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THE MIRACLE OF THE OLIVE TREE

Olive and olive oil have been indispensable ingredients of the Ottoman and Turkish culture, and the Mediterranean cuisine. The accounting records of Ottoman palace kitchens reveal that olive and olive oil were purchased in enormous quantities. Olive holds an important place both in the Ottoman and in the Turkish cuisine, and it is vital for the industry of Turkey. Although it is difficult to determine the exact provenance of the olive tree, it is generally believed to be indigenous to the Anatolian lands because it grows by itself in the Aegean region. In this region, the wild olive tree, “Olea Europea Oleaster” is much more common than the domesticated variety known as “Olea Europea Sativa.”

The olive tree, which has a lifespan of three hundred to four hundred years, can thrive in altitudes of up to six thousand meters. However, a maximum altitude of four thousand meters is deemed ideal for the growth of high quality olive plants. Mild winters, rainy spring and fall seasons, dry and sunny summer seasons, and a hard soil are best for the olive and hence it grows over the entire Mediterranean coast. Another natural characteristic of the olive tree is that it can be grown in uneven terrain. Today, it is possible to find eighty domesticated varieties of olive in Turkey. Although the plant is also occasionally grown along the Black Sea coast, seventy-five percent of olive trees in Turkey are located in the Aegean coast. Averaging one hundred and twenty thousand tons of olive production, and featuring six hundred fifty eight thousand hectares of olive cultivation area, Turkey is the fifth largest producer in the world. Currently, five hundred thousand families are involved in the olive business, and there are around one and a half million olive farmers.

The miraculous fruit of the olive tree is consumed in fruit and oil form, it is used as raw material for soap and natural medicine, and it is also burned as fuel. During countless ages, the miraculous olive has been considered an elixir of beauty and health. Indeed, olive oil not only reduces risks associated with heart attack, but it also regulates cholesterol levels, prevents stomach discomforts, and makes skin more beautiful. Its color, aroma, taste and ease of digestion make it unique. Unlike other herbal oils — such as sunflower, soy, cottonseed, and corn — olive oil is produced naturally, with no additives and no chemical processes.

Although the olive oil production process has undergone some changes due to mechanization, the ancient method, which goes back three or four thousand years, is still used. In the first stage of this three-step method, the olives are crushed and grinded in whole, the meaty part and the core and all. Cylindrical mills which are called “yuvgu” in colloquial language are used for this. In the beginning these mills were operated by human or animal power, but later on, water and steam-driven mills, and finally electric powered mills were developed. Today, in certain villages of Anatolia, hand-driven grinders called “torku” are still used. In the second stage, the paste acquired from this process is squeezed. It is then placed in a sack or cloth bag, hot water is poured over it, and it is crushed with a stone or by foot. The sack or cloth bag keeps the paste secure, and acts as a kind of filter. In the third and final stage, the oil is separated from the black liquid that the olive gives off. The partially separated oil is called “Sira” . The “Sira” is then allowed to rest in deep vessels for some time. At this stage, the oil that rises to the surface is collected with dippers. The black liquid and the mash are separated. Warm water is then poured over the oil that is produced, and it is again left to rest for a while. Following this, the water that sits at bottom of the vessels is emptied out through holes and the olive oil that remains in the vessel is then ready for consumption. This method enables six or seven kilograms of olive to yield approximately one kilogram of high quality olive oil. Both the primitive and the mechanized system yield a residual product, which contains 8 to 10 % oil and this can be recycled in various areas. This by-product called “Prina” is mostly used in soap making. Olive oil soap was the most popular type of soap during the Ottoman period. During the Ottoman period the prina was pressed and dried, and then used as fuel in shops and businesses. Calories from two kilograms of this “Pelet” are roughly equivalent to one kilogram of fuel oil.

Naturally produced edible olive oils can be classified into the following types: Virgin Oil, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Virgin Olive Oil, Ordinary Virgin Olive Oil, Refined Olive Oil and Olive Oil. Virgin Oil is produced naturally without involving any chemical processes. Extra Virgin Olive Oil has the lowest acidity levels of all olive oils and it is produced by cold pressing olives collected before full maturity. Extra Virgin Olive Oil which is considered to be a tasty type of olive oil is suitable for sauces, salads and cold dishes. Extra Virgin Olive Oil is a rather expensive type of olive oil. Virgin Olive Oil is more suitable for cooking since its acidity level is relatively high. Ordinary Virgin Olive Oil is favored by those who prefer olive oils with high acidity. Refined Olive Oil is produced through the physical removal of the acids from the acidic olive oils, and because of its taste it is not suitable for raw consumption. Olive Oil is mostly used for frying.

Olive oil and dishes prepared with olive oil hold a very large and dear place in Ottoman and Turkish cuisine. Olive oil is used in dishes all over Anatolia in large quantities. The Aegean cuisine features hundreds of dishes prepared with olive oil. Olive oil is consumed with every meal of the day, usually a vegetarian dish served at room temperature and in salads.

Reference: Yesim Gokce (Bilkent University)/Turkish Cultural Foundation

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