient Israel with the modern Israel of today. Thucydides wrote that man became civilized when he began to cultivate the olive tree and vine.
Thirty years ago though, we did not write about olive oil, maybe in the Israeli Arab or Palestinian sector, yes, but certainly not in Jewish Israel. However then we were not talking about handcrafted wines from boutique wineries or small diaries with handmade cheeses either.
Today, Israeli wine and olive oil together are the best expression of the Mediterranean diet, and are symbols of the new quality Israeli cuisine. They were forerunners and are now standard bearers of the culinary revolution here.
When I heard about Sindyanna Olive Oil, I thought it was a joint venture between Sindy and Anna. Then I was travelling abroad, saw their bright, colorful, instantly attractive labels and thought, how striking. When I saw it was from Israel, and I thought it curious I did not know them. However when later I tasted the olive oil by chance, I thought I must find out more.
In fact Sindyanna is not a joint venture between Sindy & Anna, but a non -profit partnership between Israeli women, Jews and Arabs. It is also so much more than just an olive oil. Sindyanna refers to the Palestinian oak tree, which forms the logo of ‘Sindyanna of Galilee.’
The female led organisatiom promotes the concepts of business for peace and Fair Trade in Israel. Sindyanna offers educational help and economic opportunities to Arab women, teaching them a trade and helping them to find job opportunities. It creates harmony and cooperation between Jews and Arabs at a time when many seem to have an interest in widening the gaps rather than closing them. Incidentally the olive oil industry unites Israelis like no other product. Jews, Arabs, Druse and Circassians all cultivate olive groves.
It is heartwarming to see the strides Sindyanna have made since they were founded in 1996. It is all about empowering women. This is gradually happening in both Haredi and Arab society and it is a must if the Israeli economy is to survive the unequal burdens in the future.
Today they have a beautiful visitor’s center in Kfar Kana, which was opened in 2015. This was where Jesus turned the water into wine.
The visitors’ center is a meeting place, a center for vocational training, and a Fair Trade shop of products from the surrounding villages. However apart from the feeling that something very good and positive is happening here, they also produce a very good olive oil, which is popular in export markets.
The labels for a start are bright and immediately garner interest. They were designed by the Arab and Jewish children and they have a child’s innocence, brightness and are wonderfully uncomplicated. The names are ‘Peaceful’, ‘Hopeful’, ‘Positive’ & ‘Unified’, each with the prefix ‘Extra’. The names may smack of lefty liberalness, and pigs might fly optimism, but hey, we are talking about Israeli cooperation with Israelis here and something called hope. I am all for it.
The products themselves will stand the scrutiny of olive oil experts. They are genuinely good. They specialize in Barnea, an Israeli variety created by Professor Shimon Lavie. It has gone on to be an international success, particularly in Australia and Argentina. The fruit is small and oblong and it is easier to grow than the Souri. It produces oils with a delicate sweetness and fruitiness and an unmistakable aroma of mown hay. It is sometimes blended with the Italian Coratina which provides the harsh green flavors and bitterness that we sometimes look for in Eastern Mediterranean olive oils and the Spanish variety, Picual, which is mild and balances the green fruit with hints of green tomato and tomato leaves. It represents moderation and harmony and is a useful blender.
A restaurant has a chef, a winery a winemaker, a brewery a brewmaster and a distillery, a master distiller. Sindyanna has Ehud Soriano, a quality olive oil consultant and head of the Israel official olive oil tasting panel. He is a useful man to have on your side, if you are aiming for top quality. He prides himself on consulting ‘from the olive grove to the bottle’.
A successful project has many fathers. However, if I were to mention just one here, it would be Hadas Lahav. She is the CEO. Born into a kibbutz near the Sea of Galilee, she co-founded Sindyanna. She says: “We will not be able to live in a normal place if we do not find ways to work with our neighbours and Arabs can’t live in Israel without working with the Jewish community either”. She goes on: “Right now we are dreaming, but every change in the world started from an idea, from a dream.”
I met her expecting to find a benign, do-gooder sort of volunteer. Instead I found someone with years of experience of olive oil from the tree to the bottle, very knowledgeable and a pusher. If I said bulldozer, she might not think it a compliment, but I was full of admiration for her single mindedness and determination, which she does not attempt to hide. The idea is great and the quality proven, but nothing works without the people to drive it forward and she has a great team.
In my world, a bottle of wine is the ultimate gift. However I never forget as a young wine buyer in England, that a famous winemaker left me a sample of his own rustic olive oil instead of his prestigious wine, which I was hoping for. I was disappointed at the time, but then realized that he held his personal olive oil in greater esteem than the wine. I understood for the first time the status of a fine olive oil, which is in the same category as a fine wine. It is certainly a wonderful gift to receive.
I can vouch for the quality of Sindyanna’s olive oils but there are many very good Israeli olive oils about. However if you drizzle a Sindyanna olive oil onto your salad, you would be supporting a social cause more important than olive oil.
Extra Unified Olive Oil (500ml)The house blend is a combination of Barnea, Coratina and Picual. I found it reasonably similar to the Barnea. Delicate fruity nose, a grassiness, a touch of pepperiness and a harmonious finish. Everything in proportion, but nothing too bold. Price NIS 38
Extra Positive Olive Oil (500 ml)This is a Coratina olive oil. Probably ideal for those who are used to Souri. Aromatic, green, harsh but in a nice way, peppery and with the bitterness on the finish that many look for. Price: NIS 38
Extra Hopeful Olive Oil (500 ml)A varietal Barnea. Remember Souri is indigenous to the whole Levant, whereas Barnea is an Israeli variety. It has a touch of green apple, with a slight herbaceous character, a backdrop of mown hay and a delicate peppery finish. Price: NIS 38
Extra Peaceful Olive Oil (500 ml)This is the organic blend with the black label. It is a blend of Barnea and Coratina from their organic olive grove in Wadi Ara. They complement each other perfectly: the delicate grassy and fruity notes of the Barnea with the spicy, green bitterness of the Coratina. Price: NIS 46
Adam Montefiore has been advancing Israeli wines for over 30 years. He is known as the ‘ambassador of Israeli wine’ and writes his regular ‘Wine Talk’ column for the Jerusalem Post. www.adammontefiore.com
Photos: Erez Harodi, JLB, Yoram Ron