I will not hide it – I am jealous. Very very jealous to Robyn and David traveling around Black Sea region of Turkey, eating all the way and – Robyn through her writing and David through his photograpy – making us the rest of us want to get on a plan, train, boat or bus to get us to the same table they are feasting at. What’s the deal with the Black Sea, you ask.
For the gastronomically concerned individuals like myself it is a paradise. It is an area endowed with a wealth of conditions for good food to be born: sea, dense forests, hills and rivers are the reasons why the Black Sea butter, anchovy, mushrooms, corns, nuts and grapes have become legends throughout the whole country. It is a very much rural areas which when it comes to food means more life, truth and flavor in the food grown in the small gardens and farms. And also Black Sea is closer to home for me: just across the sea it is Ukraine and then further east – Russia. The more I get to know about the food of the Turkish Black Sea the more similarities to the food I know from Ukraine, Georgia and Russia I discover.
My fortune is – as that of everyone living in Istanbul – that even when a journey to the Black Sea is hard to arrange there is a beautifully convenient shortcut: sacrifice your Sunday morning sleep for a trip to Inebolu pazari in Kasımpaşa where farmers from that Black Sea province are bringing their own goods and those of their neighbors for sale. This is not the place to come and stock up with tomato or oranges at this time of the year but you can be sure to find the goodness of the season – last autumn’s crops preserved in many ways, fresh diary and greens that have started popping up early this year – such a mild winter we had.
Besides the grains and beans you can find famous corn in every form including corn flour so handy to coat your small fish like anchovy when frying it or make traditional Black Sea corn bread. Also almost each stall carries home-made tarhana – Turkish sourdough soup that I learned making last fall – typically done with milk abundant up north or sour red berry of kızılcık (Cornelian cherry or dogwood) – to cure winter colds, as my mother-in-law says.
Many fruits and berries grown on the Black Sea are still available as jams and marmalade: I can never pass on a rose-hip marmalade or a thick black jam of apple, plum and quince that bites your mouth with the sourness. And both go so well with the Black Sea butter spread on a hunch of gigantic Trabzon-style bread. And beyond that I just have to restock on pekmez (reduced fruit juice, most commonly grape – even it can be done of many fruits and berries and in fact Robyn reports on the curious beetroot variety) and pestil: reduced fruit juice thicken with flour and turned into thin layers – very much akin to fruit leather.
And then after the fruit preserves you logically move to the dairy – strained yoghurt scooped out of a huge basket lined with a cheese cloth where it was strained. Then slabs of string cheese, or rounds of homemade ricotta, or crumbled cottage cheese-like çökelek. And butter – the one that tastes fresh milk and nothing else – such a rarity these days that I almost gave up about finding one.
But the real highlight of the stalls at Inebolu pazar at this time of the year are the greens: both garden-grown baby spinach and leeks but also the creatures picked in the wild. Bunches of nivik (arum), green leaves similar to spinach but with meaty white stems and wider leaves, are in fact toxic unless boiled and drained first. Kazayagi (literally – goose feet) hails from the spinach family but looks way more like parsley with small curtly leaves and ground in bunches and reputed for its ability to cleanse bowels.
Among others I recognized hodan (borage, or starflower) that I befriended last year and sneaked its leaves into everything: it is too early for spring so it looks more like pink roots crowned with the conic blossoms similar to broccoli only purple in color.
However exotic these visitors from the Black Sea may look in the big city wild greens have in fact been the most humble of food eaten in the villages – stewed with little rice or meat added, turned into the filling for börek or spring soup.
After consulting with a few vendors I got my share of the hodan root: at home I boiled and drained it and then chopped and stewed with onion, garlic and village red bell pepper paste and cracked a fresh egg in the middle. Bite by bite of something that tasted and felt like mushroom, potato and broccoli at the same time I could taste the arrival of spring.