Words Alia Fawaz
Raffoul Raffoul, a senior manager at Byblos Bank’s downtown head office, is originally from Al Koura – a large district in the north of Lebanon particularly known for olive tree cultivation and olive oil production. Like many Lebanese, Raffoul inherited a plot of land in his ancestral village. His land was rich with olive orchards, but unfortunately there were hardly any skilled olive farmers left to tend to these trees, and he found that his situation was not unique. In order to make sure that these olive trees were not neglected, ten years ago Raffoul and sixteen other landowners in Al Koura formed a co-operative and hired permanent, trained staff to look after the olives trees over an area of several thousand hectares.
Making olive oil production sustainable
“Initially we got funding from the European Union, followed by US Aid for three years,” explains Raffoul. “Today we are completely self-sufficient and hoping to start making profit from our olive oil venture,” he adds. This project, under the name “COOP for the Development of Olive Produce in Darbaachtar Alkoura Ltd.,” was established so that Raffoul and others could keep the agricultural sector alive, improve the quality of olive oil from Al Koura, and make olive oil production sustainable. With the initial funding, the co-operative invested in state-of-the art equipment to improve the processing and storage of the olives. “We got the Alfa Laval Italian-made automatic mill that washes olives using minimum amounts of water to preserve the flavor,” says Raffoul. The co-operative also has modern stainless steel airtight storage facilities and a mechanical olive picker fitted with a special comb, which is ten times more efficient than doing the job manually.
Until recently Raffoul and his partners produced olive oil from their land and sold it mostly as wholesale to friends and family. Last year they also launched a new project with their own branded olive oil to be sold as retail. Under the name “Zeit Zaman,” the co-operative produces extra virgin olive oil, which comes in both 250 ml and 500 ml glass bottles. In 2012 and in 2014, they won the award for the best extra virgin olive oil when they competed nationally at HORECA (the international event for hospitality and food service industries). In addition to oil, the team also produces olive oil soap and fire logs (made from crushed olive pits).
The secret of aromatic olive oil
The secret to producing aromatic and flavor-rich olive oil is to pick the olives early, which is more commonly done in Europe. This is not widely practiced in Lebanon, as growers tend to wait until olives ripen more – which produces more volume but less flavor. “Low acidity is the measure for us,” explains Raffoul. “When the olives are picked early they are healthier, as they are rich with minerals, such as phenol,” he notes. Picking early means that it is around 40 percent more expensive to produce, as you obtain less oil. However, for Raffoul and his team, by investing in high-quality equipment and well-trained staff, they are trying to maximize output so that they can still compete pricewise with the market with their extra virgin early pressed oil. “The supermarket is flooded with olive oil that is not pure and that is overripe,” explains Raffoul. He adds: “Most people, however, don’t know the difference and don’t care. Simply because this is what they are used to.”
To educate the public about the making of fine olive oil and to create a demand for the production from Al Koura, Raffoul and his co-operative organized the “Olive Harvest Festival” in Al Koura. The first one took place in late October of last year. This two-day event invites people to witness the making of olive oil, taste the different types, and hopefully educate the public about the high-quality oil that “Zeit Zaman” and others are making. Raffoul says optimistically: “We will be organizing this event every year. Last year we had 300 visitors and I am sure at the next one in October 2017 we will get a lot more.”
When the olives are picked early
they are healthier , as they are rich with minerals, such as phenol.