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Ahmad Khatib demonstrates the bottled olive oil, Deir al Asad

Khatib Olive Oil Press, Deir al Asad, Galilee

Khatib's Olive Oil Press, Deir al Asad

Olive oil pouring out of decanter. Khatib olive oil press, Deri al Asad

How I Got Interested in Olive Culture

I moved up north to the Galilee just several months ago, a fruitful and inspiring change in my life trajectory. When searching for an optimal rental, I was captivated by a kibbutz apartment overlooking a fascinating vista of green mountains and a large, spacious valley covered with olive trees.

Once moved, I discovered that this vast basin, named the Beit Kerem Valley, is home to 1.5 million olive trees, some of which are reputed to be about 3000 years old, about as old as the first olive presses in the world, which were discovered in a nearby dig. The valley is considered the border between the Upper and Lower Galilee regions.

I.5 million trees and 3200 years of olive oil pressing

Recent archeological discoveries verified that olives were first domesticated in the Galilee, and the first olive oil presses were found just east of the Kinneret lake.

Israel hosts millions of olive trees, but until now I did not pay them an out-of-the-ordinary attention. However, the sheer size of that particular plantation, its ancient feel and the comings and goings in the valley kindled my interest. I started learning more about olives, their history, processing and their cultural significance in the land and the Israeli-Arab conflict.

That interest translated into visitations to two olive oil presses: one Jewish-owned in the Golan Heights, the Eretz Gshur Olive Press; the other, described below, located in the village of Deir al Asad, half an hour away from the kibbutz. Additionally, I watched an olive harvesting event, or Masik,  in the valley below my home. I conversed with the friendly guys, who were working and feasting there, all from the same Christian family from Gish. They invited me to eat with them and gave me a bag of olives. To deepen my experience, as well as be of help to farmers in times of war, I also drove 45 minutes to a farm in the lower Galilee and participated first hand in an olive picking event. 

Hasan Khatib's Olive Oil Press in Deir al Asad - A New Link in an Old Tradition

Five generations of olive oil pressing

In 2017, Ha’aretz newspaper published a thorough and informative article by journalist Ronit Vered about two olive oil presses in the Lower Galilee – Musa Halaf’s press in Rameh and the Khatib family olive oil press at Deir al Asad. The two of them are within easy reach of my new home, so I aspired to visit both. However, the Rameh press was closed temporarily, so I ended up visiting just the one at Deir al Asad. 

Ms. Vered interviewed both owners in depth and detail, and found out a lot about the history and setup of their operations. Specifically, regarding the Khatib’s Olive Oil Press, she describes a family enterprise which developed gradually since the 1860s. The press was passed down from generation to generation, from Hatib to Ahmet to Ali, Mohammad, and now to Hasan. Every generation renewed it to suit the spirit and technology of the times. For his living, Hasan mainly works as a lawyer. The olive oil press is a beloved second income as well as a hobby, meant mainly to maintain the family’s proud heritage.

Succumbing to modernization

Initially the oil was pressed with one crushing stone operated by donkeys, camels and horses. “Very very strong men” gave the final push. However, by the onset of the 20th century, two millstones were brought in, together with a small motor to operate them. The rest was still done by hand. A separator was introduced in the 1960s. Only in 1975, the village and the olive press were connected to the electrical grid, and the operation become fully mechanized.

The current Italian machinery was brought in at the end of the 1990s. It can process up to four tons of olives an hour. 

Of necessity, with the increase in production, the olive press was moved to its present location. The alleyways of the village, suitable for donkey transport, were not wide enough for trucking.  

Hasan Khatib's Olive Oil Press in Deir al Asad - Getting There

The Haaretz article publicized a phone number for the establishment. I called and was answered gracefully and promptly. We set up a date. Hasan sent me GPS instructions and reassured me there was nothing to fear despite the rising crime tide in Galilean Arab villages and the war tensions. Nor should I worry about driving there alone as a woman.

On a November hazy afternoon, I set out on the half-an-hour drive to Deir al Asad.

Waze GPS application took me half way up a precipitous street to an indefinite point. I parked the car on a side street and asked passersby for directions. The parking happened to be very close to the shop, only the entrance was from the back. Everybody knew where the olive oil press was and happily directed me.

A few boys were sitting idly on a fence watching my car, but Hasan promised the parking was safe. I ignored them and walked into a very noisy, stuffy, busy and raucous workshop stifled with olive oil fumes. However, behind the apparent racket, there was actually perfect order. 

Khatib's Olive Oil Press - The Process

Olive oil press operation. Video credit: Hasan Khatib

The noise in the room and the choking fumes made communication and documentation difficult. Nonetheless, I succeeded to take several photos and video clips, and made a genuine effort to understand the order of things. 

Luckily, Hasan, in his largesse, allowed me to use a longer video he made himself of the entire process (see above), and interpreted some of what I saw on site as well.

The fun part – rumbling and tumbling 

Here is the fun part to watch: olives, of all colors, come rumbling out of the sacks, tumbling through a large metal grid, then dancing happily down a large funnel where they are sucked into an unknown space underneath the floor, In a minute, though, they emerge back into daylight, now climbing up a classic conveyor belt all well organized and orderly on ledges, as the leaves fall out. Somewhere along that line, they are also washed, apparently.

Crushing and grinding

Grinding machine at Khatib olive oil press, Deir al Asad.The next stage is, of course, the most crucial part of olive oil extraction, done in the past with the use of grinding stones, millstones, donkeys, camels, mules and “very strong men”. Nowadays, the Italian machinery takes care of all that.

Malaxation – what is that?

Malaxation, with its enigmatic name, is  the longest stage in the processing of olive oil. As you enter any olive oil press, you immediately see masses of olive paste being turned over and kneaded behind Perspex glass. The purpose of this action is to break the emulsions formed during the crushing stage. Controlled heating of the paste diminishes viscosity. The operation facilitates coalescing of small oil droplets, which can subsequently be separated more easily using a decanter centrifuge. The heat activates the enzymes within and improves oil quality.

Separating water and oil

Following malaxation, the gooey mass enters into several separation processes. First, the solid fraction, which includes the crushed stones and the pulp, is separated into its elements. Nothing is wasted, though. Hasan told me that the crushed pits are very good for heating in winter, and count as actual wood. The pulp and peels are given to the cows.

Eventually the liquid fraction finds its way into the decanting centrifuges, which separate the oily phase from the watery phase. The water is sent to the water corporation, to be spread over open fields. The oil continues its saga.

Crushing machine at Khatib olive oil press, Deir al Asad.

Above: the grinder. Left: decanter centrifuge.

Hatib's Olive Oil Press - The Golden Prize

At the end of this arduous, noisy hullabaloo, surprisingly pure and golden virgin olive oil streams out of the decanter to be stored in large stainless steel containers, and eventually bottled and distributed. (see clip above).

                                                                             Voila!!!

   Hasan Hatib, owner of Hatib Olive Oil Press, Deir al Asad, demonstrates the decanted oil Ahmad Hatib , Hasan's son, demonstrating the bottled virgin olive oil, Hatib's olive oil press, Deir al Asad 

The proud Khatib owners demonstrating the resulting product 

Khatib's olive oil press - storing the oil in stainless steel containersDecanted and purified, the olive oil is now stored in large stainless steel containers

Traditional Olive Oil Presses in the Context of Modern Israel

Many Arab villages are home to a number of small family olive oil presses. This is true in particular in the general area of the Beit Kerem Valley. However, a lady from a village near Latrun in central Israel, told me her family owns a small plantation in that area and in season they give their olives to a neighbor to press.

Unfortunately, with modern markets, those establishments by themselves are not profitable, even as they serve the needs of family and friends. As mentioned in the Ha’aretz article quoted above, Dr. Yifat Reuveni from Tel Aviv University has been working to create collaborations between local olive oil presses to help them with marketing, manufacturing and distributing their products.  At the time of the article’s publication, there were already seven members in the co-op, branding themselves as Beit Hakerem Olive (see pic above)

Deir al Asad - Village View

Driving back, Waze took me up a spooky-steepy uphill, a common feature in Arab villages, typically built on slopes. The views were worth the thrill, though.

Deir al Asad, I will come back to visit you again. If for nothing else, at least to buy a 5-liter can of this perfect olive oil. Moreover, Hasan promised that once times improve and everything is right, I could come back to see the older olive press. According to Ha’aretz article, it is still beautiful, contains centuries-old oil jars, and parts of old hand-operated and mechanical equipment. I am looking forward to see it, and will let the readers take a glimpse as well. Stay tuned.

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Deir al Asad view from up the hills

Deir al Asad view from up the hills

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