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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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02.11.09

Parsing Palestinian Olive Oil

Everybody Loves Pommelo: Noteworthy ingredients, Food Production


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You wouldn’t expect some pita and olive oil to set off a bout of soul searching. But, take a good hard look at that bowl of oil, because there could be a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears behind it.

Who knew olive oil could be borne of heart-wrenching experiences? Up until a few days ago, not me. But, last week, I had the chance to sit down with members of the Great Lakes Regional office of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) for an eye-opening primer on the Palestinian olive oil industry.

Founded in 1917 by Quakers the AFSC has paired with the Palestinian Fair Trade Association (PFTA) to support rural communities and the families that thrive there. The PFTA is a union of farming and producing cooperatives that distribute Palestinian olive oil around the world. The goals of the AFSC-PFTA partnership are to develop a sustainable livelihood for farmers and increase modes of democratic and civic participation in the region.

The partnership was founded in 2004 by Nasser Abu Farha, who, after nursing a cup of fair trade coffee in Madison, Wisconsin wondered why the term fair trade couldn’t be applied to cold-pressed olive fruit? He traveled to Jenin in the northern West Bank of Palestine where he enlisted 1,700 farmers to participate in a fair trade program. He then worked with international organizations to establish standards for fair trade olive oil. In its first year, the PFTA exported 70 tons of olive oil. Today, that number has ballooned to 500 tons, with 80% of profits returned directly to Palestinian farmers.

Though overlooked relative to its Italian and Grecian counterparts, Palestinian olive oil represents approximately 17% of total Palestinian agricultural output every year. Olives are a massive commercial crop, a source of dependence for many a family and the primary source of income for more than 75,000 farmers.

The new millennium brought with it hard times for Palestinian farmers. The Israeli military enforced strict border policies and limited movement, and the establishment of roadblocks and the West Bank “Separation” wall killed over 240,000 olive trees. Despite this hardship, the PFTA tries to make the trade process easier by picking up olive oil shipments at the farmer’s gate. To get the oil out of the country, two trucks switch loads at Israeli/Palestinian border checkpoints before the oil is processed by a Nazareth trucking company and shipped out at a port in Haifa. This effort to bring Palestinian olive oil to North America is called Ziyarat az Zeitoun. Or, for the less Arabic-inclined, “visiting the olives.”

Here’s where the AFSC steps in. Their involvement entails selling bottles of Palestinian olive oil at various fair trade markets throughout Chicago. For every bottle purchased, the PFTA donates to community projects like Project Hope and Trees for Life. Trees for Life, which donates olive tree saplings back to Palestinians, has helped plant more than 24,000 trees in the past three years.

Of course, just because this project is partly a humanitarian effort, it doesn’t mean much if the product isn’t good. Like many other high quality oils, Palestinian “Zatoun” olive oil is extra virgin and cold-pressed. Unlike many familiar olive oils, the Palestinian stuff does not possess a peppery aftertaste. The mellow gentle taste means the oil has more of a tongue-coating liquid butter like sensation and melds with, rather than overpowers, accompanying flavors and seasonings. It’s great with za’atar, a divine aromatic herb mixture of wild thyme, sesame seeds, and sumac abundant in the Middle East.

In Chicago, AFSC regularly samples and sells olive oil at churches, community fairs, farmer’s markets, and schools. Interested parties can get their charitable olive oil fix by placing an order with Lynn Pollack at 312.427.2533. When you consider the toil that goes into each bottle of Zatoun and the opportunity to impact so many farmers’ lives, seasoning your bread might just taste a little better the next time arond.

2 Comments on "Parsing Palestinian Olive Oil"

Tuan

Surely there’s a better way to find Palestinian olive oil than calling Ms. Pollack…? Are there any regular stockers of the stuff around?



Matt

Unfortunately, as of right now, the oil can only be purchased by ordering through the AFSC. It is quite the precious commodity and it is not stocked regularly in any stores.



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