Writing this from Kastamonu, a town in north central Turkey which we drove through about twenty years ago, found quite picturesque, and decided to come back to this year for a couple of days. It has grown from about 35,000 to nearly 100,000 people, but has remained picturesque (in the center), and is still untouristed by Westerners, who apparently are not enticed by its trove of 55 mosques and 66 major tombs, all built between 1206 and 1892, as well as assorted caravansarays, meddressehs and covered bazaars.
We are staying in a 15th century caravansaray (once a caravan stop on the Silk Road) which has been converted into a boutique hotel. Our lovely domed room faces the market and the major mosque complex of Nasrullah Camii. We finally got into this room after Peter insisted that the tiny gloomy converted stable on the first floor, where they first tried to place us, and which in times of yore would have housed one or two camels for the night, was not quite the resting place we had in mind. Do we look like people who would be at home in a stable, I wonder?
There is much to remind us of the farm in this part of Turkey. Some of the landscapes are reminiscent of the Hudson Valley, and we pay close attention to every flock of sheep and gaggle of geese we meet. At Assos, our first stop in Turkey (after a two-night ferry from Italy to Greece, a drive across Greece, and two more ferry rides, one up the Aegean to the Island of Lesbos near the Dardenelles, and one from Lesbos to the Turkish coast), we found that a small very tame group of turkeys, looking much like our Naragansetts, had taken up residence at the Acropolis, and we enjoyed conversing with them. Getting a choral gurgle response out of calling to a group of five is not quite as thrilling as hearing it from our hundred, but it was enough to give us a sense of being at home. (By the way, have you reserved your turkey yet?)
Our concern with produce on this trip, however, has been much more with the consuming end than the growing end. One of the chief reasons we farm is that we so much enjoy eating food at a level of quality that we want to eat. So after seeing the important cultural monuments and striking features of the landscape, probably our chief entertainment, and the main way we interact with the local population, is eating. Indeed, we are here in Kastamonu not so much because of our desire to visit its mosques, as because of my consuming desire to revisit a city some hundred kilometers away, Safranbolu, and relive the pleasure of two long remembered meals.
Safranbolu (the Turkish version of “Saffronopolis,” a city of saffron) is a well preserved Ottoman town, so perfectly that it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has an incredible assemblage of buildings from the era of the Ottoman Empire, which far-seeing Turks began restoring and preserving in the 1970s. Some twenty years ago, Peter went on a quest there, asking various men in the street to recommend an “iye locanta” (a good restaurant) and eventually a very nice gentleman directed us up the hill from the old town to Burhan Lokantas, where we as foreigners were greeted as virtual celebrities, where the waiters were trained to attend to the diner’s every need, and where the standard Turkish meze dishes were so exceptionally prepared that they were raised to a whole new level.
Food at a high level is not necessarily found in high end places. Several times on this trip we’ve seen the contrast between small cafes where the care taken with the food speaks of a sort of love lavished upon its preparation, and larger touristic places where dishes with the same name are dished out for tourists who are not expected to know better, by restauranteurs who could care less what slop they visit upon their customers. But when you find care lavished on the food with superlative service in an atmosphere that engages you, it is what I call a transcendent meal. We visited Burhan on two successive nights on our last sojourn in Safranbolu some twenty years ago, and I have long dreamed of going back.
Sadly, we were to discover on our arrival, you can’t go back. Burhan is no more. It is still well-known in Safranbolu. When we asked people if it was open, a fair number knew of it and were able to tell us it had closed and where we could find the former proprietor’s brother. Superb quality food and service, of the level you would expect in a much more major metropolis, was not enough to prevent its demise. It was a sad reminder of the impermanence of excellence.
And yet, because culture constantly renews itself, it is hard to feel devastated by Burhan’s absence. Wonderful food surprises seem always just around the corner. Just the night before our pilgrimage to Safranbolu, we were in another much smaller Ottoman town two provinces away. Cavdarhisar is not so well preserved or recognized as Safranbolu. The ruins of Aizanos, the Roman city on which the current town is built, are not on many tourist itineraries. It made for a good stopping place for us as we made our way from the Aegean coast to the north central interior, as it contains the Temple of Zeus, one of the best preserved temples in Anatolia, erected by the Emperor Hadrian in the first century A.D., his attempt to try to beat back the tide of Christianity in the Empire.
With our hotel’s somewhat gentrified restaurant closed (the chef was ill, they said), we faced the prospect of a dismal meal under fluorescent lights in a local “pide” (pita) joint, a meal based on bread which gluten-sensitive Peter could not eat, and (an increasingly common problem in Erdogan’s Turkey) without any alcoholic drinks to help create the convivial atmosphere that makes eating out so much fun. So we set off on a dark rainy evening for Kutahya, the famed ceramics center about fifty kilometers away, that we assumed would have better eating prospects.
About forty kilometers along the very dark and unpopulated highway, Peter sighted a huge illuminated sign, for an “Et Mangal,” off the road. “Et” is meat, and the mangal is the traditional metal vessel that holds hot coals for cooking or heating in the middle of a room. After a missed turn, a long backtrack, and a turn down a long steep embankment off a road under construction, we came to a gravel track that led eventually near a dimly lit building under tall trees. Out of the shadows, someone appeared to welcome us and warn us against parking under the trees (high winds were uprooting many trees that day), and we walked back on unlit paths toward the dim lights in the distance.
Inside, we found a welcome into a partly lit, cavernous room, with tables around the perimeter, each adjacent to its own fireplace. Scattered throughout the room were groups of men, and it was all men. There was a latticed wooden room divider partitioning off a room for women and mixed family groups, but it was entirely uninhabited). At their various tables, the men were busy eating appetizers, drinking raki, the Turkish national anisette drink, and grilling meats at their fireplaces. I thought, when we came in, that they asked whether we would be drinking, to which I answered yes, not realizing that they were in fact asking whether we’d be smoking (Turks use the same word for both activities, as they “drink” cigarettes). Ashtrays were accordingly supplied, though we thought smoking was supposed to be forbidden in public places in Turkey these days. Apparently the autocratic Erdogan’s reach does not extend as far as he would like it to.
The appetizers, when they arrived, were quite expertly prepared – definitely more in the category of food on which love was lavished. When they brought us our raw mixed grill – tiny lamb chops, cubed lamb skewers, pounded thin lamb cutlets and Kofte, lamb meat balls – it came not only with tomatoes and mushrooms for the grill but with slabs of lamb tail across the top, to be cut up and used to flavor the meats as they grilled. We, who have extolled the virtues of lamb tails and have a well developed market of central Asians seeking them from our fat tailed sheep, were particularly thrilled to see this. After a time, they brought us our shovel full of hot wood coals from the constantly burning fire in a furnace room out back, spread it in our fireplace, and we got to work grilling our dinner, which was of course done just as we liked it.
There was something quite primal about the place – all men, meat, smoke, drink. Grilling the prey on the fire. There was also something of a speak-easy atmosphere. Though virtually every place in Turkey takes credit cards these days, especially on the highway, this place took cash only. And when we said we were short of Turkish lira it did not matter – they were happy with dollars. While there was something foreboding in the dark room in the darkened building in the dark woods, there was, at the same time, something welcoming and warming about gathering around a little hearth, hearing the sizzle of grilling meat, and the process of cooking and eating in a room full of others fully engaged in the same. It was an entertainment all its own. Yet another eating adventure in our continuing saga of the feeding of Peter and Mark, which is why I call travel a “broadening experience”.
You, too, of course, can experience the mixed grill experience with a beef or pork sample pack (available imminently), or a whole or half lamb later this year from Turkana Farms. We look forward to seeing you all in a couple of weeks to resume our role in the loving production of your food adventure, and our own.