The Aegean coast

The Aegean coast

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

Tempers and emotions were running high among our fellow travellers as we boarded the late-night plane to Edremit from Atatürk Airport. It was a Friday, and Istanbul’s famously bad traffic had been magnified a hundred times by the fact that it was Mevlidi Nebi, the Prophet’s birthday. The roads were jammed with people heading home to their families for celebratory feasting, and we had made the flight by the skin of our teeth.

It was past midnight by the time we landed at the small country airport. Outside in the still blackness the chilly air was thick with the pungent smell of olives; it felt damp, dense and oily on our faces. We were in the Aegean region, Turkey’s western shoreline – not just the land of the olive tree, but also the birthplace of European civilisation.

The western coast of Turkey has drawn travellers for centuries, keen to explore its extraordinary natural beauty and its famous ancient ruins. In Greek and Roman times these shores were the centre of the classical world and the site of some of its most revered cities. This was the land of Homer’s heroes and the scene of legendary battles; it was the birthplace of Herodotus, the ‘father of history’ and the place where Cleopatra met Anthony.

We were staying in Ayvalık, a lively fishing town forty minutes south of Edremit. As we sped south along the highway we could just make out the shadowy shapes of olive groves that fringed the road. Suddenly the moon emerged from behind a bank of dark cloud, and there in the distance we glimpsed the Aegean Sea, shimmering silver in the pale moonlight.

Our friend Tara, an Istanbul resident for eighteen years, had invited us to stay in her old Greek-style house for the weekend. This was her bolthole from the big city, her pride and joy, and she’d spent the last ten years or so gradually renovating the once dilapidated building. Until ninety-odd years ago, Ayvalık was predominantly a Greek town and traces of this heritage are still clearly visible in the old Orthodox churches and traditional Greek stone houses, like Tara’s, that climb up the steep hillside in the old part of town.

The next morning dawned grey, wet and cold. We peered gloomily out of the window at the sleeting rain, which seemed to make a mockery of Herodotus’ claim to this being ‘the most beautiful sky and best climate in the world’. On the upside, it was perfect weather for soup and our friend Tara knew just the place.

Rugged up against the chill we trudged down the steep cobbled streets to Ayvalık’s broad harbour. Rain-lashed and iron grey, only a few diehard fishermen were out on their boats and the waterfront cafés were deserted. Tucked away in a backstreet, we ducked in out of the rain to Erdogan and Neslihan Kapukaya’s small soup restaurant. Inside it was warm and snug, the windows fogged up from the collective breath of family groups happily slurping up the day’s offerings.

A popular local haunt, the restaurant’s specialty was indeed its soups. Neslihan, a rosy-cheeked, smiling woman, was standing behind the counter stirring a number of steaming cauldrons. Today’s specials were: chicken broth, thick with vermicelli pasta; a sludgy brown lentil soup; a pale soup of veal brains, thickened with yoghurt and egg yolks; and a hearty veal tongue and vegetable soup. Naturally we wanted to try them all!

We squeezed into a corner table and Erdogan came rushing up to greet Tara. Rattling off a few sentences in Turkish, Tara made the introductions. Erdogan was amused that we had come all the way from Australia to find ourselves in his small restaurant. Within moments, three little plates appeared on the table: a tangled mound of wild greens, glistening with oil, a bowl of thick garlicky yoghurt and a dish of green olives. Next was the soup – all four varieties for us to try. And finally, thick slices of crusty white bread to mop it all up.

The soups were garnished with wedges of lemon and on the table was a dish of finely ground chilli flakes, a little jug of garlic water and another of vinegar. These are the traditional accompaniments for soup, intended to sharpen the flavour as well as the appetite of the diner. All were excellent: the brain soup, chock-full of slices of creamy offal, its mild flavour enhanced by Erdogan’s suggestion of vinegar and garlic; the hearty tongue soup, thick with gelatinous shreds of meat as well as vegetables and rice; the chicken broth, clear and bursting with flavour; and the traditional lentil soup, properly brought to life by a squeeze of lemon and a dusting of chilli.

By now the weather had improved – there were even welcome signs of sunshine breaking through the clouds – so we headed out to explore Ayvalık further. The narrow streets were filling with shoppers and we decided we needed to stock up on provisions ourselves. In the small marketplace we found more than twenty different varieties of local olives, and huge tins of olive oil. There were fresh white cheeses and creamy kaymaklı yoghurt, another specialty of the region, with a thick ‘clotted’ layer on its surface. We were stunned to see so many different kinds of ‘wild greens’ on display. As well as the varieties we recognised, such as purslane and chicory, zahter and watercress, there were the more exotically named golden thistle, feverfew and curledock, knotweed and glasswort. To complete our purchases we bought soft, cheese-stuffed buns for the next day’s breakfast, and a bottle of rakı for dinner.

We were dining that evening with another friend of Tara’s, Hüsna Baba, who runs a popular meyhane restaurant tucked away in a shaded alleyway near Ayvalık’s marketplace. Inside, the small front room was crowded with tables of men, their eyes fixed on a massive television set. But they looked over and greeted us with a friendly ‘Merhaba’ as we came in out of the cold. To the rear was Hüsna Baba’s small galley kitchen, and we breathed in the tantalising smell of frying fish. As honoured guests we were seated in the second, larger room. Another long table was set for a group of scuba divers from the local diving school – regulars at Hüsna Baba’s place.

Hüsna Baba was a small dapper man, with a sweet smile and big mournful eyes. After settling us in with glasses and ice for our rakı, he started feeding us. The menu was heavily oriented towards seafood, cooked in a simple, no-nonsense Mediterranean style. Hüsna Baba bought his fish fresh every day, straight off the boat, so the menu varied depending on the day’s catch. That evening we feasted on little grilled barbunya (red mullet), calamari rings and tiny slivers of deep-fried mullet roe. A real treat was a dish of brilliant-orange sea urchin corals. We smeared the soft flesh onto white crusty bread, squeezed on a little lemon juice and tasted the briny flavour of the sea.

Later that evening the rakı had made us all mellow and the scuba divers at the next table were our new best friends. There had been several toasts to Turkey and Australia and the divers posed enthusiastically for photographs. As we said our goodbyes one of the divers grabbed my arm. Leaning towards me, just a touch too eagerly, he whispered in my ear that somewhere out there, deep beneath the silvery Aegean waters, lay the lost city of Atlantis. It could have been the rakı talking, but actually I think he was just pulling my leg.

The Noah vine

It may come as a surprise to learn that Turkey is the world’s fourth-largest producer of grapes. The bulk of Turkish vines produce eating grapes, with most crops going to fresh table grapes or dried sultanas and raisins. Others go towards the manufacture of rakı, the national drink, but only a paltry three per cent of total production is used for wine-making.

Yet Turks are very keen to point out to visitors that their country was the birthplace of wine. The Bible tells us that after the flood, Noah planted a vineyard on the sunny slopes of Mount Ararat, becoming the world’s first recorded vigneron. And it wasn’t long before Noah became the world’s first recorded drunkard, with the discovery that fermented grapes produce a delicious-tasting beverage with several happy side-effects.

This Biblical story has recently been given greater weight by archaeological discoveries of wine-making paraphernalia in the region that date back to the Neolithic period. There has been other corroborating evidence of early wine-making in the nearby Zagros Mountains, in Titris Höyük in southeastern Turkey and in Hittite burial chambers near Ankara.

The discovery of these early artefacts has intensified the hunt for the ‘Noah Vine’ in Turkey’s Taurus Mountains. This elusive vine is generally regarded as the common ancestor for the many thousands of modern domesticated grape varieties in existence around the world today.

While Turkey may be the birthplace of wine, the country’s wine industry today can perhaps best be described as still being in its infancy. Although early inhabitants, such as the Greeks, Romans and Byzantines, had a strong tradition of wine-making, the arrival of Islam in the eighth and ninth centuries brought things to a halt. During the Ottomans’ 600-year reign, Muslim subjects were prohibited from drinking wine, although minority Christian communities of Greeks and Armenians still produced wine in very small quantities.

The modern Turkish wine industry owes its existence to Kemal Atatürk’s modernising drive and the removal of Islam as a state religion. As a result, the 1920s saw a boom in viticulture and many of Turkey’s oldest wine companies date back to this time. Over the course of the last eighty years or so, dozens of small wineries have sprung up around the country, although their contribution is relatively small. The large producers – Doluca, Kavaklidere and Kayra – are the biggest players, each with an annual production of more than 10,000,000 litres.

With its Mediterranean climate of cool wet winters and hot dry summers, Turkey certainly offers a perfect environment for growing wine. And with a population of seventy-five million, it would seem there is limitless potential to develop the industry. But the Turks do not seem to have taken to wine in a big way. It’s hard to pinpoint the reason why the domestic consumption of wine remains at less than one litre per capita per annum. It’s not because alcohol consumption and intoxication are frowned upon in what is a predominantly Muslim population – after all, most Turks seem perfectly happy to drink beer and rakı in very healthy quantities.

One thing for sure is that the industry is not being helped by Turkey’s prohibitive taxes. The current government taxes home-produced wines at a whopping sixty-three per cent of the wholesale price, and has recently reduced import tariffs on European wines, allowing a flood of foreign wines to wash through the country. In the face of such obstacles, it is hardly surprising that many of the larger Turkish wine producers are now focusing their marketing efforts on more receptive overseas markets, such as Europe, North America and even Japan.

For a visitor to the country, though, there is something delightfully exotic and enticing about sampling new indigenous grape varieties, with names such as yapincak, sultaniye, bogazkere, okuzgozu and narince, to name but a few. And it’s even more exciting to think that with each sip you’re tasting a little piece of ancient history.

Recipes in this Chapter

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