Aylin Öney Tan - email@example.com“It’s like eating cotton or felt!” These are the words which came out as I was trying to explain the fruit. We were beneath an oleaster tree in Gallipoli. My travel companions were all wine experts; we were touring the Thracian vineyards and wineries, and this was the only time I found something they did not know before, beyond the grape I mean. The fruits of the tree were just beginning to ripen. I reached for a rusty colored, olive-shaped fruit to pick. Admittedly, my initial explanation had not been appetizing at all, as one might expect. No one was tempted to try. Peter McCombie reluctantly had one, Christy Canterbury was polite not to refuse and Andreas Larsson preferred to look the other way. After a brief pause while tasting the weird fruit, Christy bluntly said: “You were right in describing it like cotton!”
Oleaster is nostalgic for us. It brings most friends of my generation back to their childhoods in an instant. It reminds of school days in early fall. Oleasters wrapped in paper cones would be at sale on the street outside the school gate. I always reserved a portion of my pocket money for a cone of oleasters. No question about it… never! With all this childhood history, I could not refrain from stealing a few from the tree. The moment I had it in my palm, I remembered the entire rite instantly. I would peel the papery outer skin carefully, so as not to disturb the delicate insides, and then pop the revealed tiny cotton thing into my mouth. As the velvety fluffy texture of the odd fruit was moist with my saliva, I’d suck its sweetness while trying to scrape all the flesh from the pointy hard stone. There had been more than one occasion when I pierced my gums or the top of my palate while turning the seed upside down several times in my mouth. I never spat out the stone without a final check. I always made sure to inspect the meticulously cleaned woody pit to see if there were still bits of the wooly goodness remaining on it. Then I would put the pit back in my mouth and spit it as far as possible. It was a delight. It was always a playful moment to experience an oleaster fruit.
Oleaster has the strange effect of drying out your mouth completely. Quenching your thirst, or rather soothing your palate, with gulps of cold water was another delightfully enjoyable moment. I always thought that it was the wooly or cottony texture of the fruit that mopped up my tongue. Now, with my wine expert travel companions talking about the mouth feel of wines, I gave it another thought. Actually, the drying effect might well be caused by the mouth puckering tannins existing in the fruit, much like how a tannic wine works on your palate.
When I grew up, oleaster meant more than just a playful childish snack. Its flowers have a heavenly perfume, almost cloyingly capturing, like a fragrance that charms you in an almost annoying way. The main pedestrian alley in our university campus was lined with oleaster trees; this meant every spring struck love affairs of all students with unseen but strongly felt shared scent. All graduates of Middle East Technical University would surely remember that! The flowering period of the oleaster tree is brief, but unforgettable for anyone who has experienced its presence.
The oleaster tree, “iğde” in Turkish (with a soft g), botanically Elaeagnus angustifolius, strongly resembles a willow. Flowing branches with rustling, pointy, long leaves makes one think of a willow. It is also close to olives, actually a relative to the olive family, also known by the name Russian olive. Actually, it is regarded as the ancestor of the olive; the leaves have the same silvery shine and the fruits resemble an olive in shape. Sometimes the wild olive is called oleaster, though they are completely different trees. The rusty brown dried fruit also resembles a miniscule date. There are not many written descriptions of the culinary aspect of oleaster in the English language. Back in 1994, Phill Iddison, a long-time symposiast of the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, wrote about oleaster in Petits Propos Culinaires. Phill had previously lived in Istanbul, working on the construction of the second Bosphorus Bridge. Intrigued by this peculiar fruit, he felt the urge to describe it in detail: “They are ovoid, a half to one inch long and have a pale brown skin when ready for eating. The skin is thin and papery and peels off easily to reveal the buff-colored, soft, mealy flesh which induces thirst. It is sweet with a flavor reminiscent of medlar and the flesh clings to the stone which is ribbed and striped brown.” He adds that they are only eaten as a snack but were once also used in breads and making fermented drinks.
The playfulness of oleaster remains with you, if you have a past with it. Otherwise, it is surely an acquired taste, or not even a taste, but a weird wooly creation of mother nature that some folks strangely find some delight in. Recipes with iğde are long lost in Turkish cuisine; but who needs a recipe to play with an oleaster? You can just enjoy it in the most childish way, and there is all there is to it!
Bite of the Week
Fork of the Week: Not the fruit but rather oleaster flowers work wonders in homemade jams and jellies. My food writer friend Hülya Ekşigil raves about the apple and oleaster jam served at the Rengigül Pansiyon in Bozcada, saying that it is worth going all the way there just to have a spoonful of the jam. Otherwise you have to be patient until May to make your own.
Cork of the Week: If oleaster reminds one of heavenly perfumes and mouth-puckering dryness, then the wine equivalent has to be aromatic whites and tannic reds. The local grapes that have such qualities are Bornova Misketi for whites and Boğazkere for reds. I pick two bottles for this week, and both will be presented in the SITT wine tastings in Manchester today, on Wednesday in London. Gordias 2012 Boğazkere is a good representative of Boğazkere grapes, though the tannins in this one are carefully tamed. And who can say no to the heavenly aroma of a Bornova Misket grape, ancestor of all Muscat varietals? Şatomet Muscat of Bornova 2015 reflects a floral bouquet as powerful as the oleaster flower. The newly launched website www.sonvino.com stocks both wines with U.K. deliveries next day.
Object of the Week: If my wine expert friends discovered oleaster, my discovery of the week was the Zalto glass. Though I knew about Zalto, I did not have the opportunity to experience it before. Taner Öğütoğlu, founder of Gustobar, kindly provided me a Burgundy glass pair of Zalto to compare the experience with other glasses during the tastings in our trip. It was a true revelation. The hand blown glass is so feathery light that it feels as if it will fly away, as ephemeral as the scent of the oleaster. Zalto glasses are now available in Turkey (at the same price as in Europe), through Gustobar, which provides equipment and consultancy for wine enthusiasts. www.gustobar.com.