“A camel driver an ass string of eight or nine camels! The monotonous tinkling of the bells bung around the camels’ necks heralds the caravan’s arrival… For years, this sound rang through the streets of Ayvalik during November, December and January, the months when the black juice produced waste during the oil extraction process flowed everywhere.”
These lines are from the account of Ayvalik’s history in a book entitled the area about this picturesque seaside town on the Aegean. Little is known about the ancient and medieval history of the town, although there is archeological evidence that it was settled in prehistoric times. In the 1700s when all the rest of western Anatolia was under the Ottoman rule, Ayvalik enjoyed an unusual autonomous status. In 1840, Ayvalik was attached to the sub-province of Balikesir, then known as Karesi.
The feature which comes first to mind when speaking of Ayvalik is its olive groves, which cover 70 percent of the land in this area. Today, there are over 2.5 million olive trees in the area. Olives are one of Turkey’s most important crops, and Ayvalik one of Turkey’s most important crops, and Ayvalik one of the principal olive growing regions.
The olive tree is an intriguing plant, which has existed for 8000 years. A native of Mesopotamia, the olive was gradually introduced to lands further afield. Although the tree grows extremely slowly and requires careful cultivation, its longevity rewards many generations of farmers. Olive trees over the thousand years of age exist. The distinctive color of these usually low stature trees is due to the fact that the upper surface of the leave is dark green while the underside is silvery. The trunk of the olive tree is extremely resistant to rot, and even after the tree is dead, the roots put out new shoots so that a young tree grows from the olive tree is immortal. The olive groves of Mesopotamia, the Mediterranean and Aegean regions are mentioned in some of the earliest written records, and all the many civilizations which arose and fell in Anatolia harvested their fruit and pressed it for oil.
The olive has one of the highest oil contents of any plant, at 20-30 percent of the fruit’s weight and most of the crop is used for producing olive oil. Each tree fruits plentifully every other year, producing very little fruit in alternate years.
Today, Turkey is one of the world’s top five olive oil producers, with an output of 70,000 tons in 1993.
Total world production for the same period was 1,705,000 tons. Turkey exports over a third of the total crop from its 85 million trees. Consumption of olive oil in the country itself is comparatively low compared with other olive producers. For example, whereas between 1986 and 1989 per capita consumption of olive oil in Greece was 20 liters, this figure was only around one liter in Turkey. There are 1141 olive oil factories in the country. 213 of them in Izmir, 173 in Aydın, 140 in Gaziantep, 135 in Balikesir, 133 in Mugla, and 347 in other provinces. Turkey’s oldest olive oil producing company is Komili, established in 1878 by appointment to the sultan.
The methods of olive oil production used in Turkey and the rest of the world has changed little since Roman times. The olives are pressed without any chemical processing to produce oil which is a pure and natural as the goddess Minerva, regarded as patron saint of olives by the Romans.
The Romans classified olive oil in ten categories. For example, the made from windfalls was known as “caducum”, while that made from diseased olives and used by slaves was called “cibbarim”. The merchants would gather to set prices for the different grades, and the jars of the olive oil would then be loaded on ships for distribution to distant markets.
Three principal grades of olive oil are produced in Turkey today, although these grades may be subdivided. Olive oil is classified according to aroma, color, acidity, flavor and production method. The highest quality is virgin extra, which has a greenish yellow color, retains the aroma of it, and has the richest flavor.
Virgin extra olive oil is one of the finest natural foodstuffs available. It is the first oil obtained by the cold press method and has an acidity of no more than one percent. The second and third grades of virgin olive oil have a higher acidity of up to 4.5 percent. Oils with an acidity above this level must be refined before they are edible. Refined olive oil has almost zero acidity, but is nearly colorless and lacks any aroma. This oil is preferred in countries like the U.S. where consumers are not accustomed to the strong flavor of the natural olive oil. The third type, known as Riviera, as a mixture of natural and refined oils, which since it burns at a higher temperature than either of its component oils alone, is the most suitable for frying.
Human beings discovered how to extract oil from these small trees thousands of years ago, and the people of the Mediterranean basin have benefited from the health-giving properties of olive oil ever since. Olive oil is the most easily digestible of all solid and liquid fats. A little taken by itself before meals protect the stomach from ulcers, and it can help cure complaints of the gallbladder.
Olive oil contains almost the same proportion of linoleic acid as human milk, and contributes to the development of the brain and strengthens the bones. Significant quantities of vitamins A, D. E and K are also present in olive oil, which since it reduces the level of cholesterol in the blood also reduces the risk of heart disease.
Table olives are consumed in large quantities in Turkey. Over the 1992-1993 season 120.000 tons of it was produced, equivalent to over 10 percent of world production totaling 1.056.000 tons, and one-third of European Union production of 378.000 tons.
Of Turkey’s 1993 production of it, 110.000 tons were consumed on the domestic market and only 10.000 tons exported. The Turkish people are dedicated eaters of olives although over recent years cheaper oils have eroded consumption of olive oil.
In a country where olive oil has been produced, for thousands of years, and where cold vegetable dishes made with olive oil form a culinary category of their own known as “zeytinyaglilar”, both producers and dietitians are trying to persuade the public that the advantages of their traditional oil worth that bit extra in price.