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By Garo Milosyan
When I was at primary school we used to celebrate Local Produce Week designed to encourage people to buy Turkish goods and eat locally grown food. I used to enjoy the fairground atmosphere of this event immensely. Everyone used to bring fruit, nuts, biscuits, cakes and other foods from home and pile them onto a table. Our lunches that week were transformed into feasts. The guest of honour on the classroom banqueting table was the banana.
Turkish bananas, naturally, not Chiquita. Perhaps they were not as large and impressive as their Chiquita cousins, but they made up for it in flavour and fragrance. We loved them. When I visited the banana groves of Koru in the town of Gazipasa east of Antalya on the Mediterranean, I recalled those childhood days. Most of the banana orchards rise in terraces up slopes facing the sea, and irrigating them involves a complicated system of pipes from the nearest river.
The water is fed to each orchard one by one, pouring out through holes in the pipes at the base of the trunks so as not to waste the precious water. Orchards without a convenient river or stream nearby must use water carried by tanker or wells.
I asked the growers about banana production and the different stages before the crop reaches the consumer.
They began by telling me about the banana plant. It seems that the ‘trunk’ we see above the soil is actually a column of leaves, overlapping in successive layers, and springing from the rhizome beneath the ground. After 25 to 30 leaves have opened, the flower buds form on a stalk in the centre of the leafy column. Colloquially this is called ‘giving the stalk’, or ‘birth of the bananas’.
I was told an amusing story on this subject. One night a man was walking past a banana orchard when he heard some strange crackling sounds. Seeing no one in the orchard, the man was so scared that he took to his heels. What he had heard was actually the sound of tearing in the rhizome which occurs when the banana plant’s flower stalk appears. Once the flower head has formed, it bends right over towards the ground. The pistils further up the stem are upward turned and form the bunch of bananas. Three months later the bananas are ready for harvesting. Once the bunch has been cut the plant will never fruit again, so the farmer must keep one of the suckers from around each root for replanting his orchard the following season.
Bananas are usually cut while green and taken to cold stores to ripen more slowly than they would do in the open air. The temperature is kept at not less than 12.5°C and ripening delayed for three to four weeks.
To start the ripening process the temperature is increased to 16°C and the fruit is sprayed with ethylene to ensure even ripening. The use of carbide as a ripener is rare these days and restricted to stores without refrigeration. Banana growing in Turkey dates back to the late nineteenth century, when the Cavendish banana began to be cultivated in the Antalya region. However, locally grown bananas had to compete with imports, so cultivation did not spread widely at first. Not until the 1950s did banana growing begin to flourish on a significant scale, increasing steadily in Anamur, Gazipasa and Alanya in particular until 1984. With the renewed flood of imported bananas in the 1980s, locally produced bananas went into decline, but a core of local growers are determined to compete. One of the villages in the district of Gazipasa which I visited was Güney, where history, natural beauty and bananas are intertwined. To get there turn right at the sign reading Antiochia Erderogum on the way to Anamur.
Having climbed the hill and begun the descent on the other side, a spectacular view comes into sight. Rising above the banana groves in the foreground is a hilltop castle, and facing it a high cliff riddled with rock tombs. Below is the tiny picturesque village with its sand beach.
From Güney I continued on to Yakacik, formerly known as Kaladran, where instead of terraced orchards on the hillsides the bananas were spread over the plain. It was like looking over a sea of banana trees. The river which runs through the village, dividing it in two and marking the boundary between the provinces of Antalya and Içel, makes irrigation much easier than in many other banana growing areas.
The local farmers say that frost is the greatest danger, because the moment that temperature falls below 0°C the crop is ruined. The last time this happened was in 1992, and since then the area under bananas has fallen from 80 to 20 hectares.
My next stop is Anamur, the most famous banana growing
area of all. It owes its high production levels primarily to the
spread of greenhouse cultivation. Growing the bananas under plastic
sheeting reduces costs and has encouraged banana growing to expand
rather than fall as in other places. If a frost does occur it is
possible to heat the greenhouses and save the crop. Moreover, leaves
and fruit are protected from wind, hail and other adverse weather
conditions. Twice average crop levels are obtained in this way.
A few early bananas are harvested in September and October, but the main crop is picked between November and February, so it is then that you are most likely to see the Anamur bananas in the grocer’s shops, and enjoy the delicate flavour of these tiny bananas which go to prove that small is beautiful.