` Ayvalik’s Fabled Olive Oil

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Ayvalik’s Fabled Olive Oil

Oct. 14, 2010
By 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.

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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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