Rediscovering olives as a tourist in Turkey

The purpose of this post is to share my experience with olives, a crop I rediscovered during my travels around Turkey during March 2016. According to the Turkish Cultural Foundation, olive cultivation provides a livelihood for over 500,000 families with more than 1.5 million olive farmers.

Before I begin, what I mean with ‘rediscovering’ a crop is that until my visit to Turkey, I had thought about olives in a very ‘green’ or ‘black’ way. That’s it. Olives for me were either green and bitter or black and milder, extra points if they were stuffed. As with many crops so far, the more I travel and read, the more I discover that each crop has thousands of varieties and that usually the ones that reach me via supermarkets, are often if not always a highly-selected variety bred for the purpose of massive harvest, processing, distribution and commercialisation.

So, let’s begin. This picture was taken in the biggest market in Istanbul near Fatih mosque, I’ve never seen so many olive varieties in my life. The market opens every Wednesday to sell fresh vegetables, cheese, olives, clothes, shoes, bags. In the midst of all that, several stands sell over 20 varieties of olives. They vary in shape, size, flavour and price. When I arrived I was prepared to ask vendors for samples before I chose which type to buy but I quickly discovered that in Turkey markets, this is a given – you just take an olive and try them out.

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Olive markets in the Istanbul’s Fatih Mosque

There are more than 80 varieties of olives grown in Turkey. It isn’t strange that I ran into such an abundance of olives since I travelled around Western Turkey and most cultivation happens along the Aegean coast.

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The Aegean Sea and Western Turkey, home to most of the country’s olive production.

Olive production in Turkey is ancient. I had the opportunity to visit the historic underground city of Kaymakli in central Turkey. According to historians, this underground city, home to 20,000 inhabitants, was built by the Anatolian Hitties in the 15th century BC. What particularly struck me were the chambers and vases dedicated to the storage of olive oil.

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Food storage chamber in the ancient underground city of Kaymakli in Cappadocia, Turkey.

The cultivation of olives in Turkey remains strong. According to FAOSTAT, Turkey is the fourth largest producer of olives in the world and their production has been growing for the past several decades.

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Olive production in Turkey, source: FAOSTAT

Sometimes, certain ingredients are offered to tourists but are actually not consumed by locals on an everyday basis. Not olives in Turkey! I had the chance to join a Turkish family for breakfast or Kahvalti, which included salty cheese, halva, tomatoes bread and olives.

If you travel to Turkey, you’ll come across olives and many more varieties than you have probably seen. I am thankful to the wonderful country of Turkey with its generous people and fertile soil.