A branch of olive
This olive branch was regarded as a sign of peace representing God’s forgiveness. Since then, olives held a positive, peaceful meaning for all the civilizations of the Mediterranean, where olive trees are part of the natural landscape dotting every hillside in sight. Winner athletes at the Ancient Greece Olympic games were crowned with olive branch wreaths. In ancient Rome, during war, the defeating side would wave a branch of olive oil, pleading for peace. In modern times, the U.N. carries the peace symbol on its blue and white flag, which shows the map of the world encircled in two olive branches.
In Turkey, almost all coastal regions grow olive, with the exception of the Black Sea region. The northern Aegean region takes the lead, with Ayvalık being the most reputed — most of the producers being concentrated in the area. This is the 15th year of the Ayvalık Olive Harvest Festival, which might be the oldest continuous one celebrated officially in Turkey. I must say that it is also the reunion time for most of friends that are connected with the invisible tie, which is our love and devotion to olive oil. When it was initiated by Rahmi Gençer, the former director Ayvalık Chamber of Commerce, the chamber also applied for Geographical Indication Appellation of Ayvalık olive oils. Getting the GI label helped most Ayvalık brands in a better position to promote their oils and safeguard their groves. That was a start to protect and promote the local olive varietals, now the new director, Mustafa Büyükçıvgın, is keen to carry the flag to the future.
Now, they are aiming at having the Ayvalık Olive Oil registered by the EU, in hope that it will get the world recognition it desires.
Every producer takes their responsibility and does their best to sustain and expand olive oil production in Turkey. Kristal Olive oils are now competing in the biggest market of olive oil in the world: Spain, which is by far the biggest producer in the world. Christopher Dologh, CEO of Kristal, stresses that Turkey must put more choices on the table to get competitive at world markets. They are doing so by focusing on indigenous varietals and their terroirs, for example, two years ago they collaborated with local olive growers on the border with Syria to revive the local Saurani variety. Now, on their fourth year in their project to work hand-in-hand with local growers, they are promoting Ayvalık variety in Ayvalık and Memecik variety in Milas area, close to Bodrum, which produces ideally the best oils in that particular soils.
Meanwhile, in another corner of the country, Tarsus, a historic town in southern Turkey, is celebrating its own olive harvest. Tarsus, overshadowed by the fast-growing neighboring cities of Mersin and Adana, is not getting its share of tourists despite being the hometown of St. Paul — which houses the St. Paul’s Well and a church dedicated to his name. But apparently the reference of St. Paul alone is not enough. Now the town is trying its chances to revive tourism through its gastronomy, and that’s why the olive harvest in taking place as part of Tarsus Gastronomy Days, now on its second year. Yasmina Lokmanoğlu, head of Citizens’ Councils Platform of Turkey, herself a native of Mersin and Christian by birth, believes that gastronomy tourism is even stronger than faith tourism.
Lokmanoğlu has recently established the Slow Food Convivium in Tarsus, aiming at supporting local producers. This year they are putting the emphasis on Saru Ulak local olive variety, which produces excellent oil and makes delicious cured table olives. The Tarsus program includes a Slow Food Earth Market, demonstrations, workshops and talks by acclaimed chefs from Istanbul, and panels to discuss the importance of Geographical Appellation of regional olive varietals. I have to add that one of the participating chefs, Aylin Yazıcıoğlu of Nicole in Istanbul, is also a keen olive oil defender. She organizes an olive oil workshop every year in her restaurant, bringing together the best of Turkish and Italian oils. Hopefully, in her next organization, the oil of Sarı Ulak will be among others to be tasted by olive fans and experts.
From Spain to Italy, from Greece to Turkey and from Tunisia to Syria, the world’s leading olive growing countries, all sharing the Mediterranean shores, connected not only by the sea, but also through shared history, are also connected by their love and devotion to olive oil. Whether it be Saurani, Ayvalık, Memecik, Saru Ulak or any other countless varieties, olive will always stand for hope and belief in earth. It is time to carry the peace flag and join the olive fraternity!
P.S.: Both festivals are open to the public, rich with concerts, dance shows, exhibitions, besides panels, discussions, workshops and tastings.
Fork of the week: If you visit Ayvalık, keep in mind that the town hosts one of the loveliest places evet, which was included TL&CC-Truth, Love& Clean Cutlery World Guide. Turkey was allocated to have 10 places on the world list, and the only restaurant outside Istanbul was Ayna, I must say that it was one of my favorite choices.
Cork of the week: Ayvalık is an ideal place to enjoy wine, but nobody ever thought of producing one, as the landscape is covered by endless olive groves, hill after hill. Thanks to architect Fikret Özdemir that planted a vineyard, now there is a local wine to savor along with delectable olive oil dishes.