About a decade ago, I found myself working on a project with a wine grower who had a deep background in horticulture and arboriculture. When I told him we had an olive farm with about 185 trees, he asked “How old are they?“
“15-25 years“, I said.
“Why would you want to do that?” he asked “So your grandchildren will have a viable crop?!“
He had a point. Almost 12 years later, Lila Farms is only productive as an Airbnb property, not as an olive farm. For now it is a farm of passion, not profit, a farm offering hard lessons about the vagaries of agriculture. It’s given us a venue for outdoor activities, sunburns on our necks, poison oak on our legs, stiffness in our backs, and constant battles with machinery and maintenance – all of which are struggles that come along with the daily joy of our own oil.
It’s also given us an appreciation for olive farmers around the globe. While on vacation, we’ve been known to pull over to take photos of ancient olive trees while driving in Spain and Italy. The activity brands us instantly as tourists, but we have accumulated an impressive collection of images!
So when I was contacted by an olive grower from Lebanon, the original source of olives (pre-dating the Phoenicians in 2,500 BC), you can imagine my interest was piqued. And for good reason, it turns out.
Oleavanti Lebanese Olive Oils
The Oleavanti company is dedicated to working with other Lebanese growers, co-ops and artisan producers, lending their staff’s expertise and resources to help create a better product and a broader international market for their olive oil. Their mission is to create an economic justification for avoiding the creep of urbanization that has uprooted 100+ year-old Lebanese olive trees in favor of buildings.
But Oleavanti is also a grower in their own right as well. They sell their oil (buy it here) from two groves – the Ehden Grove is a blend of Souri and Aayrouni Olives, and the Qadisha Grove, exclusively from the unique Souri olives (believed to be the genetic origin of all olives), grown in a grove located at higher elevation on Mt Lebanon.
Both oils are more robust than those from the Greek and Italian olive trees we grow at Lila Farms. But they possess that pleasing tang at the back of the throat that lasts long after swallowing the oil – a sign the polyphenols are still intact and that the oil is healthy.
The Oleavanti Team
Led by patriarch, Nakhlé Saadé, whose family has tended olive trees in Lebanon for over five centuries, the Oleavanti team includes his two daughters – Carol (who brings her PhD in Food Science to the table) and Marie, the firms’ designer and art director. They are joine by their brother Boutros whose mechanical engineering background is critical during harvest, and whose education includes studying olive oil internationally. To this family company is an Italian-American, Tony Gualtieri, a co-founder and a mathmetician/statistician in a very specialized field that is most useful for Oleavanti – the analysis of sensory properties of food.
The Oleavanti Standards
- Free Acidity < 0.3
- Peroxide <7.5
- UV Absorption Index (K232) <1.85
- Free of sensory defects
What’s all that mean? Free acidity increases as olives oxidize prior to pressing (Oleavanti presses within four hours of picking) or when olives are exposed to the pulp and pits for too long during pressing.
The Peroxide number is a predictor of rancidity and should be kept low. Fresh olive oil smells of grass and herbs, rancid oil smells foul and stale and, well, like you don’t want it in your mouth.
The UV Absorption Index measures purity and quality. A high value indicates the presence of refined oils, adulteration, and rancidity, none of which are present in good olive oil.
But Is It Good For You?
In answer to the opening question at the top of this post, yes, good, fresh oil is a healthy alternative to fats from animals such as butter or lard.
As Oleavanti states on their website, olive oil is at the core of the Mediterranean diet shown to increase immunity, provide anti-inflammatory benefits, lower blood pressure, reduce cardiovascular diseases, prevent Alzheimer’s, improve the ratio of good and bad cholesterol and protect the skin.
Unlike oils from seeds, vegetables, and fruits, olive oil is a balanced blend of monounsaturated fatty acids (oleic acid), polyunsaturated (ω-6) fatty acids (linoleic acid), polyunsaturated (ω-3) fatty acids (a-linolenic acid). The presence of other compounds like polyphenols and tocopherols (vitamin E) are unique to fresh extra-virgin olive oil and have invaluable health-promoting properties.
One of the things I’ve learned as a nascent insider in the world of olive oil production, is that there are damn few global standards, and worse, there is no authority over the existing standards. Much of what is sold as EVOO – Extra Virgin Olive Oil – is far from high quality and is frequently blended across vintages (perfectly legal unless there’s a vintage date on the bottle) and even from less expensive sources of oil such as safflower and other vegetables. It’s good to taste oils from producers dedicated to the craft.
And for that, I thank Oleavanti!