` Ayvalik’s Fabled Olive Oil - Olive Oil Times

Ayvalik’s Fabled Olive Oil

Oct. 14, 2010
Byron Ayanoglu

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By Byron Ayanoglu

Ayvalik, Turkey — This stun­ningly beau­ti­ful sea­side town and its adjoin­ing, time­lessly relaxed Cunda/Alibey Island is a hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion with which to instantly fall in love. Ever more so at meal­times because of its excel­lent local pro­duce, shim­mer­ingly fresh fish, the earthy yet light tra­di­tional cui­sine, and most of all because of its native, extra-vir­gin olive oil.

That last rea­son goes with­out say­ing in Turkey, as Ayvalik is insep­a­ra­ble from the notion of olive oil, this being the home of the country’s best, fruiti­est, smoothest, most golden-deli­cious ver­sion of the liq­uid condi­ment, which the nation eats at every sin­gle eat­ing occa­sion of the day start­ing with break­fast.

This area, on the north-east­ern shores of the Aegean is equaled only by Crete and Tuscany for the ideal cli­mate and just the right soil, just the right ele­va­tion on hills that rise directly from beaches. Under these con­di­tions grow the most per­fect Mediterranean olives to ripen for their press­ing late in Fall, as they’ve been doing unin­ter­rupt­edly for mil­lenia.

The life-giv­ing green/purple lit­tle fruits have been cul­ti­vated here from times immemo­r­ial and crushed to yield their pre­cious oil, used for­ever in all the finest aspects of civ­i­lized life, from sacred offer­ings, to cleans­ing the body and nour­ish­ing the skin, and of course on the table where its mag­i­cal qual­i­ties can heighten even the hum­blest ingre­di­ent into a del­i­cacy.

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Ayvalik’s his­tory was kick-started some­time in the Neolithic Age by migrants from Mesopotamia and Crete, and thrived through­out the Hellenistic period, the Roman con­quests, the Byzantine era that pep­pered the land­scape with Greek Orthodox churches, and then five hun­dred years of the Muslim Ottomans who replaced the cru­ci­fixes with minarets leav­ing the build­ings intact wherein to wor­ship the same One God from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive.

Only the olive oil has remained a con­stant dur­ing all these ser­ial con­quests and regime-changes, sur­viv­ing intact to this day to shine vir­ginal and free-flow­ing to the col­lec­tive gul­let of Modern Turkey. Perplexingly, and despite the world-wide redis­cov­ery and wor­ship of olive oil, the Ayvalik oil is known and con­sumed only in Turkey.

I ask Rahmi Gençer, exec­u­tive chair­man of the Ayvalik Chamber of Commerce, the rea­son for this and what is planned to rec­tify the sit­u­a­tion.

Rahmi Gençer

His answer is redo­lent of the com­pli­ca­tions and dif­fi­cul­ties of launch­ing a new prod­uct in for­eign mar­kets. Determined attempts have been under way for years to enter the European mar­ket, now ever more restricted since the advent of the European Union and its pro­tec­tion­ism in terms of sub­si­dies offered to its own mem­bers, the titans of olive oil, Spain, Italy and (to a lesser degree) Greece.

Europe, he tells me, is not adverse to Turkish olive oil, it is just that it has become more expen­sive against the bet­ter known ver­sions of its Mediterranean neigh­bours, and there­fore a harder sell. Gençer calls Mustafa Cömert and Özer Uygun, two major oil whole­salers, into our meet­ing. They tell me that at least six thou­sand tons (sev­enty per­cent of which is extra-vir­gin) are pro­duced annu­ally, most of which is shipped in bulk sales to Italy, where it is blended with a tiny amount of local oil and pack­aged by the biggest exporters as Italian oil.

Ayten Tavasoglu

And that is how it arrives into North America even though no one is even remotely aware that they are buy­ing Ayvalik oil when they pur­chase a medium-priced three-litre tin of major-brand Italian” oil in the super­mar­kets.

This is an affront to civ­i­liza­tion itself, and cer­tainly to the human palate. Because, mean­while, a sin­cere and taste­ful effort is being made by every­one in the Ayvalik oil busi­ness to spiff-up pre­sen­ta­tion and qual­ity to the stan­dards of the best any­where. There are some two hun­dred small inde­pen­dent pro­duc­ers (still not uni­fied into a coop­er­a­tive) who have opened bou­tiques where in jew­elry store-like premises they present styl­ishly bot­tled oil for the tourists who flock here in sum­mer.

I visit Ayvalik town’s Kürsat where Ayten Tavasoglu poses for us in front of a mir­rored dis­play case of Asuman Baygin’s hand-made, olive oil with a fruity aroma that can only be devel­oped with ten­der lov­ing care. And in adja­cent Cunda Island, I mar­vel at both the fruity oil and the
myth­i­cally beau­ti­ful array of bot­tles at Kesebir’s shop where his
very own trapped sun­shine awaits to enhance sal­ads and grilled fish.

Hüseyin Kesebir

Hüseyin Kesebir him­self, a weath­ered islander, like a hand­some pirate from the old days, guides me through a gus­ta­tory tour of local olive-oil cook­ery. He takes me to his associate’s sea-front Lyra restau­rant, where I sam­ple arti­chokes that he grew him­self, grilled on char­coal with olive oil and moun­tain-grown oregano its only adorn­ments. This astound­ingly sim­ple and deli­cious starter is segued by the same arti­chokes stewed with veal, lemon and more olive oil. The ultra-fresh grilled fish made lux­u­ri­ous with its oily man­tle, a true del­i­cacy that seems almost like an after-thought, and arugula salad round out the meal, which ends with a small dessert cake of olive-oil crust around lor cheese (a local, sheep’s milk ricotta).

It is of course a great pity that Ayvalik’s won­der­ful olive oil and the cui­sine which it occa­sioned can only be enjoyed in its home-base. On the other hand, it gives those who make the effort to visit the area an afford­able and unfor­get­table treat.

Everything about this region is to be cher­ished. The care-free
sum­mers of sun and beach; the lush olive-groves of the coun­try­side; the evoca­tive and his­tor­i­cally mys­te­ri­ous, near-by Bergama (Pergamon) with its ancient Acropolis and Asclepion where the old tem­ples and carved columns still beckon the faith­ful to pay their respects to Zeus and to seek the panacea of sacred spring water that has been cur­ing the ill since Hellenistic times; the vis­tas of embroi­dered coast­line, espe­cially if wit­nessed from the heights of the Devil’s Table” (Seytan Sofrasi), where a 360 degree panorama lit­er­ally takes the breath away.

And, to men­tion yet again, the fab­u­lous food in just about every cor­ner of both Ayvalik town and Cunda Island. I seek out a tiny place called Fasulye (Beans) where Muazzez Uludere Eris cooks up veg­e­tar­ian olive-oil spe­cials, obvi­ously includ­ing her sig­na­ture kid­ney-beans. Also inside Ayvalik, just a block up from the port, I have Strasbourg,
France inspired choco­late mousse pie by Yasemin Arbak at Café Caramel (as a diver­sion from local sweets like baklava and seker-paré). I return to Cunda for more grilled fish at Lyra, and an unusual, almost addic­tive pizza with sting­ing net­tles (now cooked and unthreat­en­ing) and pastrami’s grand-daddy, the extra-pun­gent, locally cured pas­turma, at Ismet Somay’s Pizza Uno.

Its olive oil makes Ayvalik a grand loca­tion that we can enjoy wher­ever we live if they could only over­come the obsta­cles and bring it home to us.
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Photos: Algis Kemezys

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