Small Menderes River springs from Boz and Aydın mountain ranges, known as the roof system of the Aegean region, passes through Great Ephesus Antique City in the west, and meets Aegean Sea through the Pamucak river delta. The river passes through Izmir’s Selçuk, Tire, Ödemiş, Torbalı, Bayındır, Kiraz and Beydağ settlements and feeds the alluvial soil surrounding them. These settlements, the land they are located on and the surrounding mountains constitute Small Menderes Basin. The basin starts from the shores of Aegean Sea and expands into the heart of Western Anatolia. The borders of the Small Menderes Basin are marked by Boz Mountains, Aydın Mountains and Hacetdede Hill.
20 counties within Izmir’s borders are located in the Small Menderes Basin and 97% of the population here are farmers. The main products grown by these farmers are olives, cotton, black mulberries, walnuts, chestnuts, sesame, tobacco and figs.
I am mostly interested in the figs here. Figs are the most refined, most naïve and most delicious for me. The most delicious and high-quality figs, which are subtropical fruits, are grown in Small and Great Menderes Basins due to their geographic advantages. There are more than 330 varieties of figs grown in these basins. Sarı Zeybek, Yeşilgüz, Morgüz, Göklop, Sarı Zeybek, Testicik, Mor Patlıcan, Sarılop, Bardacık, Dürdane, Sapı Kısa, Siyah Orak, Akça, Darpak, Kara Yaprak, Gencelli, Sultan Selim and Kara Efe are only a few of these varieties. Among these, Smyrna figs and Meandros figs, also known as Sarılop, rank the highest in the Champions League globally; they are internationally known as the most traded, most consumed and most delicious figs. However, Bardacık fig is known as the Princess of the Figs to the local folk, even though Sarılop fig is described to be honey-like in character with its high sugar content and the advantages in optimally sun-drying due to this fact. Bardacık figs have relatively lower sugar content compared to the other varieties and have thinner skin, making them rather unsuitable to be dried in the sun. Bardacık, a pear-shaped and small variety of fig, is mostly consumed fresh because of this reason. It starts to mature in July and it can be found fresh, or as ‘yemiş’ as the locals call it, until the end of August.
Numenor, the island-realm in the middle of the sea in Tolkien mythology, and the archaic and long-lived people of Dunedain. We can include Hayrettin Güleç and his brother Ahmet, 68 and 87 years old respectively, to these people. The brothers are focused on growing better and higher-quality Bardacık figs in the Small Menderes Basin, away from the daily worries of city life as if they are from an archaic civilization. Ahmet Güleç and his brother are the only growers, and more importantly the only producers who dry Bardacık figs in the basin. As I mentioned, Bardacık figs are not really suitable for drying, however, the brothers argue otherwise. They opt to dry the figs in their 3-dönüm (a land measure of about 920 square meters) garden, instead of feeding their leftovers to the cattle like the rest of the locals do. Hayrettin Güleç, whose real occupation was carpentry, started helping out his brother in growing and drying Bardacık figs after his retirement. The youngest of the Bardacık fig trees they own are 25 years old and they own a mere total of four trees. Unfortunately the climate crisis in the recent years took its toll on the area they live in, causing their 5-meter tall trees to dry out and give smaller batches of harvest, both in size and number. Ahmet Güleç, on the other hand, has been growing Bardacık figs since the day he was born and raised on these soils. Growing figs is in his blood. He is so dedicated to his fig variety that he says “Only Bardacık fig pleases my appetite” even though he eats other figs on occasion. The trees he planted in his childhood became his own children in return. He protectively shows his trees off and touches them gently with love. Bardacık figs, just like other varieties, are never dried right after harvesting them as fresh fruits. The figs must start drying while still on the branches. The dried figs then fall to the bottom of the tree with the help of breezes blowing from the Western part of Turkey. Ahmet Güleç picks these dried figs fallen on the ‘yazgı’ (a type of cheesecloth) one by one and lines them on the mats he calls ‘kerevit’ (the direct translation is crawfish) to dry further. These dried out figs are usually preserved in cloth sacks with bay leaves wedged between them. Bay leaves prevent the figs from getting worms and give them a longer shelf life. This is the oldest and most traditional preservation method known but another method called Bandırma, just as traditional, can also be utilized. In the Bandırma method, Bardacık figs are placed in baskets made out of Arundo donax L. reeds, which are then dipped briefly in brine (made with salt, bay leaves or thyme) boiling in copper pans. These wet figs are then laid on the kerevit mats to dry out in the sun. The rest is the same as the previous method; they go in the cloth sacks with bay leaves.
The best ceremony about Bardacık figs is eating them. The culture of eating figs among the elderly villagers of both Great and Small Menderes Basins is similar. It is of course consumed in its simplest format, which is dried, but the nuances of consumption vary within the basins. In winter months the dried figs are stuffed with walnuts grown in the mountains of the basin, and then are gently roasted on the heating stove. Or the warmed figs are dipped in olive oil, followed by another dip in the white sesame seeds of the region. Stuffing the figs with clotted cream, dipping them briefly in the tahini made from sesame, covering them with toasted sesame seeds, and finishing off with a drizzle of pine tree honey and crushed walnuts: Preparing Atom as Ahmet Güleç puts it.
Most fig farmers like Ahmet Güleç also have olive groves and therefore produce their own olive oil. That is why mixing figs with olive oil to make medicine is an old tradition. They fill glass jars with figs and pour olive oil to cover them. Then they put the jar in shade and let it age for about 3 months. In November they eat one fig before breakfast. They believe that figs prepared and consumed this way strengthen the immune system and prevent illnesses in the winter months. The locals also marinate (this method is called uyutma, meaning to let it ‘sleep’ in the marinade) the figs in fresh raw milk. First, the dried figs are chopped finely as the milk is being heated. The milk is removed from the heat when it is lukewarm to touch, and the chopped figs are mixed in while mashing with a fork. The mashed fig and milk mixture is stirred to create a homogenous mix and is cooled down to room temperature. The mixture is then placed in the fridge overnight. This fig-milk mixture, prepared in uyutma method as the locals call it, does not have any added sugar and has the consistency of a pudding the following day. It is naturally consumed with a sprinkle of walnut and sesame seeds.