JTA – In a Jerusalem supermarket, Ohad David rushes to buy the store’s most expensive olive oil.
He takes three bottles of the award-winning Midnight Coratina brand, which costs around $ 3 an ounce. It has “medium potency, green fruitiness and a bouquet of green, herbaceous leaves,” according to its description on the website for Ptora, the olive oil shop that makes it.
But David, a 40-year-old insurance agent and father of five, didn’t buy the oil to his liking.
Like thousands of Orthodox Jewish consumers who buy premium olive oil before Chanukah, David bought $ 160 of the substance just to burn it – in a menorah.
Observant Israelis increasingly like to use olive oil in their Hanukkah candelabra instead of wax candles due to its significance in the history of the holiday. Chanukah, which begins this year on Sunday evening, is a celebration of how the Maccabees, after defeating the Greeks, were able to light the menorah in the temple in Jerusalem for eight days with a one-day supply of oil – which the ‘believed to be of the olive variety.
“The use of olive oil for Hanukkah candles is not required by halachah [Jewish law], but in our communities everyone is doing it, ”said David.
Those who follow suit only want to use 100% pure olive oil in their menorahs (technically called hanukkiot) – and this has become more expensive in Israel over time due to tariffs on imports. and growing demand.
In response, some producers dilute their olive oil with cheaper vegetable oils without disclosing all the ingredients and lure consumers in with lower prices. The product can still be considered kosher, but it is unacceptable to observant Jews who only want pure olive oil in their menorahs.
“[T]The temptation to deceive customers is enormous, ”wrote Rabbi Moshe Biegel, an expert on the kosher certification industry in Israel, in a 2020 essay on Israel’s olive oil sector.
Israeli authorities inspect dozens of brands each year around Hanukkah and often find that the oil advertised as pure contains up to 50% canola or soy. But despite the fines and the reporting of offenders online, the phenomenon persists.
For David and others in his community, the solution is to stick with boutique brands, no matter the cost.
“You know there is no monkey business because for them it’s about pride, so there is a high level of transparency and trust,” David said. He discovered Ptora while visiting their facilities on a family trip to the northern Negev Desert, where the factory and groves are located, about 30 miles southwest of Jerusalem.
Like many olive factories in Israel, Ptora offers tours and tastings to increase brand awareness.
“The place is magical,” Hani Ashkenazi, owner of the Jerusalem olive oil factory, said of the Ptora groves. He’s technically a competitor, but the two companies are cooperating on some projects to leverage their respective strengths.
The olive is a national symbol closely linked to the country’s broader agricultural history – it is even depicted in the official emblem of the State of Israel.
Israeli olive oil is currently on average double the price of its European counterparts, costing around 9 euros (around $ 10) in Israel per liter compared to 5 euros (around $ 6) in much of the European Union. , according to a 2019 report from the Israeli ministry. of Agriculture. Israel maintains a protectionist customs policy designed to level the playing field for local producers.
Production and demand are steadily increasing in Israel, according to a 2020 report from the ministry. About 30,000 tons of olive oil are sold in Israel each year, of which about 12,000 are imported. In comparison, the average annual production between 1990 and 2010 was 5,000 tonnes. The average for the last decade has been 16,000 tonnes per year.
(For comparison, Egypt, with an area 47 times that of Israel, produces about 20,000 tonnes of olive oil per year. Italy produces about 340,000 tonnes per year and the largest producer is Spain, supplying around 1.7 million tonnes per year, or half of the global supply.)
In recent years, local producers have taken advantage of growing demand for olive oil in general and a preference for Israeli brands in particular, said Ashkenazi, who runs his olive oil factory in the north. of the Negev with his partner, Moosh.
“Hanukkah is the Jewish festival of light, but it is also the festival of Israeli olive oil,” she said. “Every year we see an increase in sales, especially before and during Hanukkah. “
The share of buyers looking for it as candle fuel is unknown, but more companies are buying packets of premium Israeli olive oil as a holiday gift for their employees, Ashkenazi said.
Business is going so well that Ashkenazi says she does not need the protectionist taxes imposed on imported goods.
“The competition is good, the consumer should have a wide choice,” she said.