The story of Samir Bayraktar’s Olive Truck
By Cheryl Angelina Koehler
Samir Bayraktar grew up eating table olives as part of his Turkish breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As a young entrepreneur researching his country’s agricultural products for his company, Nar Gourmet (which means “pomegranate” and is also an acronym for “natural” and “regional”), he was not at all surprised to learn that Turkey is a major producer, consumer, and exporter of table olives, which are harvested mostly from newly planted olive cultivars chosen for suitability to curing.
His 2007 Nar travels took him into Turkish orchards with productive trees estimated to be 500 to 2,000 years old that preserve distinctive cultivars descendant from the cradle of the olive’s cultivation in the country’s southeastern Anatolia region. He learned that many of those venerable old trees were being torn out (or, at best, neglected) because they weren’t the varieties needed for table olives.
“I was in a city called Mardin in the southeastern part of Turkey. It’s in the area between two rivers that we call Mesopotamia, one of the oldest civilization [centers] in the region,” he said. “I saw a beautiful church surrounded by beautiful old olive trees, and there’s no oil production. I didn’t see any mill out there. I saw a couple of stone mill parts but not any proper mill.”
Subsequent queries revealed that a Jewish community had once lived there. “I believe it was more in their culture—producing olive oil—for food or for lamps.” And alluding to how centuries of volatile Middle Eastern geopolitics have disrupted cultural groups throughout the region, he added, “Exchanging the population between this region and the other regions, the culture has been lost.”
His Nar team harvested olives from the old trees in Mardin and drove eight hours to find an olive oil mill. That’s a problem because, once picked, olives deteriorate quickly. “You cannot make great olive oil if you travel this long,” he added. “If we have a chance to go there with something unique, like a mobile facility, maybe we could do some great olive oil on-site, and this could be something like a movement, and then people could protect their varietals …. That’s what we did … actually.”
Bayraktar designed a mobile olive oil mill as a research project with university and government support, also consulting with top olive mill design experts in Italy, with the aim of creating “the best conditions possible.” With this “mill on wheels,” he resumed what he calls “chasing olives,” as he searched out fruit to make oils that reveal the unique flavors of cultivars specific to many regions of Turkey. And because the mobile mill improves quality as it cuts the time from tree to bottle, the oils earned many prestigious awards.
The Olive Truck in California
So it came to pass that Bayraktar visited California. He immediately made friends with other equally impassioned industry professionals all aligned toward the goal of producing the best olive oils in the world. “I have one life to live, and I want to live it in California,” he says of his decision to literally ship the mill in its shipping container on a boat to California. He now lives in Oakland.
In a 2019 YouTube video, Bayraktar is seen standing in the middle of a UC Davis Olive Center orchard showing off his mill to assembled olive oil researchers and aggies to explain how it speeds up the process to make better olive oil. “This is a 40-foot shipping container built with a Tuscan two-phase olive oil extraction machine,” he says as the video camera explores the receiving and washing end of the machine before panning over to the “hammer mill” chamber that cuts and coaxes the olives open. Next is the malaxer, a sort of massaging chamber that Bayraktar re-engineered from its typical horizontal orientation to stand on end in the long, narrow milling room inside his semi-trailer. The oil then travels to a centrifuge that separates water from oil, and through a filter (if desired) to remove unwanted particles that will diminish an oil’s longevity in the package. The mill effectively turns olive oil production upside-down by bringing the mill to the orchard instead of the olives to the mill.
When he went to register his business name in California, Bayraktar was pleased to find that “Olive Truck” was available, and now he’s chasing olives up and down the state, discovering exceptional plantations like the old orchards north of Bakersfield renovated by Olivaia. Helping some of those producers mill their olives is a useful service in an industry long on olives and short on milling options, but he’s become most interested in developing his own Olive Truck brand of extra virgin olive oils to showcase olive fruits plucked from diverse California locations and milled using this super-fast process that can greatly improve quality.
Olio Nuovo Rituals
Oakland-based food professional and olive oil specialist Roberta Klugman says, “Olio nuovo translates as new oil, but it means much more than that. In Italy, the first oil of the harvest—with its fresh, bold flavors—rewards hard work and signals a good year ahead. The first oil straight from the mill is cause for celebration, and at the table, it’s a magical gift.”
Bayraktar recalls a ritual enacted on many early winter mornings in Turkish orchards:
“There is a small fire and a traditional tea being warmed there. The breakfast is a little bread toasted next to the fire. It’s drizzled with some olive oil from yesterday’s milling and then some tomato or pepper paste, freshly made the previous September harvest and dried on top of the houses. Celebrating the harvest is important for small growers.”
The milling-day ritual in Turkish towns is simpler:
“If you grow your own olives, you take them to the mill in the town, and you just wait next to others. You have a freshly baked loaf of bread wrapped in newspaper, and when you have your oil coming from the centrifuge, you break the bread that’s still hot from the bakery, you put a glass under the spout to catch the unfiltered emerald-green olive oil, and you distribute to the people. It’s like sharing the harvest of joy.” ♦
Check out these six delicious ways local olive oil professionals use olio nuovo in their kitchens.