The global ambitions of Lebanon’s hard-pressed olive-oil makers
IT STARTED WITH a case of homesickness. Ibrahim El Kaakour missed his family’s olive groves in Baasir, so four years ago he gave up his engineering career abroad and returned to Lebanon. At that time, farming was just a hobby for his family. But Mr Kaakour had a goal to revive the groves – and Lebanon’s long-dormant olive oil industry, whose roots go back to the Phoenicians. He launched Genco olive oil, named after Vito Corleone’s front company in “The Godfather”.
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Mr. Kaakour is not alone. A short drive from Baasir lives Walid Mushantaf, who converted wheat fields into olive groves in 2010. Today his company Bustan El Zeitoun, which he co-manages, grows Italian olive varieties, among other things. Deeper in the mountains of Lebanon, Rose Bechara Perini grows the local souri variety on the land of her extended family. She calls Deir Mimas, her picturesque hometown, the Bordeaux of olive oil.
They all face the same challenge. Although olive oil was once an important ingredient in Lebanese cuisine, locals no longer use it often. They prefer imported vegetable oil, which until recently was quite cheap thanks to the overvalued Lebanese pound. Meanwhile, the smallholders who grow most of the olives in the country have deteriorated in the quality of their product. The result is that the average Lebanese consumes 1.6 kg of olive oil each year, a tenth of what the average Spaniard consumes.
The longstanding financial and economic crisis in Lebanon has exacerbated the challenge. The country produces little, so almost everything, from bottles to fertilizers, has to be imported in dollars. As the Lebanese pound depreciated, prices rose and the dollar became scarce. There is also a lack of fuel needed to operate the olive presses once the annual harvest begins in September. And then there’s the pandemic that has devastated restaurants, big buyers of extra virgin olive oil.
The fall in the pound has made imported vegetable oil more expensive, which should help producers like Mr Kaakour. But he has the international market in his sights. He wants to export high quality, extra virgin olive oil, using olives from all over the country. Lebanese wine is a role model. Not much was exported before the 1970s. Then, during the civil war, Serge Hochar of Chateau Musar in Ghazir near Beirut began blending red wines and selling them abroad. The brand started after gaining recognition at the Bristol Wine Fair in 1979. Today around half of Lebanese wine is exported.
Olive oil producers also believe they can rival foreign heavyweights like Spain and Italy on quality, if not size. The labels of Mr. Kaakour, Mr. Mushantaf and Ms. Bechara Perini have been awarded in international competitions. The founder of one of these competitions, Antonio Giuseppe Lauro, believes that the Lebanese product is improving. Mr. Kaakour hopes to turn him and others into an oil they cannot refuse.
This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the heading “Extra-Virgin Territory”