Expat Surprise: No Olive Oil in the Holy Land?

by missfootloose on March 19, 2011 · 14 comments

in Expat foodie, Palestine, shopping

Wouldn’t you think that finding olive oil in Palestine would be easy?  Of course you would.  But I have news for you: It isn’t.  Well, it wasn’t for me when I first moved to the Holy Land and went in search of it.

Ancient olive trees in Hebron, Palestine

I love olive oil, and I was delighted at the thought of now being able to use the Biblical variety — you know, the kind kings were anointed with!  The kind the ten virgins were using in their lamps! Imagine!

So, soon after arriving in Ramallah, I went shopping to stock the kitchen with various needed supplies, including of course, olive oil.  Now, just walking around Ramallah is an adventure. The old center is a warren of a place, the narrow streets coming together at, and moving away from, numerous traffic circles.  Trust me, you’d better keep track of your whereabouts or getting lost is as certain as death and taxes.

Downtown Ramallah

Brisk commerce takes place along these narrow streets.  Shops of all sorts tempt the eye and nose: spice shops, coffee shops, jewelry shops, pastry shops and so on. (Middle Eastern pastries are in a league of their own, dripping with honey and butter and filled with nuts.  But let me not stray here.)

Brimming with enthusiasm, I went foraging for olive oil in a number of small grocery stores.  All of them carried bottles of oil: sunflower oil, corn oil, soybean oil, but, alas, no olive oil.  I was flummoxed.

And worried.  Had a plague of Biblical proportions descended on Palestine and destroyed all the olive trees?  Had I somehow missed this catastrophe on CNN?

Surely not.  I had simply not found the right store.  Seek and ye shall find.

Another day, another seeking in the shops.  No olive oil. I trust you understand, dear reader, that I was not going to live in Palestine and use corn oil from Texas, so my quest was taking on a distinct epic flavor.  But wherever I seeked, I found no olive oil.  Let me explain here that, having been in the country a mere few days, I was a language cripple, and had not a single Arabic word at my disposal.  Except inshallahInshallah, I would find olive oil.  But God was not willing.

The Holy Land without olive oil!  It was not to be contemplated.  So, what do you do when you have a perplexing question as an expat in a foreign land?  You find a local person who speaks your language and ask.  Of course!

Unfortunately I didn’t know any local person who spoke my language yet.  Fortunately my mate did.  So off he went to his office and asked his Palestinian co-workers: Pray tell, why is there no olive oil in the Holy Land?

Alhamdulillah! Ask and ye shall receive!  The next day we had a supply of oil to last us for months.  The oil came packed in a variety of un-Biblical containers, mostly recycled Coca Cola and SevenUp bottles.  And not only did we get oil, but a motherload of olives as well.  All given to us with love and generosity by our new Palestinian friends.

Turns out there’s plenty of oil in Palestine.  You don’t buy it in the shops because everybody has his own supply, straight from the home village.  And of course, everyone’s oil is the best in the land.  Needless to say, I agree.

Sorting olives

Never again did I suffer a lack of oil or olives in the Holy Land. Friends just kept bringing us more.  When we left to go to Ghana, West Africa, we were presented with copious amounts to see us through in the coconut-oil tropics.  We shipped it and enjoyed it for months.

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NOTE:  This took place  some years ago and possibly the shops in Ramallah now carry commerically bottled olive oil.  I should ask my friends.  Or perhaps you’ve been there lately and can enlighten me.

* * *

Have you ever experienced a shopping mystery?  Or unraveled a food conundrum?  Or what foods were you given by people in your host country?

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

maria altobelli March 19, 2011 at 1:51 pm

Ah, yes. Olive oil. One in the trinity of my essential foods, Parmesan cheese and wine being the other two.

This is how we decide where we can put down roots for a while — I must be within one hour of good Parmesan cheese. If I can get the cheese, I can get the other two.

I remember being in a group of Italians a few years back in Puglia and one woman saying, “Disaster this year with our olive crop.” I imagined horror stories of Nature taking down all their trees in some way. She went on to admit that she had to actually buy A BOTTLE of olive oil in a store (the shame of it all). Their own crop did not manage to keep them through the year.

There’s a great account of putting up the yearly supply of olive oil in Too Much Tuscan Sun, a very humorous book by an Italian tour guide operator.

Great post, as always, Miss Footloose

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GutsyWriter March 19, 2011 at 8:39 pm

That is one incredible story. How did it taste coming out of a Coca Cola bottle? I would also like to find out if things have changed since you lived there, just in case I get stuck when I move to Ramallah.

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Miss Footloose March 24, 2011 at 11:46 am

They do wash out the coke bottels 😉 and the oil was very nice. I’m not a real afficionado of olive oil — I don’t eat it by the tablespoon to taste. I do put it on salads and cook with it. You might like Ramallah! It’s an education.

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Laural Out Loud March 21, 2011 at 12:44 am

I love olive oil, and my surprising favorite is from Portugal. But I’ve never had the pleasure of trying some from a personal stash. I bet it was amazing!

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Miss Footloose March 24, 2011 at 11:47 am

I loved the idea that it was straight from the farm! And the soft drink bottles added this gourmet visual 😉

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Aledys Ver March 21, 2011 at 5:55 am

Imagine that, having your own supply of olive oil and olives at home! Oh how I would love that! I think that next to having my own vineyard I’d love to have my own olive trees… a girl can dream! 😀
Lovely story, as usual.
Cheers!

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Miss Footloose March 24, 2011 at 11:48 am

Having your own olive trees is a lot of work! But dreams can be fun anyway. I sure would like to live in Italy!

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Laurel March 21, 2011 at 2:13 pm

Having your own supply of olive oil just sounds too good to be true. How could you go back to the bottled stuff sold in stores again?

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Carolyn Vines March 23, 2011 at 8:29 am

Hello Karen,
Searching for greens in the Netherlands is my equivalent of your olive oil. I’ve lived here for 11 years and have yet to find mustards or collards. Kale is in abundance here. And why not? How could the Dutchies eat their stampot without their boerenkol? The funny part about the greens is that I’ve asked where to get them. No one’s been able to enlighten me. I assume that’s because no one I’ve met seems to know the Dutch word for greens, not even my husband who finished the Hotel School of The Hague and lived in the US and partook of greens with my family!

This is a fabulous post, Karen. I love your humor. Sometimes all we can do is laugh at this sort of life experience in the expat lane!

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missfootloose March 23, 2011 at 10:02 am

Hi Carolyn! Oh, yes, greens in Holland. The general word “greens” would be bladgroenten. I never heard of mustard or or collard greens until I came to the US. But apart from kale there are other “bladgroenten,” such as andijvie (escarole), raapsteeltjes (turnip tops), and of course spinach which grows just about everywhere in the world. I think maybe collards and mustard greens need a hotter climate to grow. I love them. I remember not long ago it was very hard to find celery root in the US, and it costs a fortune even now, but I have to have it for my erwtensoep (split pea soup)!

Just finished your book Black and (A)broad. What a facinating story! I am happy you found a happy life in the Netherlands. Even with all the quirks, it’s a pretty good place to live. Now if only the weather were better…

Glad you enjoy my stories.

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MaryWitzl March 24, 2011 at 11:26 am

I feel so smug: this time, I knew right where you were going! It was possible to find olive oil in Cyprus, but it was all imported from elsewhere. As you’ve said, nobody has to buy such a staple: all Cypriots had their own supply. We got jam jars full of it from our students along with home-cured olives, heavy bread made with mint, and big salty rounds of home-made cheese.

I’ve heard it from good authority that in Hawaii, it is hard — and expensive — to buy pineapples. That’s just wrong. Once in Amsterdam, I spent a whole afternoon in search of a pen that wrote a fine line, but that’s a different story — I was too cheap to spend more than a couple of pounds.

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Miss Footloose March 24, 2011 at 11:49 am

Hey smug you: I’m not surprised you knew where I was going with this story 😉 You’ve been around, so to speak.

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guyana gyal March 24, 2011 at 4:01 pm

What an adventure. You’re so brave. I’d still be wandering around, lost, with my terrible sense of direction.

Guava jam! That’s what I couldn’t find in the shops here. Light jam, not loaded with too much sugar. Fortunately, my mother and her cousin came to my rescue and made for me. I’m thpoilt 🙂

Also…BIG cassava bread. Now made really really small. It’s not ‘bread’ bread but thickish wafers. Toast, add butter or tomato sauce or avocado or…or…any spread of your choice. Mmm.

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Welshcakes Limoncello March 24, 2011 at 7:08 pm

Oh, I’m so glad you found some in the end! I was getting worried.

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