A fresh walnut is completely different from the type found in a package on a supermarket shelf. The nut is pale and soft, the flavor light and creamy, with not a trace of bitterness. It almost melts in your mouth. Rarely is it possible to eat just one.
I can vouch for this because, last autumn, I ate more walnuts per day than I would usually consume in a year, thanks to a six-week stint on an Anatolian walnut farm.
Having decided to move from London to Istanbul for work, my husband and I wanted to begin by improving our Turkish. We stumbled upon Tatuta, a matchmaking site for organic farms in Turkey and volunteers willing to lend a hand. It was something of a challenge for us – a pair of city dwellers with little agricultural experience – to come up with a compelling account of why we would be useful. In the end, we just decided to sound enthusiastic and willing to learn.
After a few rejections, we were accepted by Cevizbağı, a farm whose name means “walnut orchard,” located about two hours’ drive from Ankara in the province of Kırşehir. The setting was unexpectedly beautiful. The farm sits high above the small town of Kaman and feels open, isolated and wild. In the distance is a glinting reservoir that stretches for miles under a range of straw-colored hills.
The farm is owned by Özcan Kulaksız, a 56-year-old former civil servant who in 1994 began planting walnut trees in his childhood village and later, after retiring in 2012, moved to the farm to tend them full-time. His 30-year-old son Emrah abandoned the rat race in Ankara two years later to join his father on the land. The two of them were warm, welcoming and very patient with my painfully slow attempts to cobble together banal observations in Turkish.
Their wives had opted to stay in Ankara rather than decamp to the countryside. They had taught their husbands to make some staples of Turkish home cooking, such as lentil soup, chickpea stew and pilav. Sometimes they would buy crumbly, savory walnut bread from a bakery in Kaman, a town that marks its commitment to the industry with a giant walnut statue on the central roundabout. Asked to cook an English dish for them in return, I made apple crumble and custard. After looking suspiciously at the seemingly dry, biscuity topping, they were pleasantly surprised to taste it.
Alongside Özcan Bey and Emrah was a colorful cast of seasonal workers. They included Adem, a 19-year-old from Trabzon who wore a flat cap and kept a flock of fancy pigeons, and a teenager whose reactions were so lightning-quick that he would be summoned to catch mice with his bare hands. Adem’s father, Metin, looked after the animals but spoke with such a thick, fast Trabzon accent that our conversations never got very far.
By pure chance, we had timed our visit to match the start of the monthlong walnut harvest in mid-October. Each morning, with the sun still low in the sky, we would walk up past a row of elegant poplars to the rows and rows of walnut trees at the top of the farm. Walnuts grow in clusters of twos and threes along the limbs of the trees. They are housed in a thick, hard, green casing that made them look like limes. These husks contain a dye, used in times past for fabrics and inks, that slowly turned our fingers black.
Two co-workers would lead the way, bashing the trees with a big stick to send the walnuts tumbling down, first on foot and then by scuttling up into the canopy to release those that were hard to reach. We would follow behind them, crunching through the leaves on all fours, picking up nuts and dropping them into old paint buckets with a thud. The pace was relaxed and the work reminded me of collecting horse chestnuts with my dad as a girl.
As the morning drew on, the soil under our knees would be warmed by the sun. We would hear the steady thwack of the beating of trees and the tinny, frenzied Black Sea melodies blaring from Adem’s mobile phone drifting across the field.
During the breaks we cracked open walnuts and talked about politics, religion, money, Adem’s love life and the upsides and downsides of Turkey and Britain. Everyone implored us not to move to Istanbul. It was so crowded, they warned, and eye-wateringly expensive. If it rained, we would sit inside, shucking the nuts from their shells while watching old slapstick films.
Though at times I missed the ease and variety of city life, the experience really did improve my language skills, especially in the agricultural domain. I can now say, “Pass me a walnut-bashing stick” (Sopa ver bana), “Empty the walnut bucket” (Kova boşalt) or “Let’s do a bit of walnut-shelling” (Ceviz soyalım) with confidence and ease.
Each week we had a visit at the farm from Dr. Sebahattin Yılmaz, a chain-smoking walnut expert from nearby Ahi Evran University, who is on a mission to boost his nation’s output.
Amazingly, Turkey is the world’s fourth-biggest producer of walnuts but consumes so many in sweets such as baklava and pestil (a sort of fruit leather) that it remains a net importer. The problem is compounded by the fact that many of the varieties grown in Turkey, though ancient and hugely varied genetically, produce low yields and are susceptible to frost because they come into leaf too early. The answer may lie in the arrival of relatively newer cultivars such as the Chandler, from California, and the Fernor, from France. By fusing these varieties onto old trees at Cevizbağı using a process known as grafting, Sebahattin has increased their annual yield from 3-5 kg to an impressive 15-20 kg per tree.
Organic food remains a relatively new concept in Turkey. Most of Cevizbağı’s produce – which also includes vegetables, apples and quinces – is sold at organic markets in Istanbul and Ankara. Many of the customers are people suffering from or recovering from cancer who have been spurred into healthy eating by their illness.
Özcan Bey became interested in the idea after living above a pharmacy selling organic products when he was a student in Germany. He tries to embody the concept in spirit as well as in the practical sense of shunning synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The farm pays the scholarships of three university students and Özcan Bey wants to create a vocational program to train workers in organic production methods.
Emrah talks enthusiastically about his belief in imece, an old rural term meaning collective give-and-take. One day, before a short trip to Istanbul, I joked over dinner that I would be all on my own. Deadly serious, Özcan Bey replied that I was never alone in Turkey because I would always have him and his family.
We have made new friends across Turkey and gained what I am sure will be a lifelong love of walnuts. Next year, Özcan Bey has promised to hold a festival to celebrate the end of the harvest. I will be there faster than you can say ceviz.