From tree to table in Ayvalik, the land of olives
Aynur Tattersall reports from the olive harvest in Ayvalik, where the ancient groves have witnessed hundreds of civilisations come and go.
Turkey is among the top five olive oil producing countries in the world, with over a thousand producers. The ‘Olive Harvest Festival’ is organised by Komili, one of the largest olive oil brands in the world. Their story began in 1878 on the island of Lesbos. At that time, the island was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. Hasan from Komi region was making a living through producing soaps and olive oil in Lesvos. Due to the requirements of the population exchange after the Treaty of Lausanne, the family emigated to Ayvalık, where Komili’s story continued to grow, eventually becoming one of the world’s leading olive oil companies. Komili organises the popular ‘Olive Harvest Festival’ every year for those who wish to discover more about olive oil and its production.
Ayvalık is a seaside town on the northwestern Aegean coast of Turkey, surrounded by the archipelago of Ayvalık islands, which face the nearby Greek island of Lesbos. It has a unique atmosphere; a historical town set amidst a remarkable natural beauty. An important trade centre during Ottoman times, the resultant fusion of local Greek and Cretan cultures created the character that we experience today. The town is surrounded by an endless forest of olive trees. From grey to green, pink to wine, brown, purple, and finally a reddish black, the olive fruit, which remain clustered on the branches until mid-autumn, are ready to fall to the base of the thousand-year-old tree trunks.
The timing of my arrival in Ayvalık could not have been more perfect, as the trees were loaded down with olives. Gathering them involved a variety of different methods. Come harvest-time, the crews of experienced olive pickers had plenty of work to do in the villages. As soon as the harvest begins, they spend all day gently beating the trees with long poles, continuing until the sun sets. I joined a group of workers who were harvesting the olives by hand. This may be the most expensive and time-consuming method, but it also yields the highest quality of olives and the resultant olive oil. I began by plucking them one by one from the branches, by brushing the branches with a special brush, which causes no damage to the trees. Working alongside my fellow pickers proved to be a wonderful experience.
The method of harvesting varies according to the type of olive, the number of trees and the amount of money one is willing to spend. With thousands of trees and millions of olives, we continued to fill the baskets and sacks. It was hard work and required infinite patience. Once the harvesting is complete, the olives are sent to the refineries, where the fruits are fed into one end of the machines, and golden oil comes out the other end. The liquid obtained through the process of pressing is then left to rest in vats in order to separate the oil from the dark, watery juice. After a few days of storage in the dark, the olive oil is filtered and bottled.
I learned much from my trip to Ayvalik:
- The quality of the olive increases as the size of the pit decreases
- When olives are harvested early, basically when they are still green, the percentage of oil produced is lower, but the level of antioxidants in the oil is higher
- Olive oil has many health benefits, including the promotion of hair growth, getting rid of wrinkles, and for the treatment of a variety of conditions, including eczema, boils and gastrointestinal disorders
- It is cultivated in two zones in the world, located between 30°-45° latitude in the northern and southern hemispheres
- Olives are cultivated in 33 countries
- Olive oil is commonly used in the production of food products, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and soap. It was also once used as a fuel for oil lamps
- Olive oil freezes when it is stored in the cold, and returns to its liquid state without deterioration when it is heated
- Olive oil should be stored away from sunlight, at room temperature, and sealed to prevent humidity
- Olive trees blossom in mid-May. The blossom turns into buds at the beginning of June, and the olives emerge from the buds as green olives and begin to ripen in July. In August, the olive pits begin to harden and the olive gets bigger. The olive harvest begins in October and continues until March
- Olive trees have one of the longest lifespans of any trees in the world, living for up to 2.000 years.
Ayvalık promises one of the best holidays anywhere during the fall season in Turkey. During my time in the town, there were no crowds. I wandered the streets, enjoying the atmosphere created by the Greek architecture, and without the oppressive heat and humidity of the summer months. It is easy to understand why Ayvalik has earned a place on UNESCO’s Tentative List of World Heritage sites. With no tourist crowds at historical sites such as Kucukkoy, you can take your time focusing on the detail and hearing the stories. And should you travel as far as Kucukkoy, a visit to Şeytan Sofrası to enjoy the wonderful sunsets is not to be missed.
Ayvalık could not be exist without Cunda. It is only ten minutes from Ayvalık. During the fall, sitting and watching the sea offers as much pleasure as swimming in it. With almost two thousand houses under ‘SIT’ preservation status, it is a delight to stroll among them. I felt as if I was in a time warp. I visited the Greek Orthodox Church, the famous Stone Café, and the Sevim Necdet Kent Library, which is sited at the very top of the island. Then there was Teos, with its marvellous fish; and the Imparator and Karadeniz Patisseries, with their memorable desserts…
The Ayvalik Olive Harvest is held from 26 to 29 October, and offers a truly unique experience. I am hoping to return next year.