Samples from 19 countries arrived in Jerusalem to be tasted and judged at the second annual Terra Olivo Mediterranean International Olive Oil Competition.

Olive oil connoisseurs gather in Israel

 

Waiter serves olive oil samples at the second Terra Olivo Mediterranean International Olive Oil Competition. (Photo: Ilan Levi)

By Rivka Borochov

It’s the second year running and his wheels are greased – with olive oil. Known locally as the “Grape Man,” Chaim Gan has successfully pulled off the second annual Terra Olivo Mediterranean International Olive Oil Competition in Jerusalem. Similar to wine tastings, it’s where connoisseurs of the olive come to cup and warm a small sample of the oil, then sniff and taste it for quality.

For three days in May, Gan was busy with company reps, industry experts, reporters and visitors from around the world at the Inbal Hotel, where the event was held.

Though the hotel and the competition are modern, Israeli olive oil production goes back to biblical times. It’s not uncommon, while hiking in Israeli forests and deserts, to come across an ancient olive oil press, meant to be activated by a donkey pulling the grindstone. In times past, the precious oil wasn’t only an important part of a repast; it was also a very valuable fuel, used in the Jewish Temple for lighting the Eternal Flame.

The Israel and Holy Land factor is key as Gan looks to grow his annual olive oil tasting festival, one of about six of its kind in the world, into a bigger event every year. “We are already one of the best ones,” Gan says.

His interest in olive oil emerged from the wine industry. He is the manager and owner of the Grape Man Wine & Spirits Center in the Old City of Jaffa, and is involved with TerraVino, an annual Mediterranean international wine competition held since 2006 in Israel.

Samples from 19 countries

“There are literally hundreds of olive oils in the consumer marketplace. Due to the sensitive nature of olive oil, lots of knowledge is required in order to properly evaluate the contents. Terra Olivo was created in order to give consumers the basic knowledge and tools to select quality olive oils,” says Gan.

Along with the tasting competition, the event included a convention for industry professionals on the olive oil revolution in Israel. It explored the culinary art of cooking with olive oil, and discussed its nutrition. A tasting workshop was part of the conference. (Smells of asparagus, tastes of the desert or freshly cut grass?)

Gan helped judge 302 samples from 19 countries, including Lebanon, Tunisia, Australia, Spain, Portugal, Greece and the United States. Since Israel does not have diplomatic relations with Lebanon, the sample from Lebanon came via a UK distributor, even though Beirut is no more than a few hundred miles away from Tel Aviv-Jaffa, where Gan runs his business.

Olive oil in Israel, he says, “is a huge revolution,” considering that 88 of the 302 samples were Israeli and two of them won the grand prestige gold. “It’s definite that the quality is getting higher and higher, year after year. We now see boutique olive oil producers and wider plantations.”

Israel cannot produce enough oil yet to meet its needs, and imports about half of what the population consumes every year. It exports almost none, though Gan would like to help change that. As a matter of fact, he points out, Israel has a special advantage relative to countries like Greece or Spain.

“It’s part of our tradition, part of our religion … part of our ancient Middle East history. We’ve got excellent weather, and knowledge from thousands of years. Olive oil was always part of the Middle East. Now we are investing money and many students have gone to school to learn how to make it better,” he says.

Rachel Waiman from the Inbal says the hotel is happy to help create the atmosphere of this now annual event. “Olive oil is quite a unique export commodity of Israel, as well as the Israeli companies being strong in the production of olive oil. It’s interesting to see them in comparison to the other 19 countries involved,” she says.