In this centuries’ old, still male-dominated industry in the Middle East, Amelia Bilbeisi’s presence stands out markedly.
It’s not just that she’s a woman forging a new path in the production of olive oil in Jordan, the country that’s the eighth largest producer in the world. It’s also that she’s doing so at a state-of-the-art, boutique olive oil company that is pushing the envelope for what quality extra virgin olive oil can be.
The family’s single-family estate was started from scratch 11 years ago by her father, Ziad Bilbeisi, who has since planted 215,000 olive trees on an unlikely 300-acre desert site in the middle of nowhere. After a rewarding corporate career of her own, Amelia joined her father’s company two years ago as a quality control expert and certified olive oil sommelier, responsible for the exacting tastes of ONSURI’s single-varietal and olive oil blends. To Amelia, the time for women to take on more prominence in this important industry is long overdue.
“It’s an industry that in some ways is so feminine, because it’s about aromas. Yet it’s dominated by men who look at it as a commodity,’’ she says. “They treat it like a product, rather than as something delicate that needs to be nurtured.’’
Under her guidance, she has positioned ONSURI to meet the challenges of an ever-discriminating consumer palate, as well as to adopt more sustainable stewardship practices in an industry dependent on a natural environment increasingly stressed by climate change.
After receiving an arts degree from Ruskin University in Cambridge, she moved to Jordan to be closer to family. Hampered in exploring her interest in digital arts in a conservative area of the world without unfettered internet access, she segued into corporate training and development instead. She flourished in it so much that she eventually started her own successful corporate training company, which she sold two years later to start a family.
When her father and her older brother, Firas Bilbeisi, ONSURI’s director, approached her about joining the olive oil company, Amelia, the youngest child in the family, initially hesitated. It wasn’t until she was assured that she’d have the freedom to make decisions as she saw fit that she dove in with gusto.
Transitioning from training corporate employees to pressing olive oil might seem like a radical change, but the 44-year-old Amelia, who left the UK at 15 and has lived in five countries already, is always up for a new challenge.
“As with corporate development, there are achievable goals in making olive oil,’’ she says. “You are on a journey to meet them. That held my interest.’’
In 2019, she was certified as an olive oil sommelier by the Olive Oil Times Education Lab in London, upon completion of an intense course study focused on technical and sensory analyses. To hone her palate further, she conducts blind tastings weekly not only of olive oils from around the globe, and engages with sommeliers in related fields such as wines and whiskeys. In 2022, she completed a course with ESAO in Spain and gained the added certification of Master Miller.
In tasting sessions for chefs and consumers, she teaches that the easiest way for a lay person to distinguish quality oil from defective oil is to take a whiff. The former will smell of nature, such as green almonds or tomato leaves, while the latter will smell of industrial chemicals like nail polish remover or plasticine.
At ONSURI, Amelia immerses herself in everything from soil quality and tree health to market trends. She is responsible for the consistency and quality of the oils, which are all within the much-coveted Ultra-Premium grade,’’ the very highest grade that only about 5 percent of the world’s olive oil meets. By varying the irrigation of the trees or pressing time of the olives, she knows she can bring out certain key qualities in each olive variety.
An avid cook, she is keen on developing blends that work with a range of dishes and cuisines to elevate, not overpower, and to simply bring joy and inspiration to anyone in the kitchen.
“My favorite thing is when someone opens a tin of ONSURI and smells it,’’ she says. “There’s a smile of recognition, of something nostalgic. You know you’ve ticked all the boxes. That’s immensely satisfying.’’