Olive trees have their homes around the Mediterranean Sea. Britannica says they are cultivated commercially in two world-spanning climate belts between approximately the 30th and 45th latitudes North and South. Hundreds of varieties have been recorded and are grown for table use and olive oil production. For increased fruit bearing productivity, varieties are subjected to human involvement in their propagation, yet have spread across borders without prejudice of nation or race. Northern olive farmers tell Executive that the number of extant varieties in Lebanon and their ratios per growing region are not known but say the small and resilient local “Airouni” variety coexists in the same groves with Italian and Spanish peers. For our photo essay, Executive photo journalist Mark Fayad visited groves in Chabtine (above), Kfifan, and Kfar Helda in the hills east of Batroun. The operational base of olive oil farmer Rouhana Bassil, who was interviewed for this essay, is in the village of Smar Jbeil.
Seasonal laborers have arrived for the harvest. Women and men work in teams that divide the labor between shaking fruits from the trees, and picking up and bagging the olives from tarpaulins spread out beneath the trees.
A harvest season tends to be around two months long per growing region and requires six to seven hours a day of strenuous efforts. According to farmer Bassil, the compensation is between LL350,000 to 400,000 per day during this season.
he post-harvest processing of olives takes place at one of several presses that are distributed around the villages. Presses are commercial operations. Some of the presses in the Batroun district are operated for the sake of the farming communities by non-governmental organizations such as the Rene Moawad Foundation or by monasteries, of which the region is rich. Religious entities also own much of the land cultivated with olive trees, and Bassil says he prefers harvesting from those lands, because the monks care well for their trees and refrain from using pesticides.
Presses do not all employ the latest technology but functional in the second stage of cleaning the fruit before crushing them into a fine mesh that includes stones and fruits.
The mesh is called khouwass and generated by an olive mill that exerts pressures of 200 tons. It is spread out mechanically on a mat (above). During the oil extraction preparation stage, the khouwass is traditionally layered into mahbass towers of mesh sitting on round mats (top right).
This steady stream of olive oil still contains residues in varying shares. The first oil that is extracted from the mahbass without prior additions of chemicals or without heating might be marketed as extra virgin once it arrives in a gourmet store, but as it runs into a water-filled basin used for separation of oil and residues, labels such as virgin and extra virgin are just marketing mumbo jumbo. Nonetheless, the cold pressed and organically produced oil is liquid health with low-carbohydrate, high-monounsaturated fat content and anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties.
Modern equipment is good for the production of quality oil and used by farmer Bassil in his own workshop for further refinement of the oil that comes from the presses. Bassil bought Italian-made machinery made from stainless steel, which he says lasts for “a very long time”. He regards it as more reliable than domestically manufactured equipment and uses his equipment to reduce the residue content of his oil by a further 500 grams per 16-liter batch, before it is ready for sale. Bassil’s family has been in the business for more than 30 years, and he retains a personal, religiously informed perspective on the value of the olive tree and its fruit. “Jesus prayed in the olive grove and one of our rituals as Christians on the feast of Shaanine is to hold olive branches. This makes me feel that this tree is God’s great blessing and I love it.”