Bilge Bengisu is a wine maker in the Izmir region, and the leader of Slow Food Urla, one of the biggest convivia in Turkey. We met with her right after Slow Food Urla main event, the wild green festival, held on the 21st of March.
Why did you feel the need for a wild green festival in Urla?
Urla has a very ancient history, dating back to the 12th Century BC. So does its food production: Urla hosts one of the earliest oil production sites in Anatolia (6th Century BC.). Wild greens have always been part of our local food tradition, for many types of wild greens are foraged and consumed on a regular basis. Unfortunately, in the last 40-50 years there has been a serious deviation from these habits; many people have forgotten the names and varieties of edible greens and the recipes linked to them, particularly children and the younger generation. Thus, since 2009 Slow Food Urla has been regularly promoting their consumption through an event dedicated purely to wild edible greens, which celebrated its fifth anniversary this year.
Why on the 9th of March?
According to the old Islamic calendar used in Anatolia, March 9th corresponds to the 2121st or the 22nd of March. Throughout Anatolia and Asia, this date is celebrated not only as the beginning of the spring but also the new year – the Nevruz. Traditionally, this is the day in which Urla dwellers celebrated by picnicking with family in a bucolic setting, surrounded by nature. Stepping on the green field on this day was believed to bring good luck.
How many participants attended this year event?
We hosted about a thousand participants, and even more on the second day of the festival, when we went into the fields to learn about Urla’s edible wild greens.
This sounds very much of a tradition linked to women’s knowledge. Is this the case?
Definitely, this is a tradition that has many ancient roots. While the men were traditionally hunters, women were the gatherers of food, and passed on this knowledge from generation to generation; when and how to collect and prepare the greens, as well as the traditional recipes.
Who will guide you in the edible green foraging?
Our guides will be the female inhabitants of the village where we hold the Festival. They regularly collect, sell, and cook with these greens.
Beside this festival, what are the major activities you undertake during the year to bring together producers and consumers?
In April, we will hold a Breakfast event called “Bring your Grannies” in which we will invite our grandmothers and fathers to share with us some old recipes and food traditions. On August the 14th of this year we will again participate in yet another ancient celebration of Urla: the Grape Harvest. Unfortunately, this year we won’t be able to serve wine during the event, which was the main point of the Festival in the past: it is now forbidden to do so due to the current political views of the ruling party and its government.
Urla hosts a wonderful Women’s Producer Market, could you please tell us more about this initiative? What is Slow Food’s role in the market?
Women’s Producer Market was the brainchild of our members and the women in the Urla Municipality Council. It is held on a weekly basis, and it is a wonderful place to shop, not just for food but also artisan crafts. More importantly, it serves as a meeting point for the community, which can only benefit our local camaraderie. Women’s Council Members of the Municipality had a more active role in its foundation, but we supported it since the very beginning.
You have recently nominated the Erkence olive variety for the Ark of Taste. Why did you choose this product?
Urla landscape is dotted with the ancient and gnarly trunks of these beautiful olive trees. This is a variety specific to Urla Peninsula and the Cycladic islands. They are known to grow tall and their crown can easily extend 6 meters. This variety called Erkence (early ripener) has a sharp periodicity and is difficult to harvest since the trees naturally usually grow quite tall. When establishing new groves, they need to be widely spaced, which then results in lower productivity per acre, in an area where land prices are exponentially growing. When all these factors are considered together, there are hardly any more new plantings of this variety in the area. However, when properly harvested, Erkence olives make a unique artisanal-quality olive oil. Moreover, due to the particularity of this unique terroir, Erkence olives can actually cure naturally on the tree.
You mean you can eat that olive straight from the tree?
Yes! This product is called hurma and is the result of the moist sea breezes and a special fungus. Hurma can be eaten right off the tree without any other processing and naturally healthy due to its very low sodium content. Unfortunately, this product is also disappearing due to extensive housing construction and wind turbines in the area. These olives are so delicate that even minute changes in the climate make it impossible for Erkence olives to naturally ripen and develop into hurma.
Would you candidate this product to become a Slow Food Presidium?
We would very much support the idea. Perhaps this variety – which is now facing extinction, can become popular again. The people of the peninsula have lots of these old trees on their land and would benefit tremendously if a proper production and marketing program could be maintained. We believe that having Hurma and Erkence olives on the Ark of Taste constitutes the first step towards safeguarding our gastronomic heritage.
by Michele Rumiz