As I sipped the pea green liquid, I sensed a peppery kick at the back of my throat that made me cough. Yaprak Demiröz, who leads the olive harvest week for guests at the Dionysos boutique hotel and estate in Turkey, smiled and explained that this was a sign of a good olive oil.
I was at a tasting session on a trip to the Bozburun peninsula in southwest Turkey in October, and was comparing different brands of olive oil. Dionysos is perched on the mountainside overlooking Kumlubük Bay and enjoys views across the Mediterranean towards the distant Taurus mountains. Ahmet Senol, owner and creator of Dionysos, is so passionate about food that he buys only organic hay for the cows on his farm. He is evangelical about the health benefits of olive oil, has planted hundreds of olive trees at Dionysos and introduced an olive harvest week three years ago so guests could learn how his Amos brand of extra virgin olive oil is produced.
Earlier, my husband, children and I had helped Isa, the gardener, to harvest olives from some of the estate’s 1,500 organic olive trees. Isa placed nets below each tree to catch the olives and gave us 30cm-long wooden-handled rakes to comb olives from the branches. We easily filled our wicker baskets.
We then strolled through the grounds and across the tennis court to the olive pressing room, where a team was busy sorting, cleaning and pressing olives picked that day. Demiröz explained that, once picked, the olives’ acidity level rises. Extra virgin olive oil has to have an acidity level below 1 per cent, which means pressing has to take place within six hours of the olives being picked.
Amos – which is pressed within three hours – is included in Flos Olei, a guide to the world’s best extra virgin olive oils. The olive harvest in the Mediterranean runs from October until late November or December, depending on the area; prices of the oil have risen recently after severe drought in Spain, the world’s largest producer, led to lower yields.
Dionysos is not the only olive producer to see that an oil harvest might appeal to tourists. At Podere La Rota (www.sumlea.com) in Italy, you can get involved with a traditional olive harvest until late December, while at Lalla Abouch (www.boutiquesouk.com) in Morocco, you can help harvest and press olives, using camels to run the millstone – the next harvest is in November 2013.
There’s no obligation to take part in the olive harvest activities at Dionysos, and there are plenty of other things to do. The hotel is in a pretty, red-roofed village of stone buildings and is draped in bougainvillea amid fruit and olive trees. Some villas have their own pools and there’s also a tranquil 25m-long infinity pool with a panoramic view across Kumlubük Bay. The water is chilly in October but we swam a couple of times and warmed up in the outdoor hot tub afterwards. My husband made full use of the gym, and the youngest enjoyed playing pool in the library while I went to the spa for a relaxing massage.
We loved the food at Dionysos – my favourite dish was baked sea bream with red onion, tomatoes, olives and capers, while the local forest honeycomb, mixed with yoghurt from Senol’s cows, made a delicious breakfast. The menu is designed by Senol’s daughter Didem, who is a well-known chef in Turkey and has a restaurant in Istanbul.
Senol told me that olive trees are protected in Turkey: cutting one down without permission can result in a fine, or even imprisonment. One afternoon my husband and I walked down the mountain to the ancient ruins of Amos, where stone inscriptions have been found from the third century BC. Olive trees must have been important then too: one inscription is a land rental agreement stating that the tenant must plant an olive tree every year. It seems that Senol is continuing a tradition that reaches back thousands of years.
Gretta Schifano was a guest of Exclusive Escapes (www.exclusiveescapes.co.uk) which offers a week at the Dionysos Estate from £888 per person, including olive harvest activities, breakfast, transfers and flights from London to Dalaman