A day on the Bosphorus

A day on the Bosphorus

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
10 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740669276
Photographer
Lisa Cohen and William Meppem

The second night in Istanbul I was awakened in the small hours by squabbling seagulls on the rooftops outside my window. As I peered out into the chilly night, past the looming bulk of the Blue Mosque, I could sense the distant presence of the rain-swept Bosphorus, grey and sullen in the pre-dawn light.

It was a reminder that Istanbul is a city dominated by the sea, whose lifeblood has always been the salt water that flows through and around it. Not only is the city itself split in two by the deep and dark waters of the Bosphorus, but the European side is also rift by a smaller inlet, the Golden Horn. And then there are those two seas: the vast and mysterious Black Sea to the north, and the smaller Sea of Marmara abutting the Aegean, to the south. Few other cities are so advantageously positioned between land and water, or have been fought over so continuously or determinedly through the centuries as a result.

Then, through the squally rain, the mosque’s speaker crackled into life and the first prayer call of the day rose up and out into the lightening sky. There was little chance of getting back to sleep so I stayed in my spot at the window, watching the sky gradually lighten and the wind and rain die down; a good thing, too, as we had plans that day for a boat trip on the Bosphorus.

This thirty-kilometre strait is famous for being one of the busiest and most difficult-to-navigate waterways in the world. An estimated 50,000 vessels plough back and forth between the two shores and the two seas every year. Tiny one-man rowboats do daily battle with massive freight trawlers and oil tankers, while lumbering old-fashioned commuter ferries, private pleasure boats and fancy cruise ships weave their way around each other.

Later that morning we made our way down to the Eminönü quay to watch the action. The Galata Bridge was bristling with fishing rods and down on the waterfront the morning’s catch was being hauled ashore to be cooked over wood-fire grills and made into the famous Istanbul fish sandwiches. As we pushed our way through the crowds that were bustling around the ferry stations, the aroma of frying fish became too much for us. At a small kiosk, we watched eagerly as a couple of piping hot fish fillets were deftly flipped into bread rolls. We scoffed them down greedily. Now we were ready for our excursion.

Our ferryboat was starting to fill with tourist passengers all set for a day on the water. Its bulky prow rose and fell on the lazy swell of the tide, and hungry seagulls circled, on the hunt for the odd piece of discarded fish sandwich. We clambered aboard and found a well-positioned spot in the front of the boat. The horn blew low and loud; the boat drew away from the quay and the seagulls moved into place, dipping and swooping into the boat’s choppy wake.

For many centuries, before the city began its expansion in earnest, the Bosphorus was a lovely broad waterway, its banks fringed with rolling green hills and thick forests and dotted with pretty little fishing villages. Today, the densely populated suburbs of Istanbul sprawl along its entire length, almost as far as the Black Sea. As the boat began its zig-zag journey, with the smell of brine in our noses, we were filled with a sense of excitement – heading towards the open sea, leaving the chaos of the city behind. And there was an even greater pleasure to be had from seeing that city revealed from a distance, allowing, as it did, an entirely different, more peaceful perspective.

Scenes from everyday Istanbul life, past and present, were unfolding on either side of the strait. We saw modern museums and ornate nineteenth-century palaces, grand hotels, pretty mosques and decrepit apartment buildings that seemed to be collapsing into the water. And on both sides, here and there we passed lovely wooden villas known as yalı, with their carved wooden balconies, high shuttered windows and gently sloping roofs. The yalı were built by wealthy Ottoman families during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as waterside summer residences, where they would go to escape the sweltering heat of the city. Sadly, many have disappeared completely; others have rotted into ruin. They stand dark and derelict, their once smartly painted woodwork now bleached a dirty grey-brown.

Further on, at the narrowest part of the Bosphorus, we passed the crenellated towers and walls of Rumeli Hisarı. This mighty fortress was built by Mehmet II in 1452 as part of his highly organised siege of Constantinople. His intention was to cut the city off from any assistance that might arrive by sea, and the plan worked a treat. Within a year the capital was wrenched from Christian Byzantium for ever. But while Constantinople flourished under its new Ottoman rulers, the fortress itself had served its purpose and quickly fell out of use.

We disembarked at Kanlıca, a sleepy little village on the Asian side of the Bosphorus famous for its yoghurt. The pretty harbour was encircled by tall timber houses and the water was crowded with brightly painted fishing boats. We wandered around the village square enjoying the sunshine for a while before ducking into a café overlooking the water for some refreshment. We learned that, traditionally, Kanlıca yoghurt was made from a mixture of cow’s milk and ewe’s milk and was thick enough to cut with a knife. Today, most of the local product is sold pre-set in tubs and one of the main reasons for its popularity is that it comes ready-sweetened with powdered sugar – something of a novelty in a country where mass-produced, gloopy Western-style yoghurt, thick with artificial fruit flavours and colours, was unheard of until quite recently.

On the menu there was a range of yoghurts we could choose from, either plain or topped with jam, molasses, icing sugar or honey. At the table next to ours, a young couple were scooping up tiny spoonfuls of the stuff and slipping it into each other’s mouths. We smiled at them. They smiled at us. ‘There’s a lot of yoghurt to choose from here,’ we said. ‘Ah yes,’ replied the young man. ‘Turkish people take their yoghurt seriously!’ On their advice we chose the unsweetened variety, which was indeed delicious: brilliantly white, thick and creamy, with a pure, mild flavour. We enjoyed it drizzled with local honey, accompanied by a cup of strong black tea poured from a gently bubbling samovar.

Re-energised, we decided it was time to head back to the city. The Istanbul ferry didn’t call back at Kanlıca until much later that afternoon, so, undaunted, we decided to brave one of the busy local buses. More by luck than good planning, we got onto a bus for Istanbul, and were delighted to spot the young yoghurt-lovers from the Kanlıca café sitting in front of us. We smiled at each other in recognition and gratefully accepted their help in changing buses at the busy Mecidiyeköy bus station. An hour or so later we passed the massive Inönü football stadium, famous for being the only sporting venue in the world where fans can view two continents simultaneously. There was a match on that evening and it was apparent from the crowd that the supporters had other things on their mind than the view. The police were out in force, clearly anticipating trouble. They took up their places in serried ranks; they all wore visors, with riot shields held high and truncheons at the ready. The young couple in front of us on the bus were amused by the look on our faces. ‘Turkish people take their football seriously!’ they told us.

Yoghurt

A stroll through the dairy section of any Turkish market reveals the Turks as a nation of yoghurt lovers. In fact, most of the country’s milk production goes towards making yoghurt – whether it is from cow, goat, sheep or even water buffalo milk. Turks tend not to use low-fat cow’s milk, and yoghurt devotees will know that the higher fat content of the latter three animals makes even more delectably creamy yoghurt (these are increasingly available in the West). A delicious type of Turkish yoghurt that we discovered on our travels is kaymaklı yoghurt, which has a thick layer of clotted ‘cream’ on the surface.

Unflavoured yoghurt appears on the table at every mealtime and is served with just about anything, including soups, stews, kebabs, pilavs, stuffed vegetables and salads. It is often flavoured with garlic and herbs, such as fresh dill and mint, to be made into side dishes like cacık and haydari; or strained to make soft fresh cheese and eaten with jam, honey or icing sugar as a delicious breakfast or snack. And if it’s not being eaten, it’s being drunk as the cooling, slightly salty drink ayran.

Yoghurt is one of the most ancient foods known to man. Evidence exists of fermented milk products being produced almost 4500 years ago, and the Turks are just one of many peoples who like to claim responsibility for its creation. There is no clear proof as to where or how it was first made, but the earliest yoghurts can be traced back to nomadic horse-riding peoples of Central Asia, who made both yoghurt and cheese from milk produced by their small goat and sheep flocks and from their horses. The evidence suggests that milk was often transported in goatskin bags strapped to the saddles, and the earliest yoghurts were probably fermented spontaneously by wild bacteria.

In Turkish markets and dairy shops you’ll generally find two kinds of yoghurt: sıvı tas and süzme. Sıvı tas is the standard yoghurt and can vary in consistency from fairly runny to thick and creamy; it’s used to make most yoghurt-based sauces and is diluted with iced water to make ayran. Süzme is a very firm, strained yoghurt that’s made by hanging sıvı tas in a muslin bag overnight to drain away the whey. The longer the hanging time, the thicker the result. If allowed to drain for a couple of days it becomes a creamy soft cheese with a light tangy flavour; delicious spread on bread with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Sadly, strained yoghurt is not widely available in Western countries, but it is incredibly easy to make your own at home.

Recipes in this Chapter

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