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Mysteries of a wild fruit

Mahlep treeMany plants play an important part in our daily lives. Of some we know the taste and scent well, yet without being able to recognise the seed, leaf, or fruit if we saw them. For example, how many of us would recognise aniseed which lends its characteristic flavour to biscuits and pastries, or knows that salep, that delicious winter drink, is made from the roots of wild orchids? Mahlep is another such elusive ingredient, whose fragrance and flavour we all recognise, yet few of us know its origin, although the seeds might be familiar to some. Mahlep is the kernel of a species of wild cherry, Prunus mahaleb, also known as the St. Lucie cherry, which grows everywhere in Turkey that edible cherry trees flourish. In a way the mahlep cherry is the mother of cultivated cherries, since if you wish to grow the latter, you must used the mahlep cherry as grafting stock. Farmers are no longer interested in cultivating the mahlep, partly because the economic returns are too low, and also because gathering the fruit and processing it is labourious work.

For this reason the tree is becoming steadily rarer, as those growing in the wild are either used as grafting stock for table or sour cherries, or chopped down for fire wood. Only occasionally are they left as boundaries between fields. Yet mahlep has a considerable market, since there is a high demand in the pharmaceutical and food industries, and in the Turkish province of Tokat the Agricultural Department is endeavouring to increase the number of mahlep cherries by growing them in its nurseries. As yet this has made little impact, however, and moreover, it is not known as yet whether those artificially cultivated have the same characteristics and crop levels as the wild variety. The mahlep cherry of Tokat produces the largest crop of any in Turkey. For example, it also grows in Geyve in Adapazarı, but these trees do not produce a large enough crop to be worth harvesting.Mahlep seeds are a traditional herbal remedy, widely used in the past for the treatment of malaria, and today in the production of aspirin, which is contained in the white part of the seed, and as an ingredient of numerous medicinal syrups.

Mahlep fruiısThey are also used as a flavouring for vermouth and the pastry rings sold in Turkey on some religious feast days, and in the perfume industry. Diren Wine Company, whose vineyards were originally established by missionaries of the Jesuit School founded in Tokat in 1881, has been producing wine in Tokat since 1958. One of its products is mahlep liqueur wine, which first imparts a tart flavour, immediately followed by a treacle-like taste deriving from the mahlep. With an alcohol content of 18 degrees, this delicious wine is classified as a vermouth. Despite its popularity, production of mahlep liqueur wine has been declining every year owing to inadequate supplies of mahlep.The mahlep cherry flowers at the end of March, and begins to shed its blossom from the tenth of April. The fruit, which may be either red or black, ripens at the end of June. The fruit is usually harvested by scraping them from the branches, a method which is labour saving but damages the tree and results in a reduced crop the following year.

The recommended method is to shake the branches so that the ripe fruit falls. The fruit and leaves are dried in the sun for a week and then tossed into the air with rakes on a windy day, so that the dried leaves blow away, leaving only the fruit behind.The dried mahlep cherries sell for extremely low prices today compared to even the recent past. The price paid to farmers for mahlep has slumped to 3 percent of its 1977 price, a situation that has seriously affected traditional growers, such as those in the village of Gazi Osman Paşa, where cultivation of mahlep began a century ago. The first mahlep trees here were planted by Hüseyin Bey of the Latifoğulları family and by the Yağcıoğulları family, descendants of the Gazi Osman Paşa, hero of the Battle of Plevna (1877), after whom the village is named. Yet today the farmers of the village cannot afford to devote much time to the care of their mahlep trees.

Mahlep is as beautiful as it is useful, and is sometimes grown in gardens for its decorative spring blossom.

: Skylife 04/2002
By Erdem Kabadayı, writer
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