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Fruit of the Mediterranean, fruit of peace: The olive

Kamil Koç Yolculuk Magazine* | 12/13/2010 12:00:00 AM | Berna Çetin Akgün

Now is the season for harvesting olives, the symbol of the Mediterranean, of peace and of hope. Olives have influenced cultures and civilizations formed around the Mediterranean for thousands of years

With the arrival of November comes excitement in the Marmara and Aegean regions as olive growers prepare to harvest the fruit of the trees that have been growing on their soil for centuries: olives. The whole family helps, and sometimes a batch of seasonal workers, to make the olives fall from the trees and set them on a journey that will transform them into the many varieties loved by people around the world.

The olive, which is a characteristic product of the Mediterranean basin, is a strong and lasting fruit. Its trees are beautiful and productive and can grow even in poor soil. Olives are processed for many purposes such as table olives, olive oil and soap. The trees are especially bountiful in the Aegean, Marmara, Mediterranean and Southeast Anatolia regions and to a lesser extent in the Black Sea region.

According to 2009 statistics, in Turkey, 55.21 percent of olive production came from the Aegean region, 26.23 percent from the eastern Mediterranean region, 14.65 from the Marmara region and 3.9 percent from elsewhere. Approximately 70 percent of olive production takes place in olive oil factories that use modern systems. As of 2009, 65.55 percent of total oil production in Turkey was for olive oil, while 34.45 percent was for table olives. South America, California, China and Japan are also world leaders in olive production. Turkey ranks second in the production of table olives and first in the production of black olives in the world. The country that consumed the most olive oil per person was Greece with 21 kilograms. This was followed by Italy with 11.5 kilos and Spain with 10.4 kilos. Turkey was at the bottom of the list with 0.8 kilos per person. 

[HH] History of the olive

It is estimated that the history of the olive tree dates back 12,000 years. It is also estimated that it was some 6,000 years ago when the first olive tree was grown in Anatolia. In Egypt, pure oil extracted from olives was used for lighting lamps in the palace. Also, princesses would use olive oil to protect their skin. 

During the 19th century BC, Mycenaeans in Crete used olive oil to produce perfume. From the 6th century BC onward, olives were being produced heavily in the Mediterranean basin. The world’s oldest known harvestable tree is in the ancient city of Klazomenia founded by Ions, located in the Urla district of the Aegean city of İzmir.

[HH] The sacred olive branch

The olive is the symbol of the Mediterranean, of peace and of hope, and with its subsidiary products it has influenced the cultures of civilizations in the region for thousands of years. The olive tree and its fruit are considered sacred in many cultures. The olive is one of the five sacred fruits including the fig, date, grapes and pomegranates mentioned in many religions. It is mentioned in the Bible and the Old Testament and six times in the Koran, where it is cited as the “sacred tree.”

There are different views about the homeland of the olive. According to one view, the olive was first discovered along the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts of Anatolia, Syria and Lebanon. According to another view, the homeland of the olive is Egyptian lands and the Atlas Mountains of North Africa. Today olive cultivation is spread over a wide area in the world. Traditional cultivation methods are replaced by modern methods. The products derived from olive are very beneficial to health, thus causing a boost in their production and consumption worldwide. Olive oil is the most important product made from olives besides table olives. Moreover, its leaves are used in cosmetics and soap is made from it. After processing, the leftover pulp is used as fuel. Also, jam, sauce, paste and pickles are made from olives. 

The coastal town of Edremit is the right place to learn more about the voyage of the olive. Following the story of the olive on the slopes of the Kaz Mountains and further down into its villages, a visit to the Edremit Evren Ertür Historic Olive Oil Tools Museum is recommended. Tools used for olive oil production throughout history are on display in the museum. The museum is located in the yard of Midas Olive Oil Company. Company officials explain that conveyer belts carry olives from outside the factory to inside. Their leaves are cleaned through an aspirator and then they fall into a washing unit. Here stones, grease and sand are removed. After the cleaning is completed, they are elevated up to the refractive where the olives are crushed and turned into paste. The olive paste is then transferred to another department through pumps. Here paste is spun at 3,000 revolutions per minute and centrifugal force separates it into three segments. On one side there is olive oil, on another there is black olive and on the last side there is the solid part of the olive. After this division, the olive oil goes through an olive oil separator. This olive oil is kept in stainless steel tanks for two months and its pulp sinks. After the olive oil is filtered, it is put into cans and packaged. The total processing time is approximately 45 minutes and 10 to 12 tons of olive oil is produced per day. 

[HH] Symbiosis between man and olives

Olive harvesting begins at the end of October and continues till the end of January. There might be some changes in the harvest time depending on the weather and rain. After the danger of frost has passed in February, pruning is completed. The extra branches of trees are cut and a simple natural medicine prepared with limestone is used against fungi.

Producer and agricultural engineer Murat Demirdaş said he believes there is a symbiosis between man and olive. “Man protects olive and olive protects man. Almost 193 kinds of olives exist in Anatolia. We apply disinfectant against various fungal diseases, branch flies and spotted leaves. The plant can fight them naturally but disinfections are needed to get better and faster results. It’s the basic characteristic of olive trees. They can live on their own even if you do not tend to them. But if you tend to them, you can get better fruit. After the olives are squeezed, the remaining pulp is called prina. This prina is processed one more time in prina factories and olive oil is extracted a second time. After it is exposed to a chemical process, it turns into cooking oil similar to sunflower seed oil. Cooking oil in its raw form is the oil that is extracted by squeezing the olive fruit without any chemical processing. Oils that are called Riviera are more refined products, obtained after secondary chemical processes. Other vegetable oils such as sunflower seed oil and canola oil are obtained through some refinement.”

Demirdaş said the most competitive aspect of the olive oil is its purity. “It has no risk of being genetically modified. There are trees that bear fruit for 600 years. The wood of the olive tree is known to give off the most heat when burning after the oak wood. In this region, olive trees are maybe the main reason that forests in the mountains were protected. People use the olive tree branches as firewood, thus leaving the forests untouched.”

[HH] Income falls

According to Demirdaş, there is a serious loss of income in the region. The income level in the region was higher when oils like sunflower seed or canola were rare. For instance, a family producing 100 sacks of olives used to make a living and send their children to school in the past. But now income obtained from olive production alone is not enough to make a living. Technology has been integrated into the lives of many people over the years.

“Now there are machines for more careful collection because when people try to reach the upper parts of the trees, some accidents can happen. There are such far spots that tools should definitely be used to reach them. So technology comes into the scene. Not every farmer is able to use modern technology, but its use is growing. When collecting olives, picking them by hand is better than hitting the tree with sticks. The reason why the top branches of trees are truncated is that it is easier to collect olives when the branches of the trees grow horizontally so they can be reached by ladders. Since underground water has decreased compared to the past, the plant has difficulty pumping water to its upper branches. We want the trees to produce more on the lower parts rather than growing fruit on the less productive upper branches.”

The olive is not only beneficial as a healthy food, but its trees also protect the soil of the Kaz Mountains, Demirdaş said. Because of the law on protection of olive trees and banning their cutting in Edremit, the region is also protected against mine exploration. Demirdaş warned though, “If the law protecting olive trees is ever removed, then this region will be like Bergama.” 

[HH] Olive hunting with sticks

In olive orchards, large blankets are laid beneath the trees. Long sticks are used to poke olives so they fall. This work may look like fun, but it is very difficult. The olives should be knocked down without damaging the trees. The olives are collected and put into baskets. Then they are sent to factories to be processed.

Farmer Nazım Bozkurt complained about the disinfectant. “Disinfectant is applied late and thus our crop becomes useless as worms ruin the olives. When they fall from the trees, they are only good for refined produce. Refined oil serves for the purpose of the buyer because it is cheap. If disinfectant is applied at the right time, there will be no need for refinement. Officers should visit every village here and try to solve the problem by asking for the public’s opinion. We go to the District Directorate of Agriculture and take our samples there. They say they have the worm. Disinfectant should be applied in July when the olives are still small.” 

Olives, symbolizing the Mediterranean, peace, hope and wisdom, has continued its life in Anatolia for centuries. Various products obtained from olives add flavor to our tables and provide health and healing for people who eat them. The excitement of the harvest season here in October and November finds its way to our tables after passing through dozens of stages, from farmer to producer, carrying the curing power of a thousand years. 

Special thanks to İskender Azatoğlu and Nadya Tüfekçi for their help.

Sources: 

Olive Production, Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs Manisa Provincial Directorate, 2008

Dünya Zeytin Ansiklopedisi, Uluslararası Zeytinyağı Konseyi (World Olive Encyclopedia, International Olive Oil Council), 1997

Zeytinin Dünyasına Yolculuk (A Voyage to the World of Olive), Esat Bülbül, Koza Publishing, 2009

www.dazb.org.tr

* This article first appeared in Kamil Koç Yolculuk Magazine’s November issue.

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