x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Genuine identity needed for Lebanese olive oil

Lebanese olive oil, of which 40 million litres are produced annually, is currently punching below its weight, despite claims that it is among the best in the world.

The Lebanese olive oil sector is uncompetitive. Joseph Barrak / AFP
The Lebanese olive oil sector is uncompetitive. Joseph Barrak / AFP

For a brief moment in the mid-1980s I was 24712700 Pte 3rd class Karam of the Light Infantry, a British regiment that has since been amalgamated. During this time, I once overheard myself described by an officer as an "olive", I presume because I was neither black nor brown but also not quite pasty white either.

The comment, although mildly racist, was, I have to admit, culturally spot on.

Lebanon produces millions upon millions of the tiny fruit. But while the olive has been a staple of the nation's agriculture for centuries, Lebanese olive oil, arguably the backbone of our national cuisine and of which 40 million litres are produced annually, is currently punching below its weight, despite claims that it is among the best in the world.

It could be, but it isn't. Like much of Lebanese agriculture, the sector is not competitive.

There has been no genuine effort to develop a generic identity and in any case the quality is poor (I am reliably informed that most of Lebanon's oils would struggle to meet European standards).

"We used to have a cooperative set up by the Moawad Foundation, which established an olive press in Kfifane but it ran out of funding," says Neila Bitar, whose family is the oldest producer in the northern district of Batroun.

"If we are to be in any way competitive then we need to resurrect the idea of the cooperative."

Hussein Hajj Hassan, the agriculture minister, would agree with her, but cooperatives by their very nature require a degree of cooperation and it is likely that the Lebanese streak of individualism had much to do with its demise. Ms Bitar admitted that many of the farmers in the area claimed that the taste of the oil was different when using a modern press.

Relations between the producers and the state have been further strained by the government's recent insistence that the producers it buys from - the army is a big customer - open a bank account before they can be paid. "Why can't they just give them a [chit] and let them cash it at the bank?" asks Ms Bitar. "Many of them can't read or write. What do they know of bank accounts?"

The London-based Lebanese food writer Anissa Helou is slightly more generous in her assessment. "Our olive oil [made by] the producer and pressed the right way is as good as any of the excellent oils from Italy, Spain or France and certainly better than many of the 'new world oils'," she explains.

"Unfortunately you cannot say this of most Lebanese commercial oils, mainly because of lack of strict regulation. And apart from the people [at Olive Trade who have created] Zejd [brand], very few are making a concerted effort to market abroad, although this may change with the new groves that are being planted but which have yet to mature."

This year, the industry was promised a US$150,000 (Dh550,950) grant from the ministry of agriculture for its own local campaign. It's not a fortune but it is $150,000 more than the Lebanese wine industry has ever been given and it's a start.

Lebanon's wine producers have taken the battle to the international marketplace with a self-funded international generic campaign. The world is waking up to the idea that Lebanese wine is very good, even if it is still relatively expensive. But with only 7.5 million bottles, savvy marketing has made scarcity an asset, convincing drinkers to spend a bit more.

The olive oil producers should focus on an international market. If the touchpaper lights and Lebanese oil is suddenly the one to serve one's friends in Fulham or Chelsea, then the trickle-down effect will surely result in an upgrade in quality back home.

It is a lesson the wine industry learnt years ago and if our products are to develop a genuine boutique identity, it is one the olive oil producers should heed.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer based in Beirut