Spinach harvest in Torbalı
WILCO VAN HERPENI think everybody has watched the stories of “Popeye the Sailorman” at least once in their life. I always loved this character that, after eating spinach, changed into a superman. With his unlimited powers, he managed to defeat his biggest enemy: Brutus (or Bluto). Elzie Segar brought the Popeye character to life in 1929. Besides Popeye, there were a number of characters in this comic strip with very interesting names. Popeye’s girlfriend, Olive Oyl, or his adopted son Swee’Pea were some of the characters linked to food. The idea was to promote better eating habits among the American population and therefore many of the characters have interesting names. The one who sticks out among this group is Wimpy, named after a burger chain that was very popular in the early 1900s. After Popeye became a famous comic character, spinach growers saw an increase of 33 percent because of spinach consumption.
Spinach, being a winter vegetable, is harvested during this time of the year. The harvest continues until May, depending on the time the farmer sowed his spinach. One of the centers of spinach in Turkey is Torbalı, a medium-sized city near İzmir. In the little village of Sağlık, Turkish for “health,” I was welcomed by the village’s council of old and wise men. They always hang out in the local teahouse, sipping their tea and talking about the good old times.
I asked the oldest man of the village, who is about 85-years-old, how this village received this strange name. It turned out that the old name of the village was Cellat. It used to be an Anatolian Greek village, but not much of that history remains nowadays. Cellat used to be surrounded by a huge lake and that lake was the reason of a big problem. Every year, hundreds of people in that area became sick and passed away. The reason? Malaria.
It was around 1934 that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk traveled from Aydın to İzmir by train. Just before arriving at Torbalı the train drove through the middle of a lake. As far as his eye could see, there was water; on his left, as well on his right. Atatürk was surprised to find a village in the middle of this lake and decided to stop the train so he could have a chat with the people of the village. He was shocked when he heard about the problem they had and decided this area would become a healthy place to live. In 1935, they started with drying up the lake, a job that took five years. Finally, in 1940, the whole area was dry and together with the removed water, the mosquitos had disappeared. Cellat village became healthy and from that day on the people of the village decided to change the name of the village into “Sağlık” village. For the villagers, it was a win-win situation; people did not die of Malaria anymore and suddenly the area where they lived turned out to be surrounded by very fertile soil. From that day on, agriculture became very important for the people of Sağlık village.
In August they sow the seeds. About three months later, it is time to harvest. The people here try to do “iyi tarım,” Turkish for good cultivation. They use manure and while walking around in the fields, I saw many traces of snails and little insects. The work is done by hand. If they cultivate spinach for the factory, machines cut the spinach but do not take out the roots. As a result, the spinach grows again and they can have a second harvest from the same piece of land. But when it is for the local market in Torbalı, they take the spinach out together with the roots. The roots make a beautiful appetizer as “zeytin yağlı” (olive oil product) and go well with rakı. You can easily make this at home by just boiling the roots and small green parts of the stem of the spinach in water for a short time, then you poor a mixture of olive oil and lemon juice over it and “there you are.” The disadvantage is that you just have one harvest from the spinach, but their big advantage is they produce for the local market. By doing, this they earn more than they would if they gave it to a middle man… For that reason, the muhtar was laughing when I met him at Torbalı’s Friday market. His spinach was at least one Turkish Lira cheaper compared to some other stalls at the market.
While visiting the market, water poured from the sky, which had a frightening kind of blackness in it. Every Friday, next to the big Torbalı market, at the backside behind the teahouses, you can find the organic market. Many farmers are sitting side by side, telling me their product is the best. I bought a special honey (750 gram) for just 20 liras. Rain was pouring down and those poor people were sitting under their improvised tents. Water was leaking through the holes of the fabric that was supposed to stop the rain from pouring on their products. I felt sorry for them, but most probably it does not rain that hard that often in Torbalı (I hope).
While I told “my” muhtar about the honey I bought from a lady at the organic market his smile disappeared from his face and he directly turned to someone who was visiting his stall. “Is this good quality honey?” he asked. The other man looked and looked, turned my jar upside down and smelled the lid. Holding my honey against the light the, for me, blessed words came out of his mouth, “This is good honey, but I would have preferred if you had bought it from me…” Relieved, I took my plastic bag with spinach (in Turkey, wherever you go, you get your goods in a separate plastic bag. There should be a campaign for making people more aware about their environment. Having a picnic is good, but take your litter with you back home or throw it in one of the many trash cans) and left the flooded market.