The Al Qurashi family has been making olive oil for generations
From a plastic patio chair, Harun Al Qurashi stirs a skillet of olives. The black marble-sized fruit softens from the intense heat supplied by a homemade propane burner. Harun waits, watches. He knows that if he removes them from the flame a minute too soon they won’t reach their full flavor, knows that if he leaves them on a minute too late they will scorch and have to be thrown away. “He knows exactly when they are ready,” says Adeeb, his younger brother. “Our grandmother taught him how to make madadeeyh (Arabic for “homemade olive oil”) when he was a boy. Now he’s the expert.”
The Al Qurashi family has been picking olives from the orchards of Al Awsarah, a village in the Northwest corner of Jordan, for generations. The best olives are set aside for madadeeyh. They are usually dark black and pop open with a gentle squeeze. The rest are taken to a modern mill for processing and then sold in the market.
Adeeb says his family harvests around a thousand pounds of olives each season, enough to produce 220 pounds of oil. This year the market value of olive oil is $3.40 a pound, a good price. The money Harun and Adeeb bring in from olive oil isn’t enough to fully support their family–Harun, 28, also works as an interior decorator–but the extra income helps and goes a long way toward justifying what is first and foremost a labor of love.
When the olives are ready, Harun transfers them to a flat straw basket and lets them cool. He then dumps the lot onto a blue plastic grocery bag spread across his patio floor. He pulverizes the fruit with a handmade wooden mallet. The old hammer is stained with oil from years of pounding olives.
He dumps the pulp into another metal pan and massages the mess with his fingers. After a few minutes he scoops up a fist-sized portion and squeezes it between his palms. The dark brown oil seeps around his fingers and trickles down from his hands into a wire mesh strainer sitting on top of a small ceramic bowl. The handful yields about six ounces.
A modern olive oil factory can process several tons of olives day. The Al Qurashis take their market olives to Maasalet Al Saalam (Arabic for “Mill of Peace”). The process begins at the front of the building where the olives are emptied into a large bin. From there a rubber conveyor carries them to a machine that removes debris and washes with water. The olives are ground into paste and slowly churned in warm water making the oil easier to collect.
After mixing for 30-45 minutes the paste is transferred to a centrifuge that spins the mixture and separates the oil. The solid leftover called pomace is hauled to another factory where it is pressed into logs for burning. The oil is filtered and stored in five gallon metal cans. Customers pay for using the mills services with cash or a portion of the oil.
Farmers have been cultivating olive trees and producing oil in the Middle East for more than 6000 years. Today, Jordan is one of the top olive oil producing countries in the world with an average production of 190,000 tons annually. The country has 20 million trees that provide income to more than 180,000 families. The annual income from olive production is more than $140 million.
According to Adeeb, homemade olive oil is of higher quality and is worth more than the variety found in stores. Harun hands me the bowl along with a warm loaf of pita. He smiles, as if in anticipation of my delight. When I pop an oil-soaked piece of bread into my mouth I can taste the savory flavor of roasted olives. The madadeeyh has body and a mild acidic bite that leaves a pleasant aftertaste. Harun gives me a second bowl filled with a store brand so I can compare tastes. The store brand looks pale beside the madadeeyh and, by comparison, tastes dull.
“We don’t sell this,” Adeeb says. “We keep it for ourselves and give it as gifts to our special friends.”
Danny Wright, an EthnoTraveler contributor, lives and writes in Jordan.