It’s hard to imagine Israel without conjuring up images of an array of bright, robust olives in various shapes and sizes presented in every shuk, marketplace, and present in almost every household. Olives not only serve as a staple of modern Israeli cuisine, but are also symbolic of Jewish identity. The iconic image of a dove carrying an olive branch is permanently stamped within the Jewish/Israeli pysche. Olive trees have always been a sacred symbol in biblical Judaism. Therefore, it may come as a shock when Hilla Wenkert, the owner of Olia, a high end olive oil boutique, diligently explains how olive oils were originally dismissed in modern day Israel. There was little or no trace of olive oil in Israeli cuisine upon the founding of the state, and it was associated solely with the Arab cuisines of the region for decades.
It wasn’t until the 1980’s that Israel began producing their own batches of olive oil and even then, there was little commitment to quality. The olive oil producers mixed varieties of olives to create essentially one type of olive oil: dominant, pungent and very bitter.
It took Israelis over 20 years to cultivate and honor one of their most prized agricultural products. The process of reclaiming the sacred olive plant was concurrently a process of embracing a component of Jewish/Israeli cultural and culinary identity. This work is attributed to select olive farmers, producers, historians and, among others, to Hilla Wenkert, who used her business savvy and expertise to help introduce refined, quality and varietal olive oils to the Israeli public.
Hilla’s personal journey which led her to find quality olives and to produce fine olive oils is very similar to the journey of the olive oil in modern day Israel. Originally Hilla studied fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. For 20 years she worked laboriously in the fashion industry in marketing. After an extreme overload of work, she decided to take a one year hiatus to rediscover herself and her true passion.
A workaholic by nature, to truly relax was a difficult task for Wenkert. After half a year of taking it easy, Hilla began travelling around Israel to get reacquainted with her homeland. On one of her journeys to the Galilee, during December's olive harvest, Hilla had a chance to taste a spoonful of local olive oil that blew her mind away. It was this act of faith that motivated Hilla to embark on a life-changing olive oil love affair. “When I found out that this olive oil was from Israeli olives, pressed and produced in Israel, I couldn’t believe that this wasn’t available to everyone.” She quickly found David Eitam, a local archaeologist with an expertise in Israeli olives, to provide her private workshops in his home. She spent the next year learning and discovering anything and everything about local olives and olive oil production. She took courses at Tel Chai College and refined her palette to learn the intricacies of olive oil tasting.
After learning that in its essence Israel is an olive oil country, it became Hilla’s lifelong mission to help market this exceptional fruit to the Israeli masses. As farmers began to harvest and reclaim the fruit of their land, Hilla discovered her passion and true essence. In 2007 Hilla partnered up with her brother, Nimrod Zaltsman, to open Olia on Frishman street, the first boutique olive oil shop in Israel and the first to publicly produce varietal olive oil, exclusively using Israeli olives. In 2011 Hilla and Nimrod opened a second store in the depths of Tel Aviv’s famous Carmel Market. Celebrating the crux of the local produce of the shuk, it was important for these olive oil aficionados to open a store that blended in with the shuk’s environment. The Carmel market store goes a step further by also having a unique eatery which sells tapas dishes using various Olia products.
The trademark Olia olive oils offer twelve different single varietal olive oils and three to four seasonal blends, all which are 100% natural. These include: Santa, Souri, Picual, Nabali, Picholine, Kalamata, Barnea and Askal. The latter two are the only 100% Israeli crafted and breeded olives.
Both their Nabali and Picholine varietals were winners of the prestigious awards at the TerraOlivio 2012. Every oil has a distinct flavor, aroma and can be used for specific purposes. Some have a capacity to withstand high temperatures, and are best used for frying or baking, others are very smooth, and therefore great for taking in the morning for medicinal purposes. Like a person, each olive has its own particular personality and temperament.
Along with exceptional assortments of olive oils, Olia provides a variety of condiments, sauces, and jams. Each is made by Olia’s private chef, in their own kitchen, using only seasonal and local products. Their Coffee Vinaigrette rub is one of their stand out products, a staple in any kitchen. It is best used as a meat or vegetable marinade, a instant method to notch up a meal and is ideal for summer barbeques. You’ll forget any other marinade and become loyal to this one, the subtle yet definite coffee flavor and the acidity of the vinegar accentuates the brawny flavor of any meat.
Along with their vinaigrettes, Olia makes a selection of outstanding mustards which go through a long process of tasting, adding, subtracting, and editing to provide the ideal harmonious blend of bitter, acid, spice, and sweet. The mustard plant, originally a plant of Israel, is truly honored in the Olia tradition.
If you have been one to think that only Italian olive oils are worthy and have written off Israeli olive oils, it is time to visit Olia. Here you will reconnect with the fruit that has so vividly symbolized Israeli history and culture. With a deep commitment to quality and taste, Hilla and Nimrod have helped create a market to cherish a product that has long been overlooked. From the base of Israeli cooking, they have provided a product to honor the dining experience, instilling a sense of pride and connection to the identity of Israeli cuisine.