Sam wrote in to tell us anout the delightful time her family had joining the olive harvest in Turkey
Olive-picking proves a surprise hit with the family – and some inventive cuisine goes down well too
Olive picking? Straight after breakfast? I was enjoying the Turkish bay so much that I’d almost forgotten why I’d brought my family all this way.
Ahmet Senol is a genial hotelier. With the sleeves of his unworn sweater draped over his shoulders, he has an easy charm and the sort of enthusiasm that spurs him to get excited about three new things before breakfast. Which explains today’s olive-picking plan. The Dionysos hotel, where we’re having this breakfast, was one of the things that Ahmet once got excited about.
About a decade or so ago he decided to speckle a hillside overlooking Kumlubük bay on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast with a discreet jumble of villas linked by skeins of steps and walkways, alongside an infinity pool big enough to host Olympic competitions. If they ever make a Turkish version of the TV series The Prisoner, which was set among the villas of Port-meirion, the resulting hotel is where they would film it.
Once the hotel was well established, Ahmet’s fidgety enthusiasm found a fresh outlet in his ambition to produce his own olive oil. A couple of years after starting, the oil is already rated among the world’s tastiest. To share his passion, and to extend the holiday season, Ahmet last year inaugurated a family “olive harvest” week, during the autumn half-term holiday. Families get to pick the olives, watch them being pressed, and to attend oil tastings and cookery sessions using the olive oil produced from its organically run smallholding.
The post-breakfast party of guests who venture into the hills to pick olives range from toddlers to grandparents. A child’s outstretched arm can comfortably reach the olives on the three-and-a-half-year-old trees in the first field we enter. Each tree yields 100 or so olives, but it’s like an Easter egg hunt: you think you’ve spotted them all when another winks at you from behind a leaf.
The five-year-old trees in the next field are as tall as a man. They are harvested with a paw-shaped, short-handled rake that ends in rubber prongs; a bit like a backscratcher you might use to relieve an itchy shoulder blade on one of the hairy beasts that Max meets in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.
The earlier in the season the olives are picked, the less oil they yield, but the better the quality. For now, Dionysos produces just about enough to supply its own kitchens, which are supervised by Ahmet’s daughter, Didem, who runs the olive oil tastings and cookery demonstrations.
The olive harvest-week activities are entirely optional.You don’t have to do anything more during your stay than eat, drink, swim, eat some more of Didem’s Turkish-with-a-twist cuisine and maybe get a massage to push some of your newly acquired fat cells into other parts of your body to avoid having to return to England looking like you swallowed Istanbul.
The hotel’s remote location is both its glory and, if you crave more bustle, a drawback. If you fancy a change of scene, you can hop on the shuttle bus to the hotel’s beach club, nestled in the crook of the bay at the foot of the hill. Beyond that there are excursions to local sights and shopping trips to nearby markets.
Day cruises on the hotel’s catamaran or its gulet allow you to explore the coastline, and to eat and drink some more. A lot more. Having by now consumed your own body weight in dolmades and dessert, you can tip over the boat’s edge and float like a manatee in the water.
If you fancy a change of scene, you can nip down to Turunç, a brisk taxi ride away. Turunç has one main street which, though barely 100 yards long, is nonetheless lined — just like Portofino or Gstaad — with shops selling the world’s most prestigious brands of watches, handbags and clothing … No, wait! It turns out that the goods are all fakes; or, as one store’s sign reads: “Genuine and genuine fake watches.”
The other giveaway is that at the entrance to the shop selling Abercrombie & Fitch-branded sweatshirts you are not greeted, as you are at A&F’s London store, by a bare-chested hunk who is half man, half pectoral muscle.For a change of scene from eating at the hotel — good as the food is there (and relatively reasonably priced, given the quality and the captive audience) — you could try one of the jolly restaurants that line Turunç’s seafront; a couple of them better than the rest (ask the staff at Dionysos for their recommendations).
Try not to be put off by the restaurant menu entries for fish and chips, bacon and eggs, chicken satay and Mexican fajitas: they’re there to keep less adventurous tourists happy. Just one thing: if there’s a football match on TV while you are dining, expect your waiter to disappear for long stretches, punctuated by whoops of joy or angry barks of what you assume to be Turkish rude words.
Back at “olive harvest week”, Ahmet beckons us to the pressing room to see the olives we picked being squeezed dry, and then hands out shot glasses of the oil for us to taste. It is green as a toad, fruity and peppery at the back of the throat.
Didem’s food tastings are worth attending, too. She has a clever way of marrying unfamiliar combinations. Slivers of cheese with fresh oregano. Raw sea bass with grated tomato. Grilled mushrooms in oil and rosemary. Baby courgettes, barbecued, bathed in oil and dill and served with a dill-spiked yoghurt. Roasted red peppers enlivened with chopped basil and slivers of white cheese.
Children, perhaps encouraged by the presence of other children at the hotel, throw themselves into the spirit of the week with unexpected enthusiasm. Mine? They seemed to view the picking of olives as a sort of Mediterranean version of gathering conkers, only with the bonus that they could follow up the picking by helping Ahmet to process the olives and then sip the first pressing — at any rate, sipping just enough before deciding that maybe one peppery sip was sufficient.
Knowing that they had a hand in creating the olive oil made them more eager to taste the food that Didem produced with it in her demonstrations throughout the week. I think they surprised themselves by how much they enjoyed it. As a family activity it certainly makes a novel change from, say, crazy golf.
During one of her cooking sessions Didem mentions that the name of the strain of olive they grow at Dionysos is the same as the Turkish word for breast. Now I come to think about it, they do sort of resemble breasts, in that the non-stalk end has a similar fullness of curve (more Sophia Loren than Jordan, maybe), with a teeny protrusion at the tip that might pass for a vegetarian nipple — if, maybe, you happened to be an isolated olive farmer who had been lacking female company for a while. It opens up a whole new way of looking at olives. What’s that? No, she did not explain why it was called extra-virgin olive oil.