Wednesday 11 March 2015

Turkish Delights... My Travels to Istanbul

I've been longing to go to Turkey for ages, and have just got back from my very first visit. I was totally taken in by those touristy shots of azure skies... but of course that was summer... and I had decided to go - in February! You're not going to believe this, but just after we arrived it started to snow and continued for ten days until the day before we left. One morning it was -14C, and was I glad to have my Uggs and woolly hat with the big bobble that my youngest daughter had given me for Christmas. We seem to be followed by snow on all our travels at the moment.

It certainly won't be our last visit to Turkey, we loved it ... but next time we look forward to seeing it in the sunshine as well.

Istanbul is just as spectacular as you've heard with domes and minarets gracing the skyline. On the first day, before the snow really got a grip,  Claudia Turgut from Unison Turkey took us on a culinary skite around Istanbul. We ambled through the narrow cobbled streets, peeping into ancient Karavanseri where the nomad merchants and their camels rested when they came to trade in Constantinople during the Ottoman era.

We wandered through the Kadikoy fish market on the edge of Bosphurus, watched and licked our lips at the stalls making fish sandwiches balik ekmek with grilled mackerel and Black Sea salmon.

We crossed the Galata bridge where over a hundred earnest men in anoraks and woolly caps were fishing over the  ornate railings - a wonderful spectacle.

Close to the Spice Market we bought simit, a Turkish bagel glazed with pekmez (grape molasses) and sprinkled with sesame seeds from one of the thousands of carts that are scattered around the city. Red and gold carts sell roasted chestnuts and grilled sweetcorn.

Shop after shop around the edge sell a huge selection of fruit, nuts, roasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds, lady fingers (okra), garlands of dried aubergines...

I tasted dried persimmon here for the first time - and brought home a bag to try them in recipes here at home.

Inside the Spice Market there seem to be more jewellery than spice shops, but many sell a huge range of lokum (turkish delight), fruit and nut roll ups, candies...

And huge mounds of nougat and baklava in every shape and form.

Interestingly, Turkish cooks don't use many spices but lots of dried herbs: mint, thyme, marjoram and of course dried chilli flakes are all essential condiments.

In the midst of the Spice Market we find Can Kurtaran Gida, a particularly good shop selling many types of wild honey. There was sucur, their breakfast beef sausage, beloved of the Turks. Turkish pastrami, beautiful yellow butter from Urfa in the Black Sea area, a variety of interesting Turkish cheeses including Tulum, a delicious sheep's cheese from Erzincan that matures in a goats skin and Kaymak, a buffalo cream that's divine with honey. I shudder to think what will happen to some of these beautiful foods if Turkey joins the EU.

Over six hours later, I had walked about five miles and tasted over twenty unique street foods: borek (savoury pastries) kokorec (chargrilled lamb's intestines), kofte (plump little spicy meat croquettes with pointy ends)...

Lahmajun (Turkish pizza, eaten with a wedge of lemon and lots of fresh parsley), pide (slightly leavened bread, sometimes round and sometimes boat shaped with meat or vegetable fillings - baked in a wood-fired oven).

Some of the drinks we tried included: ayran - a diluted frothy yogurt drink, freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, boza - a fermented millet drink that is believed to cure plague and many other ills. It tastes like a slightly fizzy apple puree, and is served with roasted chickpeas sprinkled on the top.

We learned a ton about Turkish culture, food and traditions.

Another memorable part of our trip was Cappadocia in central Anatolia with its underground cities, cave dwellings and fairy chimneys.  It really is a "must add" to your travel wish list.