Turkey II: Syria (nearly) to Greece
After our epic journey to Erzurum, we had a very long day’s drive ahead of us to get to Mardin and the south-east. Partly because it’s quite a long way; partly because we took quite a roundabout route. But also because as well as getting stopped by the police as usual, we started getting stopped by the army. This is PKK country: villages have military watchtowers, and roads have frequent checkpoints. (Perhaps a bit like Northern Ireland in the 1970s, but with more kebabs.) There’s a fair amount of traffic, though, so you’d have thought they’d have seen someone like Anna driving a Land Rover before, but apparently not: once the first soldier saw who was at the wheel, he immediately called the rest of the squad over for a laugh.
But it was definitely worth the drive. Not only was the south-east probably the highlight of the trip (although it’s a close call), we went on from that to see the centre and the coast in ways that most tourists don’t get to do – mostly because of the people we met.
So read on for stories of underground ovens, underwater cities, pizzas as long as Anna is tall, and ice cream you eat with a knife and fork.
Actually, the high point of the drive south was stopping at a petrol station near Elazığ. There wasn’t a great deal of traffic around, and there certainly weren’t many tourists in foreign cars, so filling up the tank turned into a friendly social activity: being invited in for tea, eating snacks, discussing countries and football teams, and being sent away with presents. This was to become a standard pattern …
As we approached Mardin we really did feel that we were coming to the edge of something – the hills get smaller and sparser, the land gets drier and then you come to a series of escarpments looking down onto an enormous flat plain, stretching to Syria and beyond. The town itself is perched up on the cliffs, looking down to the border, with ruined castle walls above it and honey-coloured stone buildings packed in all around you.
We stayed in one of those buildings – an old fortified caravanserai – and spent a fair bit of time in another, the old Syrian mansion which is now the excellent Cercis Murat Konağı restaurant. The food here’s wonderful (some of the best meze we had, including our first firik – not to forget their home-made spiced wine drunk from metal cups), and it’s one of the few places in this part of the country to have women working (in public!) in the kitchen. We met the cooks, in fact, and got on so well that they invited us back the next day to learn some things – but unfortunately, none of them were there when we went back, and we quickly learnt the upward-nod-with-raised-eyebrows Turkish head gesture for “No!” instead.
But most of the best memories are of the more random moments: drinking tea and playing backgammon in the tea gardens, drinking more tea in the market while buying carob pods and licorice; coming across an ancient Syrian Orthodox church and listening to their school class singing hymns.
After Mardin we turned west again, to Şanlıurfa, which also feels ancient (this is the heart of Mesopotamia) and distinctly Middle Eastern. We spent our time exploring the mosque complex (meeting Abraham’s fish and rose gardens) and then the amazing market, eating liver kebabs, drinking licorice juice (“the original Coca Cola”), and meeting bakers who were churning out hundreds of pide and açık breads (and giving us free samples fresh from the oven). Then we spent the evening in our restaurant-cum-hotel being taught Turkish line-dancing while drinking yoghurt.
From here we went on to the more modern-feeling and buzzing Gaziantep where our incredibly efficient host Timur handed us over to his friend the local culinary expert Filiz Hösükoğlu, who immediately set us up with a whole sequence of the most interesting culinary experiences we had. In an hour or two we were eating an array of amazing kebabs at our own table by the roadside, where Şirvan Payaslı had kept his restaurant open just for us! And by 7 the next morning, we were in one of the famous Güllüoğlu baklava bakeries (the Mahmut Güllü branch) learning everything about just why Antep baklava tastes better than anywhere else in Turkey: it’s partly the incredible pistachios they grow here, but it’s mainly the lifelong dedication and skill of bakers like our host Bayram Sarıbaş, who started learning how to roll paper-thin yufka dough at the age of 10 and is still getting up at 4am to light the oven fires.
The day after that, we were watching in awe as the katmer baker at Orkide Pastanesi (they only have one who’s skilful enough, having been doing this for 10 years) spun his yufka into bigger, thinner, more transparent sheets than you’d believe possible, to produce some of the most delicious light crispy sweet nutty pies we had. And after that to Kahramanmaraş to pursue Anna’s dream – to track the mystical Maraş pepper she used at Chez Panisse down to its source in the wild. While we were there we also tried Maraş’s famous sahlep ice cream, stiffened with powdered orchid root to withstand the heat, and therefore so hard you eat it with a knife and fork – or entertain children by performing tricks with it, as hundreds of Maraş ice cream men do around Turkey.
We owe huge thanks not only to Filiz and Timur for setting all this up, and to XXX for translating for us in Maraş, but to Şirvan, Bayram, Cevdet and Murat for opening their bakeries, restaurants and shops to us and being so incredibly generous with their time and explanations (not to mention kebabs, baklava and pastries!). There’s a whole world of fascinating places, hospitable people and delicious food out there in the south-east – do go. Everything seems to be more intense – the flavours (sweeter, hotter, sourer), the sights and the hospitality. We’ll be going back.
Eventually we had to leave, of course, (after one more cup of mulberry juice from our local street vendor) and headed into the centre to Cappadocia. This isn’t as untouched by tourism, of course – it’s one of the first places outside Istanbul (and the big coastal resorts) that travellers tend to come. And that came as a bit of a shock to us after having spent a while really being off the beaten track – suddenly we were surrounded by signs in English, restaurant owners touting for business, and even worse … other tourists. But there’s a reason why people come here, of course, and it’s a good reason – the landscape is quite remarkable, full of otherworldly gorges and spires, Byzantine monasteries carved into the cliffs, and troglodyte towns full of cave houses.
And this was why we came too – but the reason we stayed (and changed our plans to stay longer) was that we were lucky enough to end up staying with Gülcan and Andus – she a fine Turkish cook, he a German anthropologist and expert on the local cave society and the importance of food within it. We got into their good books by arriving with a large tray of excellent Antep baklava (thank you again Bayram!), and then spent many happy hours discussing yufka baking and tandır cooking with them – and even happier hours actually doing these with their underground oven.
Emboldened by these discussions we also set out around the countryside looking for the things we’d heard about, and found some of them: joining the village women of Güzelöz as they baked the village’s bread at the outdoor communal oven; and tracking down the secret fruit-ripening caves in the hills, where four-year-old girls fill crates with lemons from the coast, unpacking them months later and 10% bigger.
Of course, staying in Cappadocia so long had to have some kind of negative repercussions, and it turned out that we’d run out of time to visit Konya. We did stop in a service station on the ring road, although I’m not sure that counts. It did teach us that Turkish garage food puts its English equivalent to shame, though – we ate four-foot-long etli ekmek (like thin crispy meaty pizza) from a special ironing-board-like thingy, and probably would have stayed if they’d had rooms. But we carried on down to the Mediterranean coast, via various pekmez and pomegranate-syrup stalls on the way.
On any other trip we’d have thought Antalya was lovely, with its little harbour surrounded by old town on one side, sea and mountains on the other, and stuck around – but this time we rushed through, pausing only to try the excellent meze at the 7 Mehmet restaurant, and headed further west. We did stop for a few hours at Olympos, and got our first taste of how many genuinely impressive Greek ruins seem to carpet the hillsides in this part of Turkey. But we had to push on to Kaleköy, as we’d booked a room, and our host Tarık was waiting for us with several interesting varieties of bread and cheese.
Except it turned out we’d got the date wrong, and Tarık had very sensibly eaten all the cheese, and most of the bread. Kaleköy is a tiny village only accessible by boat, and I think he’d been worried that we wouldn’t have many culinary adventures here – so he’d gone to great lengths to find things that might interest us, only for us to spoil things by not turning up on time. He needn’t have worried at all, though: we were surrounded by wild herbs, samphire and carob trees (to Barnaby’s delight) and, of course, the resulting carob pekmez. We al
so met his friends Hatice and Masako, who told us all about the local herbs and seafood, and most importantly divulged the recipe for Hatice’s delicious pekmez bread.
And we met Mevlüt, who seemed to us the ultimate Kaleköy resident: he’s a boat captain, and spends his days taking people out to float above the underwater Lycian city in the crystal-clear bay, or landing on deserted islands and wandering through the Greek ruins; part of his house is new (a café) but the rest is rather older (it’s Lycian); and he spends the rest of his time helping his grandmother dry wild thyme and sage, and make carob pekmez. A lifestyle with a lot to recommend it.
After Kaleköy we spent a little while working our way up the Aegean, seeing some of the famous sights like Hieropolis and Ephesus – all amazing and well worth a trip of their own, but things were starting to feel more European again, we were starting to notice all the other tourists around us, and couldn’t escape the feeling that the trip (well, the Turkish part of it) was coming to an end.
But then we came to Zeytinbağı and realised that if we thought we knew Turkey and Turkish food, we were wrong. Staying with Erhan and Nejla was eye-opening because it made us realize just how much variety there is here. The way Erhan cooks owes more to local Aegean methods and ingredients than to classical Ottoman or typical Turkish cuisine, and combines Greek influences, wild greens, egg cooking and mastic, together with more eastern Anatolian elements like the hot, dark Urfa pepper. We learnt a lot from them about Turkey, and also quite a lot about Greece – in fact, we ended up joining them in Crete for a conference about the links between Eastern Mediterranean cuisines (of which more later). We also felt quite inspired by their approach to running a guesthouse featuring seriously good food, cooking lessons, their own herbs and fruit and even their own goat’s cheese. I think Anna saw a vision of her own future here …
After this we really didn’t have much time left – enough time to drive back inland to İznik to meet the friendly tile-making ladies (who we’d ordered a set from a month ago when we first drove this way), and then go to stay with our old friends the İrez family for a night to tell them all about our adventures. Anna then spent a day in İstanbul with the food writer Engin Akin, learning how to make classic dishes like the delicious stuffed içli köfte and kabak tatlısı (candied squash – recipe here); and Özge took us for a night out to show us just how Galatasary football fans celebrate, and then sent us on our way towards the Greek border.
After an impressive build-up including a heavily militarised Turkish side, and a narrow deserted bridge over no-man’s land straight out of some Cold War spy drama, the Greek border seemed a bit of a let-down. Anything to declare? No. Off you go, then. Ah, back in the EU …
You can see some of our photos from this part of Turkey here (from Erzurum to Kaleköy), and (from Kaleköy back to Greece) here.