Eaten to extinction

If you were at the June evening meeting you may have heard Conrad mention the food ingredient salep when he was giving his talk and demonstration about terrestrial orchids. Salep powder is made from orchid tubers and imparts a distinctive flavour and texture to hot drinks, ice-cream and other sweets.

Coincidentally, I came across a piece about the destruction of wild orchids in eastern Europe and Africa – they’re being eaten into extinction! – on the excellent Australian gardening website Garden Drum.

To put the scale of the problem into perspective, it takes between 1000 and 4000 orchid tubers to make 1kg of salep, all harvested from wild populations. In Turkey alone 30 tonnes of tubers are harvested every year representing 38 different species of terrestrial orchid.

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Salep hot drinks are said to increase resistance against colds and coughs. Image: Discover Turkey.

In Turkey the orchids used to make salep have disappeared entirely, forcing suppliers to neighbouring Iran, in which the same smash-and-grab harvesting practices are being used to collect maybe as much as 11 million tubers – and collection is increasing. Read the full story here.

In this New York Times story, Harold McGee notes that the commercial stabiliser guar gum (from the tropical cluster bean) and Japanese konjac flour (from tubers of a taro relative) contain closely related carbohydrates that behave in much the same way as salep – and there is a nice photo of just how stretchy salep ice-cream is.

The Discover Turkey website offers some orchid-collecting advice!

The largest tubers  grow best in soil with a high lime content, and those with the finest aroma and richest in starch are found at altitudes of 1000 to 1100m. In Anatolia most orchid species belong to the genera Orchis and Ophrys. The tubers are gathered while the plant is in flower (April and May). Some of the flowers are scentless, while others produce a sweet scent that is strongest in the evening, and their colours vary from white to various tones of purple

Each orchid has two tubers, one the main tuber from which the flower springs, and the other its younger offshoot. Only the young tuber is harvested (the website says, but that’s in an ideal world, I suspect).

Tubers are washed and tossed into boiling milk or water for a short while to remove the bitter flavour and make them easier to dry. They are then dried either in the open air or in ovens and after drying they may be stored whole or ground. The principal substances contained in salep vary according to the time of harvest, but basically consist of mucilage, starch, sugar and nitrates. The colour is generally creamy.

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