Meet the Israelis Who Are Creating Some of the World's Best Olive Oil
Olive trees at Makura Farm, Israel.
By Scott Hertzberg
Makura is one of the most ancient olive farms in Israel. The farmers and owners of these fields, Orna and Guy Rilov, claim their Carmel Mountain groves date back to Roman times. Their meticulous methods of making their award-winning olive oil may date that far back too.
It's a method learned from hard experience, when, in 1979, after finishing his service in the Israel Defense Forces, Guy Rilov took over the farm his parents had abandoned when he was six. His parents had raised cattle on the sloping land near Haifa, which once was an underwater volcano. Rilov cleared the overgrown fields and, with the help of friends, planted avocados.
Today the 400-acre farm is entirely sustainably run: it generates its electricity from large solar panels, and water is recycled with ponds. Makura bow produces 50,000 liters of oil per year using eight different types of olives.
Like his parents, Rilov kept the name, Makura Farm, a Turkish name that is incidentally similar to the Hebrew word for underground spring (makor). Today Makura is a thriving farm with nearly every arable field full of organic avocados, lemons, persimmons, lychee fruit, and olives.
While my wife and I have imported olive oil from the farm for the past four years, I only visited the farm for the first time in late 2014. Guy and his son Stav, who is his managing partner, led us on a tour of the orchards.
Accompanied by three dogs, we hiked from the flat fields at the center of Makura up to some of the hillside groves. The trees in Makura’s orchards (kerem in Hebrew), fertilized with ample compost, looked strong and unstressed. Pests are controlled with traps and other organic techniques, including Bio-Bees, which eliminate the need for pesticides. Some of the trees planted early on, such as the avocados, are now enormous. Older, by far, are the giant olive trees in a small grove on the road into Makura, which were planted more than a thousand years ago.
Rilov explains his methods for making olive oil hasn't changed much over the centuries:
"In order to process our organic olive oil in the best possible way an organic olive press was built on the farm," he said. "This plant operates according to the 'two phase' method which means no heating and no water insertion during the oil process."
Long-term access to adequate water is a major concern at Makura, as it is for most Israeli farms. Of all of their crops, olives produce decent crops with little irrigation. Olives from trees with minimal irrigation have higher levels of antioxidants. Irrigation basically waters down the level of antioxidants. Rilov explains that in the future olive oil will not only be judged by its flavor, but also by its antioxidant levels.
Having a diversity of crops helps make Makura economically sustainable. Going forward, olives will play a more important part among a mix of crops since they demand less irrigation.
Olives are playing an increasingly greater role at other Israeli farms, too. A few years ago, Kibbutz Gvat together with two neighboring kibbutzim in the Jezreel Valley in northern Israel converted water-hungry citrus orchards into olive groves. Manager Hagai Rabin showed me around the gigantic groves of olives, pointing out traditional European varieties and three Israeli varieties, all thriving in the rich soil of the legendary valley.
The three kibbutzim and other olive farms in the region send their olives to a cutting-edge processing plant in nearby moshav (village) Agev. Adolfo Levin, an Israeli agricultural extension agent who showed me around the multi-stage machine, says it is the best in Israel. More of an extractor that uses centrifugal force rather than a press, Levin says that the machine “does the best job possible considering that you cannot improve the quality of the oil in the olives on the tree and can only decrease the negative impacts of the extraction process.”
At Hagor, a moshav in central Israel, Shamna is an olive kerem and press open to visitors during the harvest. On the Shabbat I visited, families crowded the shop and picnic area. The farm is popular with people who not only want a fun day at a farm, but also want to avoid the fraudulent olive oil that often shows up in Israeli stores as elsewhere. Harvest festivals at olive farms have become very popular in Israel. Makura had 2,000 visitors in one weekend this fall.
Olive production is expanding in Israel as the crop replaces citrus and other crops that require more water and are less lucrative for the farm. Olives are not only central to the Hanukkah story; they are an increasingly important part of modern Israeli agriculture.
Fig Tree & Vine offers two types of Makura olive oil, including a flavorful variety made from Souri olives, a species unique to Israel.
Top photo: Olive trees at Makura Farm in Israel. Photos courtesy of Makura and Scott Hertzberg.
Scott Hertzberg lives on a vegetable and flower farm in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. Along with his wife Tanya, he also runs Israeli Harvest, which imports unique products, like Makura olive oil, from small and mid-sized Israeli farms and supplies them to stores including Fig Tree & Vine.