From the olive groves of Lebanon, a family harvest
SUDBURY — Olive oil is in Chafic Maalouf’s blood. He grew up in the fertile Koura region of northern Lebanon where his late father, Ya’coub, started a small business making olive oil and table olives in the 1950s. For years, Maalouf was minimally involved — “it was hard work and boring,’’ he says. But during college in Beirut and after, he started returning for the fall harvest. “It was my roots,’’ he says.
Today, Maalouf, 48, sells his family’s olive oil under the label Olive Harvest to local chefs and retailers. After bottling, it arrives here in February. Ana Sortun of Oleana and Sofra Bakery and Cafe in Cambridge, and Sam Hayward of Fore Street in Portland, Maine, both use it. Sortun, who started buying the oil two years ago, says it’s “well balanced with good olive-y fruit and extreme buttery mouth feel.’’
Olives have been grown and pressed in Lebanon for thousands of years, but most of what is produced is consumed there. Among the many bottles sold here — from Italy, Spain, and Greece — it’s rare to find Lebanese oil. It’s the temperate climate of Koura and mineral-rich soil that make it an ideal growing area, says Maalouf, an agricultural engineer who has lived in the United States since 1986. He took over the family’s 100-acre olive grove when his father died in 1997. “Olives need mild, rainy winters and hot, dry summers,’’ he says. Olive Harvest oil is made from beldi and sourani varieties. Maalouf returns home in November and December to join in the labor-intensive harvest.
Each day’s olives go directly from the trees to the press. “The shorter the time between harvesting and crushing the better,’’ says Maalouf. After the fruit is crushed and the oil separated from pulp and pits, the fresh, golden liquid is transferred to holding tanks for up to a few weeks until the harvest is complete.
The company bottles both filtered and unfiltered oil. Unfiltered is cloudy with tiny particles of pulp suspended in the liquid. “We believe [the particles] add flavor and character to the oil,’’ says Maalouf. In contrast, he says, “Filtered oil is cleaner to cook with and consistent to the very last drop,’’ one reason restaurant chefs prefer it for cooking and sauteing. Sortun and Hayward use both varieties. “When I want the distinctive flavor, I go for unfiltered oil,’’ says Hayward.
Olive oil’s other descriptors, such as “virgin’’ and “pure,’’ can be confusing. Extra virgin olive oil — the highest quality produced — has the lowest percentage (below 0.8 percent) of naturally arising oleic acid. Virgin olive oil has an oleic acid percentage between 0.8 and 2 percent. Anything above 3.3 percent is considered inedible, says Maalouf. “It has an unpleasant smell and musty taste like soil.’’ Some producers refine poor quality oil, “to get the junk out,’’ he says, then label it “refined,’’ “light’’ or “pure.’’ Maalouf uses oil from bruised and over-ripe olives to make soap. “Cold-pressed’’ means the olives have been crushed without heat. Heating generally yields more oil, but it will alter the flavor and chemical nature.
Sortun uses Maalouf’s oils for finishing salads and cold vegetable dishes, such as muhammara, a red pepper and walnut spread, and a smoky eggplant puree. “And it’s pretty special to get the oil so fresh.’’
Hayward likes the oil’s strong olive flavor and peppery finish. He pairs it with raw fish (topped with Maine sea salt) and in salads composed of hardy greens. “Even though we’re rooted in New England cooking,’’ says Hayward, “we’re all nuts about olive oil.’’ As for buying the Lebanese product, he says, “I especially like having a connection with the proprietor of the property.’’
Each week in their Sudbury home, Maalouf, his wife, Rima Gerges-Maalouf, and sons Jacob, 14, and Luke, 8, go through more than 1 quart of extra virgin olive oil. They use it for cooking, drizzling, dipping bread, and dressing vegetable and green salads. “We use even more if my mother is visiting,’’ says Maalouf. “When people ask me if they should refrigerate the oil, I tell them that if it’s going to take you over two weeks to finish the bottle, then you’re not eating healthfully.’’
Olive Harvest olive oil ($7.98-$15) available at Wasik’s Cheese Shop, 61 Central St., Wellesley, 781-237-0916; A. Russo & Sons, 560 Pleasant St., Watertown, 617-923-1500; and Marty’s Liquors, 675 Washington St., Newton, 617-332-1230, or go to www.oliveharvest.com.