Twenty minutes out of Lebanon’s southern coastal city of Saida, Yasmina Zahar drives her car along the narrow dirt track that leads to an isolated olive grove in the luscious green countryside. Yasmina and her husband Jean-Pierre rented the land for eighteen years from the Greek Catholic convent of Deir el Mkhalles in 2010. From the yield of the ancient olive grove, the pair set up Bassatin Baanoub – an organic extra virgin olive oil company that also promotes sustainable agriculture and responsible tourism.
On the long winding approach to the olive grove, Yasmina points out the wild plants and herbs that line the road. The ‘rainstick’ plant is thought to predict rainfall for the year ahead; fennel will be handpicked next month to add to the olive oil. The landscape still bears the scars of war and
occupation. Only in 2004 was a small road built to replace
the former mule track, reconnecting the area with civilisation. ‘It was abandoned when we came,’ Yasmina says. ‘Before it was wild. We didn’t even know how many olive trees we had back then.’
Bassatin Baanoub is the story of two urban-dwellers’ escape to the countryside. Yasmina’s husband, architect Jean-Pierre, has a history in eco tourism and founded the Al Jord Ecolodge in the north of Lebanon. Meeting under a juniper tree during the development of that project, Yasmina and Jean-Pierre’s relationship was perhaps always fated to be grounded in nature. For Yasmina, a self-labelled ‘urban girl’ with a hectic day job as a TV commercial producer, her relationship with the land was cultivated through this project. They came across the local monastery’s property by accident, while looking for land to rent to start producing a product using nature. After discovering olive trees amongst the wild scrub and overgrowth, olive oil was the obvious product.
‘We’re still learning. This is the first time I’ve done this in my life,’ Yasmina says. ‘Some of our neighbours were a little dubious at the beginning. Okay we’re not farmers; we didn’t know anything about agriculture, but we’ve proven we can do it.’ As Yasmina strides through the wild olive grove, wearing casual clothes matched with glamorous sunglasses, her growing interest in nature is obvious. She talks of the pleasures of eating directly from the land as she stops to pick a handful of zaarour, the sweet red fruit of a nearby tree.
At the heart of Bassatin Baanoub is a respect for a land that comes with an ancient history. Some of the olive trees here date back over 1000 years. Tree trunks wind and weave with thick roots that mimic the deep-set wrinkles that come with age. Delicate ribbons hang from the branches of each tree, numbered to identify and gather statistics. In 2011, the oldest tree produced 120kg of olives – eight times the average. Ancient coins from the beginning of the Byzantine Empire have been discovered in the soil and remnants of clay pots reveal a Roman past.
‘We’re not a typical project on the monastery’s lands. We’re the only ones to have invested that much money with honestly no return. It’s a utopia,’ Yasmina says. She and Jean-Pierre are trying to inspire a respectful relationship with the land, often lacking in Lebanon, where it tends to be left abandoned and neglected. They’ve closed off their lands from the hunters that used to freely roam, though gunshots still echo around the valley. ‘We want to do something that is pure. It’s about protecting and spreading these ideas,’ Yasmina says. With an area so rich in biodiversity, Yasmina and Jean-Pierre hope to collaborate with Lebanese universities, inviting a study of the landscape’s agronomy and history. Their ambition is to revitalise the region, creating a tourist infrastructure based around the river, hiking and an on-site restaurant.
At the olive grove it’s harvesting season, which is very much a family affair – Ahmed has been with Bassatin Baanoub since the beginning, and during the olive picking season his wife and extended family, all from the same Syrian village, pitch in to harvest the 300-odd trees. A large white canvas lines the ground to catch falling olives. A wooden ladder is used to reach the highest branches as olives are combed off. ‘It’s beautiful when the olives fall to the ground and make a small sound… tick, tick, tick,’ Yasmina says. ‘The crates pile up, then you go to the mill and try the oil you’ve just harvested. It’s the nicest breakfast.’
Next the olives are gathered into white plastic crates – every detail meeting the food hygiene standards required for organic certification. Leaves are separated from olives before they are sorted by hand. Ahmed sits next to his wife and another woman from his extended family at the sorting table, both dressed in rich fabrics. The calm of the land is overwhelming – only the fluttering of leaves in the breeze resonates. They separate the good olives from the bad. Only the best olives will make it into a bottle of Bassatin Baanoub.
Once the crates are full, they’re piled into the back of a truck to make the perilous journey back up the track. Away from the dust and dirt of the land, the mill is more like a lab, gleaming and pristine white. Despite the elaborate machines, the production process is elementary. The day’s yield is poured into a vat, and olives are pushed into a tank of water to remove dust. Next the pulp is separated from stone and the olives are crushed in a modern press. Oil is separated from water – a thick, golden liquid pours out releasing a rich scent. Bottles are then filled by hand on emand, with handpicked herbs added on request.
After the mill it’s back to the farmer’s house next door. Elias, a warm, middle-aged man with the hands of someone who works with the earth, cracks open some walnuts, straight from the garden. His family has been working on the farm for generations and since Yasmina and Jean-Pierre took over the olive grove he’s become part of the extended family. Between cups of coffee and narguileh, his wife Marie brings out a plate of tomatoes grown by another neighbour and fresh olives straight from Bassatin Baanoub’s trees, to a small gathering. At the end, this is what the project is about: eating food, picked directly from the land, and reviving Lebanon’s relationship with its rural roots.