Guide to SKOPJE

The Olive Fest of Ayvalik

MK TR GR

I happened to visit the Turkish coast of the Aegean Sea for once not in the summertime. I thought things would be rather quiet and monotonous in autumn. But for the beautiful town of Ayvalik tradition was coming alive yet again this year: the olive fest, at the start of the olive harvest.

The Commercial Chamber of Ayvalik and the town’s Municipality hosted an open exhibition with stands that stayed for more than a week in the Ayvalik central square. All major entrepreneurs of the Turkish Aegean Region (Balikesir and Izmir counties) were participating, with their trademarked brands of olive oil, table olives and a wide range of derivatives such as soap and cosmetics.

Almost 80% of Turkey’s olive/olive oil production comes from Turkey’s Aegean Region. The ancient culture around the olive tree has been kept very much alive by the “exchanged” refugees that arrived to inhabit Ayvalik in 1923, coming mostly from Crete and Lesvos (major olive-oil producing areas in Greece). Their descendants today are the majority of the Ayvalik inhabitants.

“Fotograflar Nostalji Ayvalik” FB page

More or less everybody is connected to the ancient and new olive groves; be it ownership, cultivation, processing, merchandise (including pottery and cookies!), widespread use in home consumption or served in restaurants. A simple walk around the streets of Ayvalik and neighboring Cunda island (Moschonissi) only testifies to this fact.

The official launch of the event happened in a real festive atmosphere. The famous dance of the zeybeks, local to the region, was performed here by a local folk dance group. The town’s municipal band gave a nostalgic tune to the whole atmosphere.

“Ayvalik Guzel” (pretty Ayvalik) was sung by the band’s maestro as a reminder to the native Ayvalik people’s love for their city. The maestro had invited me to the event and was proud to tell me he has already given 2 concerts in Lesvos, his parent’s island of origin.

A traditional country fiesta in the olive groves was organized for locals and visitors, coach transport provided by the municipality. Seemingly, the whole of Ayvalik was there on that day!

Again I was lucky, having an appointment with friends from the Taris company, who took care of arranging our private transport to the fields and a most obliging helping with the pick nick food prepared on the spot.

The musical instruments that gave an extra zest to the country gathering have the same name in greek (daouli and zournas) and can also seen in similar occasions. I wished that the (masses of) Greek tourists that regularly arrive from Lesvos were notified to come and join – unfortunately, all relative information was given in Turkish.

By data of 2011, the world-leading oil producers (in millions of gallons annually) are: 1) Spain (216); 2) Italy (147); 3) Greece (117); 4) Turkey (59); 5) Tunisia (44); 6) Syria (34). Having a background of food studies, I couldn’t resist doing a bit of research to see what are the problems and perspectives for a country that is the world’s 4th largest producer. And what is being done apart from the excellent fest I see. Domestic consumption is comparatively too low and not raising much for the past decade –  barely over 1 kilogram per capita per annum (10 kgrs for Spain, 12 for Italy and 25 for Greece, 4,5 being the EU average) according to official Olive Council Statistics (UZZK). Reportedly though, authorities and companies alike have been keen in creating effective marketing and awareness campaigns that would promote olive oil consumption across Turkey.

True fact is that beyond the Aegean Region, butter and seed oil are traditionally used for cooking, so this is a cultural issue affecting demand – as well as a transport/cost issue for commodities from Turkey’s west to the rest of the country. Another problem that has to be dealt with is production and export in bulk that is seriously prevailing in Turkey’s olive oil and table olives. Turkey exports much of its bulk olive oil to Italy, which brands it and sells it in much higher prices (in a similar way that both Spain and Greece do).

Turkey’s Aegean Exporters Union (EIP) have reported that during the past decade, export has been seriously decreasing and export incomes decreased even more. Low quality yields, high domestically-announced pricing (double the world’s prices), unreliable financial backing and expensive implementation have played a key role in the decrease, as experts say. According to the union, there are two important issues that have been recently acknowledged and must continue a) Bulk exports should be reduced and branded products promoted instead, as they bear a higher added value to both regions and companies b) Substantial state backing for farmers, increased production and quality-improving measures (including support for mechanization) and a standard geographical indication policy must be widely apprehended and promoted.

It was more than evident that the participating companies in the Ayvalik event go ahead in this logic and the local commercial chamber (est. 1923 and with currently 1,200 members) does a lot to provide research and policy to this direction Geographical indication for Ayvalik’s olive oil was established in 2007.

As a closing to the 3-day festive events a special brunch for professionals and invited official guests was provided by Komili, Turkey’s oldest olive oil company celebrating its 135th year in 2012.

Now Komili has an interesting popular story that elderly locals love to narrate: a Cretan farmer from a village called Komi, settled in Lesvos during the Ottoman rule and went on to tend olives whose oil reached the Sultan’s palace in Istanbul in a tin container. The Sultan tried it and was amazed by its excellent quality. He ordered that all this man’s production would from then on be sent over to the palace. The Cretan guy said “I can’t do this because I have to feed our people. I can send you only this quantity otherwise we starve”. Could you ever imagine anyone speaking to a Sultan like that? Well, in this case it worked: The Patishah was convinced and they reached an agreement that the man gets extra land for producing exclusively for the palace.

“Komili” (“the man from Komi”) is the firm named after this persistent Cretan. For their anniversary celebration they booked the best space on the hill of Seytanin Sofrasi, Ayvalik’s most celebrated spot for a panoramic view over the bay and the islands.

And as always, any fest comes to an end with food, music and good company… As the guests enjoyed the buffet and drinks, the “Aegean Band” from Istanbul performed live with an amazingly rich repertoire from both coasts of the Aegean and from the Balkans.

EPILOGUE: MORE THAN A COMMODITY

There are around 750 million productive olive trees in the world and around 99 percent of them are located in the Mediterranean area. Olives were first cultivated in Palestine around 4000 B.C. and spread to Syria and Anatolia, reaching Egypt via Sinai around 1500 B.C. (the Egyptians were using olive purchased from Palestine long before that). The Phoenicians took olives to Carthage and the Greeks took them to southern Spain, southern France and Sicily. Goddess Athena offered to safeguard the city named after her, Athens, by the gift of the olive tree. Olympian athletes anointed themselves with olive oil before the games, much like the modern Turkish pehlivans. From the time of Noah, current monotheist religions of the Mediterranean regard the olive tree as a significant symbol of hope and divine reassurance. Jesus was anointed with olive oil (Christ means the “anointed one”) and olive tree species that date back to Roman times can still be found on Palestine and Israel. For Eastern Christianity, olive oil anointing is most commonly connected with acceptance into the Christian faith (Baptism). Olive oil is important to the Muslim faith, mentioned in one of the most beautiful and mystical verses of the Quran, where also the olive tree itself signifies the land of peace and safety. On the Islamic cultural side, especially in Lebanon, Palestine and Syria, the evergreen olive tree symbolises the timeless life-giver. Islam’s oldest university, in Tunisia, is named al-Zitouna —the Olive Tree.

Sophia Nikolaou

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