Simple... isn't it?

turkish & delightful

“Three chai,” shouts Yushar, an old traveller I meet in Battalgazi, or ‘Old’ Malatya - the place where apricots first came to settle – as I take my seat on a simple chair in the glorious Eastern sun.

Modern Malatya is now 11.4 km away from the where the apricot epidemic started. Malatya, which means honey in Hittites (an ancient Turkish civilization), was only created after the town of Battalgazi was sacked in a war with the Egyptians in 1801, and established in 1838. 

Yushar tells me about how the first apricots came into Turkey during the 7-8th centuries. Hailing from Syria, all the varieties grown in the region are named after Syrian traders who came to Malatya to sell and grow apricots, called Kayisi in Turkish. Over the mountains and through the streams these traders – known as Hachihalioglu, Kabashi, Songachi, Gevurasisi and Hudayi – descended from across the Syrian border to become legends in the town. All of their names are now types of apricots of different shapes, sizes, colours and kernels. 

Malatya now produces 50 per cent of Turkey’s fresh apricots and 95 per cent of the country’s dried apricots. However, a more astounding figure is that the town produces 10-15 per cent of the world’s fresh apricots, and a whopping 65 per cent of the world’s dried apricots! The entire town is extremely dependent on the sale of the fruit. Malatya also has a significant textile industry and, although it is one of the largest in Turkey, it is no match to the income brought in by apricots. 

Malatya provides the perfect conditions for the fruit to thrive. Like any crop, good soil and weather conditions are paramount. Apricots flower early and are vulnerable to frost, so are best grown on warm, sheltered, south-facing walls, or freestanding in milder climates. Apricots flourish on deep, moisture retentive, well-drained, ideally slightly alkaline soils, and struggle in poor, shallow soils. Apricots in the region are harvested in August, but it is the period of bloom in March when frost damage can occur. This is the issue most prominently on the minds of the locals. As temperatures drop farmers light wood fires to protect their crop and hope that the cold spell passes without incident.

As I walk around the city I am struck by how much of it is laden with apricot posters, statues, art work and various goods and sweets made from the fruit. It is all that people talk about – the fruit yield determines the city’s mood. 

My charming host, Mr Ismail Akbas, the owner of one of the most technologically advanced apricot exporting facilities in the town, informs me that apricots play such an important economic role in the community that there is a total obsession with anything that impacts the crop.

It is 1:30am on March 30th 2014. Ismail is awoken by a call from his nephew, Sachid Ozer. “It’s all gone,” he cries. “Everything is gone!”  

Malatya has a population of less than half a million. Like any rural town it has a small centre with mass expanses of farmland, in this case, it is dedicated to the sacred apricot. 

The land is made up of many shallow valleys lined deep with apricot trees since that is the best place for air temperatures and pollination. Malatya sometimes suffers from extreme temperatures, bitter cold winters and excruciatingly hot summers. However, on the March 30th, Sachid and Mr Akbas stand in the orchards staring at the apricots, knowing that the slightest touch to any of the icy fruits would send them to the ground with a thud. 

“Burn the wood,” shouts Mr Akbas. But there is no point. This time it is not only about how cold it is, but also where it occurred. “Usually,” Mr Akbas explains, “the cold air comes from the bottom due to the trees’ strategic placement in the valley. But this time the cold air came from the top. It was a hopeless situation.”

On any given year cold weather takes up to 30 per cent of the crop, but this time it took 95 per cent. Malatya produced a mere two per cent of their usual produce. It is considered the lowest output since the last such frost exactly 100 years ago in 1914. Traders, farmers and exporters all over the country are stunned; it is one of Turkey’s strongest exports – the community is utterly devastated.

Later that day I sit, with the majestic setting of apricot orchards expanding into the distance before me, reflecting on how serene the Ottoman air is while local families are facing turmoil. I am suddenly brought back to the present as Muzafar and his family join me. Muzafar is a contractor for about 20 farmers in the surrounding area. I ask about his thoughts on why the frost occurred.

His reply is typical of the philosophical nature of the Malatyans: “The weather is in the hands of Allah. We have had abundance for the last few years. We must go through this to understand and appreciate what we have. No one could see this coming – it was a half hour temperature drop! It is God’s will.”

The people of Malatya are resilient and stoic in nature, which is helping them deal with this adversity. There is also a growing realisation that perhaps a wider range of crops may spread the risk of reliance on apricots, so Muzafar is looking at also cultivating mulberries, grapes and honey.

A gentle breeze caresses my skin and I feel I could stay in this place for eternity. Muzafar brings some delicious organic honey from his store – to my surprise it is an entire honeycomb! He cuts it like a cake and presents it to me with some bread, yoghurt and cheese. It is utterly delicious. Creamy and sweet, with a hint of sharpness from the cheese, I am overwhelmed by how much flavour can be packed into four simple items.

I travelled to Malatya to understand how 30 minutes of frost on one day of the year could wreak havoc on an entire crop of apricots. What I found was a community full of wisdom and humanity, which reveals the fragile nature of our existence, and mankind’s resilience in the face of ruin.