Books we would like to recommend to our readership:
1- What was the fascination for you with Turkey and Iran? Is it a family legacy?
My grandfather served in Turkey after WWI. He was General Marshall-Cornwall, who after WWI occupied a senior position in the army of occupation in Turkey. Among other things, he was responsible for delineating the border with Bulgaria. In WWII he accompanied Churchill on his visit to, having previously advised Churchill that the Turks would not, and should not, be persuaded to abandon their neutrality and join the Allies. Churchill would not listen to him and ordered him to make the attempt which, thankfully for Turkey, came to nothing. Churchill’s repeated blandishments were met by a series of judiciously diplomatic failures of İnönü’s hearing aid.
2- You clearly studied Sir Percy Sykes in great detail, including going to the places he went to in Iran. What set him apart from other adventurers / diplomats / European merchants operating in the same geography at the time.
He was unusual in that he took particular trouble to learn the local language and study the history, and in that he stayed in Iran for nearly 25 years, whereas his contemporary colleagues spent only a short time in the country.
3- Did you fall in love with Iran the first time you visited it, or was it a gradual process of acclimatization? Where would you recommend the intrepid visitor should not miss?
Everyone is bowled over by Iran on the first visit. The intrepid visitor should go to Zavareh, on the edge of the central desert, to see an early Seljuq mosque, a jewel of brickwork and stucco.
4- Did you visit Iran before being offered a job there? What was your connection with the OCM boss Brian Huffner?
I had spent 9 months at Shiraz University. I joined OCM after seeing an advertisement in The Times as I was about to graduate from Oxford.
5- In 1976 you moved to Northern Iran to run a country racecourse in the Turkoman border country. Why such an unlikely location and was horse-riding one of your passions? Later you moved to manage the newly established Teheran race-course, were you recognised for your talents and ‘head-hunted’?
Not at all an unlikely location! The Turkoman live only for their horses. A Hong Kong – Australian joint venture had a project to establish horse racing in Tehran, with Australian horses, jockeys, trainers etc all flown in. The Iranians wanted the Turkoman to be able to participate, which meant that somebody had to go and interest them in racing to Jockey Club Rules. No Australian was keen to spend two years in that part of the country, so they asked me to do the job. I am a horseman of sorts and had read a few Dick Francis books, so was ahead of the Turkoman on Jockey Club Rules!
6- You had to leave in a hurry like all other foreigners when the Iranian Revolution swept in December 1978. How was the atmosphere like, a mixture of elation and horrors of what may come? Did you sense something like this was in the air when you were in the countryside?
No, we did not have to leave in a hurry. We never felt threatened by the revolution and it was made very clear to us that the revolutionaries had no quarrel with us, but only with the Shah and all his works. We went home for Christmas, fully expecting to return after the break, revolution or no revolution. Our flats and properties were well looked after by the local Revolutionary Committee and nothing was touched. The company eventually decided to pull out for commercial reasons.
At the time, there was a feeling of elation at the change to come. Only the wise old heads had any idea of what the revolution would turn into, but nobody wanted to listen to them.
7- Do you still visit Iran, do you still have any business dealings with the country? You must still have special friends out there.
I went back regularly on business every year until the sanctions made business impossible.
8- What prompted to you to write ‘Three Camels to Smyrna’. Were you given access to the company records?
Bryan Huffner asked me to write the OCM history. I told him that a plain company history would be of very limited interest, but a history of Turkey, Persia, North India and Afghanistan as witnessed by the OCM people might make a good story. There are plenty of books about carpets, but none about the people who made them and what happened to them. He had a very jumbled collection of company records in his attic, which took a lot of sorting through. I was greatly helped by Brian Giraud in Izmir, who made his family records available to me, and also by the city archivist in Izmir and the history department in Izmir’s 9 Eylül University.
9- Clearly the European bosses of the OCM concern were shrewd and calculating businessmen. Do you think the system was one of exploitation of the weavers or did they provide new markets for goods that would otherwise mostly be for a very limited internal market.
It depends on what you mean by exploitation. All workers are exploited by their employers to some extent, in order to give returns to the shareholders. Exploited or not, village people queued up to be employed and vast numbers, maybe 80,000 in Turkey alone, were working for the OCM, which was the second biggest single employer in Turkey after the railways, at one point. Without the OCM’s ability to raise finance in Europe, there would have been no work for these people.
10- The rival carpet firms agreed to merge to form the OCM in 1907. Was this a brave decision of relinquishing individual sovereignty for the common good, or was the possibility of a price war too hard to contemplate that forced their hands you think?
From the records it is quite clear that they were all cutting each other’s commercial throats before the merger and the only way out was to get together. It took some time for these ‘very individual individuals’ to get used to working together!
11- Remarkable men appear in the scene concluding remarkable deals, such the American Charles Fritz who through a series of happy accidents became the sole monopoly holder of Anatolia wool. Were these Westerners completely attuned to the twists and turns and vagaries of Ottoman politics and intrigues and able to hedge bets to ensure they would gain an advantage over rivals, and in this extreme case, cut them out altogether. Was it more a symptom of a weakness of the ruling system of cronyism or were these merchants extremely well informed, read and connected?
Without the system of capitulations, which meant that the Levantines paid virtually no taxes to the Ottoman government, the Europeans could not have competed with the local merchants. Of course, anyone in business at the time had to have good relations with the authorities, then as now. The biggest advantage that the OCM had was its ability to raise finance from European banks and investors. With the Ottoman debt, this was impossible for the local traders.
12- Why did the Gördes / Uşak region become such an important carpet producing region? After all OCM and its earlier versions had looms set up right across Anatolia.
These two places were important long before OCM came on the scent. As demand increased, weaving started further east.
13- Post the 1923 population exchange the weavers, dyers, washers etc. of these carpets were now mostly refugees in Greece, yet the OCM attempt at re-instating these people with new looms in Greece seems to have failed. Was it a case of lack of local infrastructure in the improvised Greece or was the system of production and movement too indexed to Anatolia to make this Aegean jump?
There were all sorts of problems: lack of raw materials and skilled labour for one, but principally the fiscal setup discouraged trade.
14- The style of managing affairs seems to have differed in these earlier companies, with the Bakers seeming to work to a great range of catalogue of designs, while the La Fontaine Company seems to have concentrated on mass production without always managing their affairs of supply and demand as efficiently. Do you think the OCM merger also helped bring all these individual strengths together?
The whole point of the merger was to pool the best resources of each of the members – design, dyeing, spinning and marketing.
15- Cecil Edwards was amongst the pioneers in setting up the OCM operations in Iran in 1911 when the country was struggling not to be swallowed up by giant neighbours, and so was precarious. Do you think Edwards was also a remarkable man of study?
Edwards, and his remarkable wife Clara, were amateur scholars of the best sort. Clara was a great letter writer and one day I hope that someone will produce an edited version of her letters home, which give vivid accounts of rural life in Iran during those troubled times.
16- The OCM struggled as a concern right up to the 1980s. With better management, do you think the contraction could have been managed and the final debacle avoided?
I was not with the company at that time, so cannot say. I think that the traditional carpet business was doomed anyway, as cheap production in Pakistan, China etc, together with better communication, made it easy for local producers to deal directly with the market in Europe and USA and cut out the wholesale importers.
17- Do you have future projects in the pipeline?
I hope one day to be able to write the ultimate travel book about Iran, but will have to wait until the situation improves.
Interview conducted by Craig Encer, 2012
James Mather is clearly a meticulous researcher, as the book 'Pashas' draws on the detailed archives right down to individual British merchants operating as a 'factor' (or Pashas in this book) within the Ottoman Empire in the 16th to the 18th centuries. The focus of this investigation is the ancient trading hub of Aleppo, yet the story weaves in and out with ease to other mercantile centres, particularly London, the centre of the still young and establishing British Empire and Constantinople, the power centre of the Ottoman Empire, still a formidable force even after being driven from the gates of Vienna in 1684.
Here is a story of paradoxes, the opportunity of young Englishmen, invariably from privileged backgrounds to spend their 'most productive years' in the souks and hans of the Middle East, often surrounded by bleak deserts yet potentially achieving riches not possible in their homeland. It is a story of courage, their one big gamble in life, told in individual stories, men plucked from dusty archives and given flesh in flowing narrative of their lives and local conditions.
The interplay between these merchant 'Pashas' and the Ottoman authorities are well analysed, probably better than any book up to date (previous books on this subject have concentrated more narrowly on the systematic history of the Levant Company). The respective places occupied by the Company and the Ottoman State in regulating this trade were surprisingly similar. The Pashas could feel they were members of a commercial culture that was shared by London and the cities of the Levant. Core business practices like double entry book keeping, an Arabic import to England, were common to merchants of both.
This book explained some fundamental concepts of why a distant land like England was able to successfully tap into the market, becoming a major player well before the might of the British Empire was an influencing factor. The ships with which these Pashas came to the Eastern Mediterranean were designed for the fierce Atlantic Ocean, large, armed vessels, quite beyond the capability of even determined pirates to take on, thus they were relatively unmolested. The London merchants if needed would operate a form of economic warfare, such as selling cloth under value to drive away competition in the short term, thus removing rivals. The capitulations, a vital factor of being able to trade without hindrance in these parts is also very well explained, a concept usually distorted like the meaning of the word in modern parlance. The immediate model is a Byzantine practice, but with a strong echo of the Islamic practice of 'aman' a temporary safe-conduct which spared these foreigners from enslavement. This was well before the time when the whole system became parasitical, yet for centuries it was a fudge, but a convenient system of social and trade regulation where both sides benefitted.
This book is more geared to the specialist and enthusiast of Ottoman and Levantine trade studies, it is not a light read, it goes into detail, down to individuals, their stresses, tactics, gains and failures. It is through these individual stories of profit and loss that the rise and fall of this 'Golden Age' of the Levant Company is highlighted, but the story is taken if briefly till the early 20th century, well past the abolition of the company in the early 19th century, as conditions had matured in the Empire for personal capital and risks to be taken. Again there were some spectacularly successful merchants some of whose names are still mentioned in those lands even when their descendants have long gone or died out.
The book is rich and notes and bibliography as would be expected from a book reflecting this calibre and depth of research.
Review by Craig Encer, 2011
Don’t be put off by the fact that this is one in the Diplomatic Studies series of the “Clingendael”, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations. It is, of course, for the specialist, rather than the general reader: the famous organ, conveyed as Queen Elizabeth’s gift to the Sultan by the first Ambassador in 1583, gets no mention.
Geoff Berridge, Emeritus Professor of International Politics at Leicester University, best known for his Diplomacy - Theory and Practice, now in its 4th edition, is no newcomer to Turkish studies. He had already published both a fine biography as well as the correspondence of Sir Gerald Fitzmaurice, the most renowned British dragoman of them all. He now casts his net much wider in this well-written and meticulous study.
The first three and a half centuries of British diplomacy in Turkey, up to the First World War, are dealt with in a hundred thematically-divided pages, before the 20th century (starting 1914 and lasting to 2008) is treated chronologically in another two hundred. This works well, except perhaps for disrupting in 1914 the story of The English Palace. The first purpose-built British embassy anywhere was burnt down in the great Pera fire of 1831 and eventually replaced by the splendid Barry building which has remained prominent in the concerns - and affection - of Ambassadors right through the move to the new capital at Ankara, the rebuild after the appalling suicide bombing in 2003 and reopening: well-fortified, more functional, less attractive. There remains room for a whole book on Pera House, which the British Treasury repeatedly advocated selling and then provided the huge sums required for rebuilding in 2003/04. Meanwhile, all ambassadors since at least 1945 must have heaved sighs of relief that the Therapia summer residence, of which the book has a handsome photo, burnt down in 1911. One palace is enough.
In its first years, furtherance of trade with the Levant was the Embassy’s raison d’être; the private Levant Company paid for and issued instructions to the Ambassador: and he doubtless took more heed of them than of those he had from the Government. The growing importance of the Ottoman Empire to the balance of power in Europe had, by the 19th century, transformed commercial agency into conventional diplomatic mission. The book’s nine appendices, interesting to those of us addicted to detail, include a list of consular posts in the Ottoman Empire in 1852: there were fifty, undertaking political, as well as commercial and consular, functions. Professor Berridge touches deftly on the succession of Envoys heading an embassy whose history, he maintains, was unusual and at times dramatic. He dubs Lord Stratford de Redcliffe “the most famous of all British ambassadors” - by implication to any country at any time.
20th century envoys are comparatively colourless: Sir Percy Lorraine was assured by the FO that it understood, on the eve of World War II, how he could not “make bricks without straw, or hold the fort without ammunition". Pompous Percy, as his staff called him behind his back, famously caroused with Ataturk and handled astutely the latter’s wish for reconciliation with Britain. During World War II, Embassy numbers grew exponentially as military and intelligence officers of increasingly dubious hues were poured in by often-competing agencies. Despite his lamentable breaches of security, which gave his valet ‘Cicero’ the chance to steal top secret documents in 1943, Sir Hugh Knatbull-Hugessen (“Snatch”) is given credit by Berridge for his judgement that Turkish neutrality, so vehemently challenged by Churchill, actually served British interests well.
Berridge has a soft spot for the Embassy’s put-upon dragomans, for Levantines and for the members of the Levant Consular Service of “natural-born Englishmen”. He is right to note the value of the Embassy’s locally-engaged staff as the old system changed, most dramatically after 1918, and London’s effort to ensure that at least some British diplomats speak Turkish to a useful standard. In that regard at least, the British are significantly ahead of all European and American competitors, although not of the Russians.
A large permanent embassy, now growing larger with Turkey’s growing political and commercial importance, Professor Berridge regards as essential to effective diplomacy. His conclusion, that “the recent history of the British Embassy in Turkey shows that resident diplomacy is alive and well and needs to be kept in this condition” is gratifying to a reader who spent nearly ten years in it.
Review by Timothy Daunt - H M Ambassador to Turkey 1986-92
This book is much more than a photographic collection celebrating the achievements of the American archaeological photographer, John Henry Haynes (1849-1910). It is a worthy production on 3 counts. First it resurrects the legacy of a photographer who was all but forgotten, who using the primitive equipment of the time in the tough environments of Anatolia and the Middle East to produce stunning images of landscapes and ruins despite his rudimentary training.
Secondly it records these sites from Anatolia and Mesopotamia from a period when often they were standing, visible, and not carted to museums far away and in some cases it is definite that Haynes was the first to photograph them. For example in central Anatolia in the old Seljuk capital of Konya we see the mound at the centre of town on which Alaeddin Camii sits, in the distance the remains of Zindankale fortress and towers of the city walls, all long since vanished. Similarly in Cappadocia which fascinated Haynes, at Cavusin, he photographed in 1884 or 1887 the picture background of the arcaded facade of the church of John the Baptist appears partially preserved; nothing now survives. Another example from central Anatolia is Binbirkilise, the mysterious isolated early Christian settlement southeast of Konya, and the Haynes photos of 1887 are the oldest known from the site. The site was so devastated by an earthquake before Gertrude Bell and Sir William Ramsay studied it in 1907 that they did not bother to record one of the churches (designated no 13) that clearly was then just a pile of stones.
The third and perhaps most surprising element of the book is the artistry of these photographs that is a joy to view and study. The author Robert G. Ousterhout rightly donates a considerable amount of research and explanation on how a modest man from the back-woods of New England with no archaeological or classics background could achieve this, save for what can be termed a brief 2 months apprenticeship under another very capable photographer of the time, William J. Stillman, who meticulously re-photographed from the same angles the Acropolis of Athens in 1881, on the success of his earlier 1870 portfolio.
The fourth and final chapter of the book is titled 'An eye for the picturesque: the photographer as artist', perhaps the most interesting, as it shows Haynes was a man ahead of his time, who was not a travel photographer, but took his time, an in at least one case built a scaffold to take a photograph from the perfect vantage point as he saw it. His photographs are almost mesmerising in their juxtaposing of contrasts. In one example is the wide breadth of the bleak landscape of Anatolia and the central focus of the ancient Hittite monument by a natural spring pool of Eflatun P#305;nar, that adorns the book cover. At another site, S#305;rcal#305; Kumbet near the city of Kayseri in central Anatolia, Haynes took several photos of the striking cylindrical fourteenth century Seljuk mausoleum. Amongst those shots is one where he aligns the shot so a through vision can be achieved through the open portals of the tomb and in the other half of the frame the scene is filled with mostly sky and a jumble of toppling tombstones, creating a contrast of light and dark and of the solid building and the frailty of tombstones.
The book at times states the current state and if moved, the current location of the object photographed. It would have been nice had this been done more systematically, such as the enigmatic lions, an eight-century BC Assyrian lion from a citadel gate in present day northern Syria and a pair of eroded stone lions, even older, all that remain of a Hittite gate. One wonders if these stone monuments still stand in splendid isolation in the virtually featureless landscape.
This book is a homage to the work of Haynes in 2 ways. Most of his photos were scattered even in his lifetime, either languishing in institutions, unnamed, unsigned, or claimed and used by others, without any credit given to him. By a series of circumstances Haynes, despite his lack of training in archaeology or for leading a dig, found himself responsible for an excavation in Nippur, present day southern Iraq, on behalf of the 'Babylon Exploration Fund', that lasted for four seasons. In the final season of digging (1900), virtually unsupported by any assistants, Haynes hit a major lode of tablets of which 23,000 were extracted. Much of what we know of the ancient Sumerian literary tradition comes as a result of Hayne’s discovery. However like his photos, this glory was short-lived as others quickly dismissed or denigrated Hayne's efforts. Though before the publication of this book redress was done by Hayne's supporters, this book, a hundred years after the affair fully restores Hayne’s reputation, a man at the very edge of his abilities and towards the end his sanity.
Review by Craig Encer, 2011
1- What gave you the idea of tracing a river from source to sea and why Meander (Büyük Menderes)?
I had never imagined that there might still be an actual river called the Meander or had assumed it must have been mislaid after all this time or mythical in the first place. So when I noticed a sign by a river in western Turkey a few years back, I was immediately taken with the idea of travelling it.
2- How did you find the locals along the way? Were they perplexed by what you were trying to do?
They were perplexed; there is little by way of travelling tradition on the Meander. People cross it by bridge as they once crossed it by cable-ferry, and they fish in it, but there are very few boatsmen. So it was a surprise to discover a foreigner in a red canoe trying to make his way down this river. I say trying since great swathes of the upper river are choked in fallen willows and other foliage.
3- Is there another river in Turkey or elsewhere you would like to follow its course, which one would it be and why?
Im very taken by both the Euphrates and Tigris, not least because damming has made them more navigable than they once were; the main question in each case relates to security.
4- Clearly with a small back-pack, a foldable canoe and no back-up team doing the entire stretch of the river would be impractical and possibly dangerous. How much did you skip uninteresting / unnavigable sections?
I covered the entire river either by canoe or on foot; I only abandoned the canoe when I was obliged to do so, either on account of dangerously fast-flowing gorge sections (around the town of Cal) on for much of the lower plain on account of there being insufficient water.
5- This wide river valley was a major conduit of trade, invading armies and a gateway between the mild Aegean zone to the hinterland of Anatolia, as you state in the book. Do you however think progress in modern Turkey has somewhat bypassed these market towns along the river?
These towns do have a backwater quality in that they remain agricultural centres rather than industrial or service-oriented ones. Nor are they much visited by tourists. There is a palpable sense that modern Turkey is focussed elsewhere.
6- Your fascination with Turkey is nothing new, a country you first visited over 25 years ago and this is your third book about the country. Can you tell us more about your first exposure to the country and your experiences then?
I first visited Turkey in 1984 as a teacher of English. I was 22 and impressionable; the impression Turkey then made has stayed me with until now. I was based in Ankara, and free to take a long-distance bus every weekend to different points of the compass: Amasya, Ürgüp, Mardin, Fethiye, Trabzon, Istanbul
7- Your first books A fez of the heart travels around Turkey in search of a hat, inspiration comes from a fez found in your parents attic. Do you think this quintessentially Ottoman-Turkish hat, that was banned to the pain of death in 1925, is a good guide to understand the republican revolution that brought secularism and modernity to the country, and were you happy with the way the idea of the book evolved through your travels to the places associated with this transformation?
I think the fez is an excellent entry point for foreigners trying to engage with something of the cultural strains and stresses that Turkey is subject to. I also accept that the book, written in the early 1990s, makes sweeping generalisations about what might be called the Turkish soul; its a book, in short, which should not be taken too seriously, not least because its over-riding tone is comic.
8- Clearly Meander today is not the same today as it was in its pristine antiquity with agricultural irrigation taking a lion share of its waters. Do you think this difficult balance between ecology and the needs of its bordered population is sort of achieved or do you see danger signs for the rivers future?
The river, as I show in the book, is in large part a mess. Its flow has been reduced or even removed by irrigation systems all along the valley, and there is considerable industrial effluent from leather factories (in places like Uşak) and olive oil presses (Sultanhisar etc) and pesticides and fertilisers (Söke and elsewhere). So I certainly worry for the future health of this once-lovely river.
9- You clearly like to input research both before and after your trips and this was obviously the case with your second book devoted to Turkey, Santa A Life. Do you think here in the West we are still a million miles from understanding things we think we know, such as Santa Claus? What was the most remarkable discovery for you during the research for this book?
That a) Turkish hospitality was abundantly confirmed in the fact that many local people put me up for the night, fed me, bought me tea or offered me company or directions and b) that I did not once run into a bureaucratic blockage. The answer in Turkey appears to be: dont ask and nobody will stop you!
Generally, what I love about Turkey is that there is so much to learn. This is an infinitely complex and rewarding country, with the capacity to keep students of its life and culture busy for ever.
10- Do you find it hard to strike the balance between descriptive writing which is the essence of a conventional travelogue and social / historical analysis that seems to be your hallmark as you strive to get deeper into the soul of the country you clearly love. Do you sometimes have to consciously stop yourself from veering too deep in your meanderings for the sake of the flow of the narrative?
Good point: Im often advised by readers that they enjoy my travel narrative and find my historical analysis rather more demanding. It is, of course, but its also integral to my particular interest in the country.
11- Can you tell us more about some of your favourite close to heaven spots in Turkey please?
Yes; just been to Göbekli Tepe, a Neolithic site near Urfa which is about to explode into peoples consciousnesses. Wonderful and moving place. Im also a great devotee of Cappadocia which, with its soft valley landscapes and wonderful apples, is my favourite walking place in Turkey. I think that Gaziantep is fabulous; great food, wonderful old quarters and excellent heritage accommodation of the sort that, hopefully, may begin to proliferate across the interior. I also spend a lot of time in the touristy southwest which I adore; for family holidays, it either has to be Kayaköy or Çıralı.
12- You clearly enjoy the less tourist trodden and unspoilt parts of Turkey, yet by writing about these places, do you think you are contributing to the risk of their future alteration by that publicity? Should morality enter the decision making process of a writer?
I think that tourism a certain type of tourism should play an increasingly important role in the economy and culture of almost anywhere in the world, and this is certainly the case in Turkey. And while there has been a marked downside in areas where tourism has been applied on an industrial scale, not least in terms of landscape ruination, I do not think this is primarily the fault of the tourism writer. In fact I make a point of writing about places which attempt to offer something more authentic family-run pansiyons, for example, where genuine friendships and understandings can flourish and am happy to condemn places shrouded in concrete where the only imperative is making money.
13- You clearly were treated well in all your travels across Turkey, yet you still had some harsh words concerning the substandard accommodation at the market-town of Yenice. Do you think you were a bit unfair on the hoteliers of this out-of-the-way town?
Good question: Im a great believer in the principle that the reader is my employer. I have to be in the business of telling it as I see it even if that means occasional insults. In fact, while Yenice does not come out of the book very well, its the case that Im enthusiastic about the vast majority of the places that I visit in Meander.
14- If you could travel in terms of space and time in Turkey where and what period would you choose and why?
Heres an odd answer; Id love to know what Cappadocia felt like in the 12th century if only because the scale of the underground cities there lends the impression that the raiding by the likes of Turks, Tartars, proto-Mongols, Arabs must have been extraordinary. A dangerous time, no doubt, but one which showed the immense adaptability of the local people.
15- Any plans to have your books published in different languages, including Turkish?
Some of my books are published in other languages. Id love all of them to be published in translation, Turkish included, but its a question of finding publishers ready to collaborate on such ventures.
16- Have you got any other Turkish themed books planned for the future?
Yes! I am researching the next one even as we speak but Im not prepared to provide any details for the time being! Suffice to say it has a strong historical bent and is set in the relatively recent past
Jeremy Seal is a travel writer, journalist, book reviewer, sometime broadcaster and tour leader. For over twenty years I've been travelling and writing, and developing a particular enthusiasm for Turkey.
CONSTANTINOPLE TO KENSINGTON
the Reminiscences of Geoffrey William Whittall 1906 - 2003
Philip Mansel recently provided (Levant, John Murray 2010) a broad-brush account of the nabob dynasties of Ottoman Turkey. The Whittall clan, the most prominent and prosperous of the British merchant princes, is of great interest. So a memoir by one of their number is particularly welcome. Geoffrey Whittall’s son compiled this book from his father’s occasional, though copious, writings. What it lacks in coherence as biography is made up for by the real charm of its intimate style.
The years before World War I were the heyday of the expatriate communities trading in Constantinople and Smyrna. Geoffrey Whittall provides alluring glimpses of the prosperous life of the clan in Moda and Alemdağı. He grew up virtually trilingual: Greek and French, the lingua franca of expatriate society, as well as English; thanks to a German governess, there was a fourth language; and, although contact with Turks, while wider than usual for the Levantine trading community, was not very close, Turkish was a fifth and Italian a sixth. His memories of a somewhat gilded childhood, in the first hundred pages of this book, provide the intimate detail which the conventional histories lack.
Sadly, World War I cut short Geoffrey’s Istanbul life – and largely put paid to the prosperity of the expatriate communities. In 1914, he left Turkey at the age of eight. As he writes, “I spent most of my life in England with occasional brief visits to Turkey”. Inevitably, there is little detail on adult Whittall life in Istanbul.
The last two-thirds of the book are a memoir of a student in England and a North London GP, devoted to the welfare of his patients. With a gift for conversation with whomever he met and a passion for wild flowers, Geoffrey got what he could from four somewhat humdrum years as an Army medic in World War II. The memoir gives us an intriguing glimpse of the Russian émigré life of his wife’s family: wife and mother-in-law, like Geoffrey himself, sprang from esoteric backgrounds yet fitted dutifully into London life.
This book is a straight piece of historical non-fiction, a crucial early turning point of the relations between England and the Ottoman Empire. The author has painstakingly translated the old English text to modern prose, making it an effortless pleasurable read despite the fact some crucial pages of the original manuscript are missing.
The original author was Thomas Dallam, a 24 year old organ builder who accompanied his highly embellished piece that was also a clock. This was a gift to the Ottoman Sultan and in 1599 Thomas Dallam accompanied this organ in its eventful voyage from London to Constantinople. This expensive present had a mercantile / political purpose, to curry favour and win trading rights with the then all powerful Ottoman super-power. In 1598 merchants of the City of London paid for a present to be given by Queen Elizabeth to Sultan Mehmet III of Turkey for this purpose.
The diary starts in February 1599 just before the departure of the powerfully armed ship, necessary in those days of constant warfare with Spain and its satellite, Flanders and Thomas Dallam listing purchases and baggage that included a little harpsichord. The diary is illuminating on a number of levels. The period was one of where the distinction between approved naval action and impounding of ships and cargoes versus outright piracy was blurred. More than once, to the consternation of Thomas Dallam and the crew the corruptible captain of their ship let go captured laden ships in return for an obvious bribe that he alone pocketed.
The descriptions of the voyage are particularly pertinent where the overland return leg of the journey through Ottoman occupied Greece are concerned. This is the first account in English of a journey across the mainland of Greece. Another high-point in terms of glimpses to the past is the moment Thomas Dallam was able to glimpse through a grating the Imperial Harem, the first likely description of these concubines by a foreigner. Another interesting revelation was that the two interpreters Thomas Dallam dealt with were English by birth yet had fully integrated into the palace system by converting to Islam. There was gentle but persistent pressure for Dallam to also ‘turn native’, clearly the system was accepting of talent from any quarter.
This book is not a detailed historical tome, no detailed footnotes or the broader military / political machinations of the Empire apart from the basics where the narrative requires it and at 105 pages long it is a ‘manageable’ read for all. Perhaps it is a small piece of a puzzle that also explains how a small island nation in turn became a super-power.
1- From this and some of your other published books I see you have an interest in Greece and the Ottoman Empire. When did this interest start?
My interest in Greece, Ancient and Modern, started at school. When I lived there in the early seventies I was curious about the reality of the Ottoman era that lay behind the vigorous opinions of ordinary Greeks. This interest spread to the rest of the rich and varied culture and history of the Ottoman Empire.
2- Your book is not just a modern version of Thomas Dallam’s diary but has historical notes added where necessary. What were your chief sources of information for this research?
An Organ For The Sultan by Stanley Mayes (1956) was a useful entry point for the resources of the British Library. The single most useful source was the Oxford English Dictionary. I looked up almost every word to make sure what they meant at the time.
3- Do you think the gift of this organ increased England’s prestige, influence and trade rights in the Ottoman realm, or were the benefits short term?
The immediate short-term benefit was to enhance the standing of England in general and the English ambassador in particular in the eyes of Sultan Mehmet III and his advisers. This facilitated negotiations for trading concessions granted in 1601. I cannot see any direct longer term benefit, especially as Sultan Mehmet died in 1603 and the organ was destroyed as irreligious by his son Ahmed I.
4- What were the chief items the English merchants wanted to trade with the Ottomans at that time? Was the organ a ‘sweetener’ for a hoped for treaty?
Through the Levant company, chartered in 1581, English merchants already had trading posts, called factories, in the Ottoman Empire, primarily in Constantinople, Smyrna, Alexandria and Aleppo. We also know from Dallam that they had consuls in Chios and Patras. English exports were dominated by woollen cloth, followed at a distance by metals such as tin. Imports included luxury goods such as silks and spices. The main commodities were wine and currants – hence the consuls in Chios and Patras.
5- What surprised you most in the contents of this diary? Where are they kept?
Dallam’s diary is kept in the British library. What most surprised me was the position of England in a wider world. Commercially and politically England had vital interests in the Mediterranean. There were many ships and many Englishmen in the region, from diplomats to galley slaves.
6- There seems to have been a bit of a disconnect between the real-politic pursued in the machinations of the English ambassador in Constantinople and the logic pursued by the merchant adventurers based in London. To what extent do you think Dallam felt this tension while resident in Palace, yet impressions clearly coloured by the typical arrogance of the Westerners of the time?
English arrogance, if that is the word, derived from insecurity. Despite the failure of the Armada in 1588 England was threatened by a much more powerful Spain and its allies. The Ottoman Empire was the superpower of the day. They had fierce trading rivals in countries such as France and Italy. On an individual level foreigners were at constant risk of abuse, extortion and sanction for giving deliberate or unintended offence. So they put on a bold face.
If Westerners seemed arrogant they were matched by the apparent arrogance of the Turks. English and Turks had deep seated prejudices about each other, focussed mainly on religion, and inherent feelings of superiority. Dallam expresses the generalised prejudices of the time. Yet when he meets and works with Turks there is mutual respect and consideration.
Dallam is also enlightening about the tensions between the different classes of Englishmen. On the ship he is housed on the gun deck with the petty officers. He is cool, if not antagonistic to the merchants and gentlemen. He thinks poorly of the ship’s captain. Ambassador Lello has to earn his respect.
7- Who do you think Thomas Dallam kept this diary for?
Excellent question. Meaning I have no idea. It is a first draft that he meant to fill out when he got back to London, which alas he never did. Was it for his parents? His guild? His yet unborn children? Himself? I expect there are examples of educated, upper-class men and women keeping diaries but a 24 year old skilled artisan? Without a patron he was unlikely to find publication.
8- If you had a question to Dallam on his return, what would it be?
Why did you keep a diary?
9- Do you have any further information on the enigmatic English translators of the time in the Ottoman palace and any theory on how they might have ended there?
I can only surmise. There were far more expatriates and converts in the wider world outside England than we usually assume. Most of the recorded cases are sailors captured by enemy ships or pirates and destined for the galleys. Conversion may have bought their freedom. Others may have had useful skills and offered opportunities they could not refuse. And surely there were converts who found Turkish religion and life more amenable than that of their country of birth.
10- From descriptions you get an impression of a thoroughly corrupt captain of the ‘Hector’ who would do deals for purely personal profit with captured enemy vessels, that were then let go. Do you think this was the rule of exception at the time?
Was he corrupt according to the standards of the day? There was fine line between trading and privateering. We do not know if he was acting on his own account or for the profit of the venture. The ship was an armed merchant ship belonging to private investors who demanded a return and some of whom were on board with him. If he had escorted the Dunkirk Pirates into Plymouth, would they have been rewarded sufficiently for the delay? I suspect the rest of the crew were less upset that he took the Dunkirkers’ bribe than that he didn’t share it with them. One also wonders whether Dallam’s seasoned shipmates were as shocked as he was, the first timer, at raw commercialism.
11- It seems almost incredible that England virtually alone was standing up to the Catholic Union headed by Spain, yet was clearly able to project its mercantile activities deep in the Mediterranean and elsewhere. What do you think were the reasons for this success?
- Philip II of Spain was the driving force behind Catholic resistance to Ottomans and Protestants. But alliances with Venice and France were spasmodic and, in the case of France, turned hostile. England could trade actively with Venice, France and Turkey.
- The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, a demonstration of Spanish vulnerability to God, weather and English ships, reverberated throughout the world. It enhanced confidence in the English and the respect of foreigners.
- English ships out-gunned and out-manoeuvred the ships of any other country, with the exception of rowed galleys when the wind dropped. As the HECTOR shows, merchant ships were the equal of naval ships. As Dallam records, English and Dutch ships collaborated in convoys to run the gauntlet of the Straits of Gibraltar.
- England had a desirable export, cloth, and the burgeoning capitalism of the City of London to finance trade.
- Philip II died in 1598, the year Dallam set sail. His son and successor, Philip III, was ineffective and indecisive. In 1604 peace was signed with England.
12- The Ottoman Empire was extremely vigorous and expanding at that stage, yet from the account you get an impression of whole areas being half-lawless, the Sultan and his entourage being quite naïve of such things as man-o-wars, clocks and organs, surrounded by eunuchs and concubines. Where do you think the real vigour and wisdom rested to account for their territorial successes?
- The Ottoman system of empire depended on systematic and relatively efficient, by the standards of the day, tax collection. Despite ‘shrinkage’ into the pockets of governors and tax collectors, considerable treasure flowed into Constantinople. This enabled the financing of a large standing army and navy that projected Ottoman power.
- Sultan Mehmet III may have been sheltered and naïve but he had ruthless political instincts. He had nineteen brothers strangled when he came to power. He was just as ruthless with Vizirs and advisers and military commanders who he judged had failed or who were too powerful. This was surely an incentive for their successors to perform.
- Mehmet’s mother Safiye was also powerful. She was a Venetian aristocrat who maintained personal contacts with Venice and also with Queen Elizabeth, whom she admired as a fellow woman of power and influence. With the organ for the Sultan, Elizabeth sent her the gift of a fancy coach, with a coachman. We see evidence in Dallam’s diary that courtiers and officials took care to cultivate foreigners. Such formal and informal connections with the heads and representatives of other European countries enabled the apparently protected and isolated court to take informed decisions.
13- By the time of Dallam England was already a power in the Meditterenean. Was the defeat of the Armada the turning point, or do the roots for this merchant class working hand-in-hand within the world of legitimate state diplomacy and open-sea piracy / empounding of foreign vessels a pattern set in earlier times? Was Britain by this stage better than its rivals in this double game of super-ships working in organised convoys and out-manouvering rivals in the securing of trade in cloth and spices. Was the Levant a test ground to the later English entanglement in India where clearly their European rivals were outclassed and outgunned?
My first reaction is to ask whether in those days they made as much of a distinction between ‘merchant class working hand-in-hand within the world of legitimate state diplomacy and open-sea piracy / empounding of foreign vessels’. There was no real international law other than custom.
Secondly, privately owned and crewed ships were licensed by the state to attack ships belonging to foreign states with which they were at war, eg Spain. But not France, Holland or Turkey. They were known later in the century (first recorded in 1645) as privateers. Piracy is different - Pirates went after any ship, highwaymen of the sea.
I don’t know if England (not yet Britain) was better at it but they were certainly leaders in naval technology, gunnery and seamanship.
The Dutch were also pretty advanced. France had been important since the days of Suleiman. Portugal was well entrenched in Arabia and the sub-Continent. As for all their comparative ranking in the spice trade I don’t have any information.
Certainly the Levant Company Charter included the Indies. Once ships started going round the Cape to India direct their experience in the Med came in useful. The East India Company was hived off on its own in 1600 and outgrew its parent. Indeeed the next voyage of Dallam’s ship the Hector was round the Cape to the Spice Islands.
14- From your research to what extent do you think the Ottoman and English sovereigns of the time were ‘worldly’ grasping the fine interplay of conflict and commerce to expand their empires and to what extent they dictated foreign policy or did their power lay in delegation of the ‘back-room movers’ in their palace circles?
Elizabeth was very reluctant to embark on foreign ventures and cautious about antagonising powers. Her allegiances were based on realpolitik rather than ideology. She took a personal interest and personal command, albeit indirectly through her favourites and commanders, and as much as was possible in those days without communications. I do not detect any attempt to create an empire as such. But she was always on need of funds for the state, to finance the navy for example. So she was for any overseas project that brought in revenue with a minimum of risk. There was ongoing negotiation whether she was paid a fee for the Levant charter or took taxes on the imports or a mixture.
Turkish policy was different. Their policy was to create an empire of nations either directly ruled or owing allegiance. The motive was the furtherance and protection of Islam and the gathering of taxes and tribute. As long as these two were not compromised, the various states and nationalities (millets) were relatively autonomous. The policy was engrained in the machinery of state. My impression is that the Sultan was not directly involved or well informed. His mother Safiya was more engaged. Power was negotiated / contested between the Harem and the Divan (the privy council or council of state) with its various vizirs and pashas.
15- The diary was originally published in 1895, do we know the story of where the original diary was kept for the centuries before being deposited in the British Museum?
The British Library bought the MS of the diary in 1848 from Henry Rhodes, a collector. I don’t think we know where it was before that.
16- Would you like to be part of a project to re-build one of Dallam’s clocks?
Absolutely. Perhaps a first step could be a CGI model.
17- Do you have future plans to publish any other historically themed books?
My next book, to be published in 2013, is The Quest For Helen a novel set in Ottoman Greece in 1788. As well as an entertaining - I hope – work of fiction it explores many of the issues raised by The Sultan’s Organ.
John Mole lives in London and Greece. He graduated from Oxford University with a degree in French and German and from INSEAD with an MBA. He spent fifteen years criss-crossing Europe and the Middle East for an American bank. After leaving salaried employment to write full time, he reviewed the modern French novel for the TLS and published three novels. Various unsuccessful entrepreneurial ventures in the UK, Russia and Tanzania resulted in successful ‘How Not To...’ management books and memoirs. He has written travel books and film scripts. His latest novel is The Quest for Helen, a traveller’s tale set in Ottoman Greece.
This book is an account and guide to for a unique journey, a section of the wanderings of the most famous Turkish traveller and observer Evliya Çelebi who travelled extensively in and beyond the vast Ottoman Empire during the 17th century. This is the first guidebook to any part of Evliya’s journeys which he recorded in ten large volumes.
This book is a practical walker’s (or rider’s) companion to the early stages of Evliya Çelebi’s journey of 1671when he set on his pilgrimage to Mecca, though on a rather meandering route in a typical explorer fashion.
Though the modern trail followed doesn’t follow all the sections of the ancient traveller, urban sprawl would make this meaningless, it is nevertheless an accurate reproduction, using horses along the way to add a dual attraction to the adventurous tourist who wishes to replicate the exercise.
This book is no mere travelogue, there’s considerable research both in the planning of the route, and identifying the many villages named by Evliya, made harder by the fact over a third of the village names have been changed by the government in the past 70 years to remove non-Turkish names from the landscape.
The book has been divided into one day or less segments of route including practical information such as accommodation, shops, direction for walkers and riders, reference to what Evliya described and historical notes.
This is a descriptive view of Turkey in total contrast to what most foreign visitors experience on golden sands, jewellery shops and air-conditioned hotels where Turkish is unnecessary. In the small towns and hamlets in the hinterland of Anatolia many of the old pathways (kaldırım) are still used, as are stone ovens, kerpiç (stucco) covered houses, and sometimes the village coffee house.
The book includes a useful pull-out map and a brief section of colour photographs, all explained with their notes. This book should be the first of a series as what was covered in the trail, though ambitious (around 600 km), represented a tiny fraction of Evliya’s travels. A lot depends on future sponsorship, hopefully in time that would be forthcoming. The book is a fitting tribute to the 400th anniversary of the birth of Evliya Çelebi, celebrated at the same year of the publication of this book in 2011 and UNESCO has in addition to this project, has recognised the Evliya Çelebi Way. The hope is others will travel the same route to discover the other hidden gems of Turkey and provide a new livelihood for some of these, many of which have seen better days as ruins of old hans would attest, inevitable victims of modern transport options. This book is ideal for those who wish to join the select few who opt for this activity based tourism.
The book market has rarely been more awash with recipe books of every type, region and speciality. So a book that takes a slightly different slant to a listing based on type, such as main meals, side dishes, desserts etc. is a refreshing change. This is one of those books that goes deeper than the mere glossy picture and recipe format. In a way Turkey deserves this treatment, it is one of the richest cuisines in the world, yet often abused by kebab shops or even higher establishments and sometimes is ‘high-jacked’ by neighbouring countries as their own.
Research is the key in such an undertaking and here the authors Nur İlkin and Sheila Kaufman need to be congratulated for taking both the Turkish view and Anglo organisation that clearly went into this.
Turkey is a much bigger country than maps alone would suggest, including as wide a mix of climates as there are in virtually all of Europe, and a historical cultural legacy born out of being at the cross-roads of the Balkans, Caucuses, Iran and Arabia. All these neighbouring areas brought in their populations and culinary ingredients and recipes, sometimes from pre-history. This legacy is alive and well, with each region having its own dishes, sometimes completely unknown outside a narrow area. Clearly there was a lot of travel and tasting involved by these ladies and no doubt the selection process was a challenge. What makes this book particularly charming is the introduction to the 7 regions of Turkey, and a bit of historical background, the commonly used ingredients there as a cultural back-drop to the recipes that will follow in that chapter. Another nice touch are the rear sections of the book, ‘glossary of terms and ingredients’, ‘suggested reading’, ‘index by recipe’ and ‘ingredients index’.
The recipes covered in the book are in the hundreds, mostly handsomely illustrated on the opposing page of the recipe and all indicating the region and its original Turkish name. The recipes are a wide sweep of Turkish cuisine from meats, fish, vegetarian and deserts and include well-known recipes such as white bean salad with tahini (fasulye piyazı), bulgur pilaf with vermicelli (sehriyeli bulgur pilavı) to chickpea stew (nohutlu yahni) and also some less well-known recipes in danger of gradual extinction such as spinach roots with beetroot (pancarlı ıspanak kökü), black-eyed bean soup with lamb and pasta (börülce çorbası) both from the Izmir region.
Overall this book is a major addition to anybody who wants to go deeper into Turkish cookery, and one suspects this could be the start of a trend of investigating and recording micro-regional recipes, sometime down to the village or single family, from the wider region, as globalisation and the inexorable move to convenience cooking gradually erodes the gastronomic legacy globally. What would have been nice would have been a dedicated web site or blog to go with this book, allowing for this culinary quest to be expanded and shared.
>> read interview
1- This is your second collaboration with Nur İlkin, the first being the A Taste of Turkish Cuisine published in 2002. When did the idea for this book come and who was the instigator?
While Nur and I were writing the first book A Taste of Turkish Cuisine, she kept talking about wanting to write a cookbook on all 7 regions of Turkey, since this first book was just on the area and region she grew up in.
2- The book is divided into 7 sections, each of its 7 regions, thus giving the reader an insight into the regional variations of ingredients and culinary culture. Do you think this is the ‘natural division’ of cuisine types in Turkey?
I think it is since all regions have different recipes, and within a region, even recipes can differ from village to village. But whatever the region, all food/recipes are fresh, regional, seasonal.
3- Clearly there is a range of dishes from the very well known, like Russian salad to the more obscure like Quince Paté. Did you limit either end as a cut-off, so the very common possibly being rejected for being ‘international’ and the rare for being ‘family based’?
For me, we picked recipes that would reflect using different ingredients, that tasted great, and that were international as well as family based. We just had to stop at some point, and we have many recipes that were not used.
4- What is your favourite dish?
I have lots of favorites, but the ones that I seem to make the most are Chicken Kebab; Bulgar Pilaf with Chestnuts; Pasta with 2 Cheeses; Sour Cherry Bread Pudding; Roasted Red Pepper and Walnut Spread; Walnut Spice Cake....I could go on and on and on.
5- Did you limit any dishes so it would still be appealing to international readership? For example did you exclude dishes which required ingredients hard to obtain in the West?
Nur has to answer this, since she selected most of the recipes. In America, almost all ingredients can be found in a supermarket or a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern market.
6- When coming up with recipes, did you sometimes have nothing noted on paper so far? Was it case with these of trying out, cooking, tasting the result and then noting the ingredients and their quantities?
Before we begin, Nur has a list of possible recipes, and a paper with each recipe, some notes for header, ingredients (what she thinks will work), and directions.
As we test, I edit, help measure and prepare, discuss if I like, what I might not, etc. and variations.
Later someone else will test, edit, etc.
7- Are you aware of recipes from the Ottoman period that are now ‘lost’?
I am sure there are some, but there are a number of cookbooks on the Sultan’s kitchens, etc., some recipes are about a thousand years old. Mantı, which comes from the Mongols is very old and is still made the same way, as are a number of other recipes.
8- Are there any plans to publish this book in any other languages?
We would love to see this book published in other languages, but it is up to other publisher/countries to say they are interested, like Grub Street the wonderful British publisher that published it in Great Britian, and have to change the ingredients to metric measures, etc.
9- Any plans to have a web or blog site to accompany the book?
I would love to have a web site or blog, just have to have the time to do it.
10- Did you have to miss out on some recipes you would have liked to have included for lack of space?
Yes, the publisher usually determines how many recipes/pages.
11- Which is the best Turkish restaurant you have ever been to?
In New York City it is Sip Sak, in Virginia it is Kazan, in Winter Park, Florida it was Bosphorus, and I have eaten in fabulous ones all over Turkey in small places, and large cities.
12- How often do you cook Turkish food yourself?
I do some every week, especially if company is coming.
13- Any plans for a future cookery book, Turkish or otherwise?
Yes, hope to find a publisher for our Vegetarian Turkish Cookbook.
14- Why do think Turkish food is still not that well-known in the West? Do you think it is high time Turkey had its own ‘celebrity chef’?
I think people do not understand what Turkish food is. They eat Turkish recipes in Greek and Lebanese restaurants but don’t know the food is Turkish. Turkish food is the most healthy. It is the original Mediterranean diet, easy to prepare, flavorful, fabulous to eat.
15- Do you think there is still research to be done in Turkish food, from examining old recipe books in Ottoman script to visiting remote villages cooking their micro-regional specialities?
Would love to do more research, traveling to out of the way places, and eating more marvelous Turkish food.
Sheilah Kaufman is a food writer, lecturer and author of 26 cookbooks. A founding member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals she has written for numerous magazines and newspapers in Vegetarian Times and the Washington Post.
Sherbet & Spice: The Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Desserts - Mary Işın - I.B. Tauris, 2013
Mary Işın in this book has attempted to categorise and catalogue the vast field of Turkish sweets and deserts. In this task she has 2 advantages: She has spent the past 40 years in Turkey, coming from the West, with a curiosity typical of an Anglo and has been able to access archive books and Ottoman manuscripts on the history of Turkish cuisine. Her second strength lies in her determination to get to the deeper story of sweet foods, travelling to their homeland region and in some cases tracking down the last person who can perform some of the tedious tasks required to achieve the perfect texture and taste.
So this book breaks new ground and has an interest both for the food historian and the sweet-toothed Westerner. On the historical front there are wonderful vignettes and illustrations showing the importance of sweets in Turkish-Ottoman culture, from a miniature depicting a symbolic confectioner’s shop being pulled along a float in a guild procession in 1582 to photographs of villagers in Western Turkey using a variety of star shaped iron moulds on hot oil to create patterned fritters called Demir Tatlısı. The vein of history and tradition runs through the book and not surprising as clearly sweets still have an importance for modern Turkey, used in a variety of celebrations both secular and religious and in the Ottoman past the palace in its exuberance even created elaborate ‘sugar gardens’ for Sultan son’s circumcision ceremonies.
The book will serve well the Turkish food enthusiast as well, as some of the recipes such as watermelon peel preserve are lost to history and Ms Işın was able to source this from an eighteenth-century palace document with quantities in that document suitable for a palace retinue. Going further back in time Ms Işın’s ability to read these ancient texts, has converted measurements to metric measurements and so the reader today can also attempt aubergine preserve etc.
The book is over 300 pages long, is neatly divided into sections such as Sherbet Sugar, Preserves, Helva, allowing the reader to dip into sections that would interest. There is an impressive section of reference notes at the end with a detailed bibliography in English and Turkish and an index. The one down side of the book is the lack of photos of the recipes / desserts mentioned and possibly no website to accompany this mass of information. The book would also appeal to those who only take a mild interest in Turkish sweets as there are enough historical stories and footnotes, often from early visiting Western eyes, to colour the prose. There is also analysis how the sweets and confectionaries flowed both ways, East and West, influencing each other over the centuries.
The author clearly loves the subject and the enthusiasm comes in an understated way in the prose. While this book should be commended for being clearly the first to bring this wide historical gastronomic panorama together, there is also a sense of sadness as some of the sweets described in the book are on their death-bed, or at least in terms of quality. For example currently there is only one person now who goes to the trouble of making whistling cockerel shaped hollow lollipops and so while a new era of unlimited Western available sweets maybe opening up to the Turkish masses, some of the old treats seem destined never to return. At least Ms Işın has taken the trouble to chase this partially disappearing art and culture and has recorded it for posterity. Fortunately Turkish sweet cuisine is by and large alive and well whether it is aşure, kadayıf, sucuk, helva, baklava, lokum, güllaç, misk, akide, çevirme, peynir şekeri... and the list goes on.
1. Since 1983 you have been researching Ottoman cuisine and published your first book The Turkish Kitchen in 1988. What started you in this quest?
After settling in Turkey with my husband in 1973 I got to love Turkish food. His family were great cooks and keen eaters. My curiosity was aroused about the history of this wonderfully diverse and sophisticated cuisine, and I began reading academic studies by people like Prof. Günay Kut and Prof. Süheyl Ünver, who launched the study of food history in Turkey, and primary sources such as travel accounts, memoirs, medical books and Ottoman cookery books. Even Ottoman poetry is a source of fascinating information.
2. In 1998 you transcribed an Ottoman Turkish cookbook dated 1900 and a food dictionary from around 1800 and you taught yourself to read Ottoman script for this purpose. How widely known and appreciated is Ottoman cuisine in modern Turkey?
I acquired some Ottoman cookery books from second-hand bookshops in the 1980s and was encouraged to learn to read them by Prof. Turan Yazgan. My knowledge is limited to reading 19th century printed or clearly written manuscript recipes, but even that has been extremely useful for my research. I began transcribing Mahmud Nedim’s Aşçıbaşı for my own information and learnt a great deal from his recipes, then later it was published. There is a growing body of transcriptions of archive documents and historical texts by academic researchers, such palace kitchen registers. Books and exhibitions relating to Ottoman food history have multiplied since the early 1980s and today there is wide interest among the general public and culinary professionals in Turkey. Also the growing number of books on regional cuisine are invaluable, since many of the dishes made in the Ottoman period have been forgotten in Istanbul but are alive and well in the provinces. Baklava with a fresh cheese filling made in Urfa was the example that first made me aware of this.
3. You have also worked on an encyclopaedic dictionary of Ottoman food terminology published in Turkish.
Many of the culinary terms used in historical documents cannot be found in Ottoman Turkish dictionaries so there was a need for a dictionary dedicated solely to culinary terminology of the period and giving detailed definitions. I compiled the information from more than four hundred and fifty sources, at first just for my own personal use. Then a friend suggested publishing it.
4. Are there sub-branches of this cuisine according to ethnic groups that you can trace till today?
The Ottoman Empire was a multicultural society and Ottoman cuisine was a fusion of traditions contributed by people of different faiths and different ethnic backgrounds. Disentangling these contributions is largely impossible since, apart from the Turks who arrived in the medieval period bringing Central Asian culinary influences, the peoples of the region had lived side by side for thousands of years. Far more important than any ethnic divisions were the climatic and other conditions prevailing in different geographical regions. Religion is also a significant factor. Abstinence from pork in the case of Muslims and Jews and the meatless fasting periods of Orthodox and Gregorian Christians are obvious examples. Christian fasts, which totalled almost half the year, led to the development of vegetable dishes cooked with olive oil, the zeytinyağlı dishes that Muslims and Jews also came to enjoy. At the same time these zeytinyağlı dishes were themselves influenced by mainstream Ottoman cuisine, zeytinyağlı stuffed vegetables being one example. Interaction of this kind over the centuries was a complex process.
An interesting example is aşure, a pudding made of whole wheat grains, pulses and dried fruits. The origins of this pudding can be traced back to boiled whole wheat eaten as part of ancient pagan fertility rites practised in the Near East since the Neolithic period. Over time distinctive variations developed, including the aşure made by Muslims during Muharrem, the koliva made by Orthodox Christians for funerals, the Day of All Souls and the Feast of the Assumption, the anuş abur made by Armenian Gregorians and Catholics for Christmas and New Year, and the trigo koço made by Sephardic Jews living in the Ottoman Empire for the ancient Hebrew new year festival of Tu B’Shvat.
4. How long did it take to work on the background research for ‘Sherbet and Spice’?
I focused on researching Ottoman sweets and puddings for more than a decade before writing Sherbet and Spice. This is a particularly fascinating aspect of Ottoman cuisine because sweet foods symbolised good fortune and happiness and played a part in many aspects of Ottoman life, including celebrations of births and marriages, Ramazan, hospitality rituals and official ceremonies at the palace. Social gatherings known as helva sohbeti (“helva conversations”) were named after the custom of making helva for the guests. Tracing the origins of each type of sweet revealed the complex interaction of different cultures before and during the Ottoman period. Culinary creativity was valued by the Ottomans, and this led to such innovations as tel kadayıf (pastry threads baked with nuts and soaked in syrup), baklava, akide (boiled sugar sweets), and kazandibi (a caramelised milk pudding).
5. How far back can you find recipes for sweets in Turkish sources? Where do you look?
Brief descriptions of a few sweet foods are found in Mahmud of Kashgar’s 11th century dictionary of Turkic dialects, the Divanü Lûgat-it-Türk. From the 14th century onwards Ottoman Turkish medical books sometimes include recipes for sweetmeats and other dishes, since a healthy diet was the cornerstone of Islamic medicine. In the 15th century Shirvani, palace physician to Sultan Murad II, includes a few sweetmeats among the 77 original Turkish recipes he added to his translation of an Arabic cookery book. From the 16th century onwards recipes or detailed lists of ingredients become more numerous in palace documents and a variety of other sources. The first Turkish cookery book is an 18th century manuscript cookery manual followed in 1844 by the first printed cookery book. Thereafter an increasing number of cookery books appeared, all with many recipes for sweets and puddings.
6. Do sweets still have the same symbolic and religious importance in modern Turkey as they did in the past?
Many customs still survive today in Turkey, such as distributing semolina helva or lokma (doughnuts soaked in syrup) after funerals, eating güllaç (starch wafers soaked in milk with rose waterer) during Ramazan, sweets during the Ramazan Bayram, which is known as the Sugar Bayram in Turkish, and distributing sweets like akide and sugared almonds at weddings and the memorial ceremonies known as Mevlit.
7. Your book points to some of the more elaborate sweets, such as keten helva, cockerel whistle lollipops being almost lost as it requires high skill. Do you think more can be done to preserve these skills / heritage?
Definitely more needs to be done to encourage the survival of these skills. To my knowledge there are only two makers of the traditional hollow lollipops left in Turkey, and the number of people who still make keten helva at home is diminishing all the time. I wish courses could be organised at cookery schools and culinary centres to pass on these skills to new generations. I think people would enjoy learning and practising these techniques.
8. You have authored a book in 2003 ‘Friedrich Unger, A King’s Confectioner in the Orient’. Can you tell us more of your quest, following a rumour and what was revealed in the writings of this journeyman?
A book written in German by Friedrich Unger, Chief Confectioner to King Otto I, a Bavarian prince who became the first king of Greece, was what triggered my research into sweets. His book was published in Athens in 1838 and as far as I can discover only one copy has survived, in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek library in Munich. An abridged Turkish translation of this book was published in Turkish by Feyzi Halıcı in the early 1980s. However, the limitations of this translation prompted my search for the original book, and when I eventually received a microfilm in 2000 I discovered that the text was considerably longer than the translation and filled with recipes and details found in no other source. An added bonus was some delightful colour illustrations. Unger visited Istanbul in 1835 after being told that Istanbul was the main centre for Ottoman confectionery. There he observed the methods of making many kinds of jam, sherbet, helva, lokum (Turkish delight) etc. As a professional confectioner he was able to understand the techniques used by Ottoman confectioners.
9. Your latest book published in 2014 in Turkish ‘Osmanlı Mutfak İmparatorluğu’ deals with Ottoman influences on other cuisines? How far and extensive was this influence and do you think that is still under-appreciated?
Osmanlı Mutfak İmparatorluğu is a collection of essays that begins with a study of Ottoman influence on other cuisines. The title “Ottoman Culinary Empire” is a phrase coined by the Austrian Iranologist Bert Fragner, in reference to the way the Ottomans set their mark on local cuisines throughout the empire, leaving a legacy that is still alive today. Ottoman influence also extended into Europe, particularly via Italy and Hungary. As well as coffee and Turkish delight, the examples which spring first to mind, other influences include fondant, rice pudding, stuffed vegetables, pastırma (pastrami), and fruit varieties such as grafted apricots, melons and watermelons. Sherbet became a popular drink in many parts of Europe, and when the Italians started freezing sherbet, leading to the invention of icecream in the 17th century, the Italian version of the word, sorbetto (sorbet in English and French) became the name for water ices that is still current today. Watermelons were known as Turkish gourd in English, turquin in French and arbuse in German, and nougat on sticks is still known in Germany and Austria today as Türkischer honig (Turkish honey). The name turkey, still used in English for the American bird, reflects the fact that for centuries Turkey was a source of previously unfamiliar foods, as it was of garden flowers like the tulip.
10. Are you continuing your research on Turkish cuisine?
I have just completed a book on food history for students and am beginning a new book on Ottoman cuisine. This is a far-ranging subject that is increasingly the subject of academic research and writing for general readers both in Turkey and elsewhere. Until recently much of English language food history literature was very much Euro-centred, presenting a skewed and incomplete picture because Ottoman and other non-European cuisines were not taken into account. Historians now recognise that the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe were not two separate worlds insulated from one another but that they closely interacted in the economic, political and cultural spheres. Culinary history has much to offer by throwing light on this interaction.
In October 2016, Benjamin Anderson, assistant professor in history of art, published his new book “Palmyra 1885: The Wolfe Expedition and the Photographs of John Henry Haynes” with colleague Robert Ousterhout, professor in history of art at the University of Pennsylvania. This publication follows Ousterhout’s 2011 book “John Henry Haynes: A Photographer and Archaeologist in the Ottoman Empire 1881-1900,”, reviewed above and now issued in a revised edition.
The long-abandoned city of Palmyra in central Syria - known as the ‘Pearl of the desert’ was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. It was home to the legendary Queen Zenobia and a key crossroads of ancient caravans and a branch of the silk-road. This strategic position gave it great wealth but also a prize by marauding armies of the past.
Haynes’s photographs, taken long before Palmyra became a tourist destination, are priceless records of the relationship between a small Syrian community and the remains of the ancient city. Many of the views are unexpectedly intimate: for example we see women doing the wash beneath the enclosure of the Temple of Bel, or the expedition settling down for lunch beside the Temple of Baalshamin. The group’s photographer, John Henry Haynes, documented the monumental temples, tombs and colonnades in more than a hundred invaluable images in great detail, a technical feat pointing to his professionalism in the tough desert environment.
Since then, Haynes and his work have largely been forgotten or wrongly assigned, and in the much recent past the nihilistic forces of the self-styled Islamic State have destroyed the key monuments of this world-renowned site, including the glorious Temple of Bel. Haynes’s images of Palmyra – published here for the first time – are all the more poignant, yet sad to consider that these monuments may never be rebuilt any time soon as the country that is Syria continues to spiral to its own ruin. So as readers we are grateful to Haynes for photographing these ruins which such style and for Cornucopia for publishing this book so this ancient city that is now definitely out-of-bounds to all of us at least can live in our imaginations. The book is mostly pictorial as would be expected, with the right level of information on the story of Haynes, the various monuments in the Palmyra complex and the Wolfe expedition. There are a few supporting photos depicted to counter-balance the perspectives of Haynes, whether as recent as 2009 or taken by the illustrious photographer Félix Bonfils in the late 19th century with the contrasting views of the temple of Baalshamin and other structures. book offer
The book is a collective work by 4 authors, all experienced archaeologists and the book tells the story of an excavation project carried over a number of summers at the site of Ziyaret Tepe in Diyarbakır Province in south-eastern Turkey. The choice of Ziyaret Tepe was determined as the location for this archaeological excavation by a mixture of previous work pointing to the importance of this site and modern Turkish politics. The site of the soon to be fully operational Ilısu dam approximately 150 downstream from Ziyaret Tepe will eventually flood over 300 km of land submerging for ever this and many other archaeological sites, many hardly explored in this land where ancient cultures have come and gone over millennia. One of the authors of the book, Prof Timothy Matney from the University of Akron, Ohio answered the call of Turkish Ministry of Culture and in the winter of 1996 requested a permit and in the summer of 1997 work started at the site.
Ziyaret Tepe is a citadel mound or höyük which rises over 22 m over the surrounding plain with steep sides and a flattish top, known earlier to European scholars but hardly investigated before. In 2000 excavations started and the first trench going right to the base of the mound showed occupation going back to Early Bronze Age, roughly 3000 BC overlain by occupational layers going up to the Middle Iron Age, so marking the end of Assyrian Empire far the south-west in modern day Iraq in 611 BC. This book is therefore more than a log of the archaeological work here in isolation but like the site itself a window of the rise and fall of the Assyrian Empire – less significant occupational layers before and after this period are also covered but the site is essentially a north-western edge palace and fort of that very successful empire.
The book is very nicely compartmentalised in 5 segments, the chapters such as ‘Origins of Assyria and its culture’, then broken down to sub-sections such as ‘Outpost of the Roman Empire’. There are many human touches in the pages such as a section on ‘A day in the life of the dig director’. As would be expected a huge number of objects were excavated and the work is likely to go on for years afterwards and now the site is left for the inevitable waters to eventually engulf this region. Items tell a myriad of stories from ivory pieces that may have been hinges for writing boards, tokens to record produce entering the site, remains of board games, snapshots of lives long gone. The book breaks down this mass of data in a lay-man friendly way with plenty of illustrations and avoiding technical data and jargon. This book is clearly not aimed at Assyrian scholars, however some of the findings highlighted here are unique in that field and some of the tablets recovered there point to a previously unknown language from a list of women, presumably brought as prisoners from a far off frontier and some recording the dying days of the Empire. One of the most extraordinary finds from Ziyaret Tepe is a letter written as the Assyrian Empire was in the process of collapse, written by an official it details it details the woeful situation in Tušhan (Ziyaret Tepe) as this named official was evidently asked to muster a unit of chariotry.
The book also delves into the interesting area of what the remains tells us of what is and is not Assyrian. The various cremation burials is definitely not an Assyrian custom and from name clues some of the governors seem to have been drawn from the possible local earlier cultures of the region. Some questions may never be answered or with later further analysis of recovered material.
The book doesn’t dwell on perhaps the biggest tragedy of all, that of the loss of many other archaeological sites that have befell this landscape hungry for energy and irrigated land from this and earlier dams and alas probably other hydro-electric projects in the future. But as the ‘Director’s epilogue’ section right at the end of the book indicates ‘we have only scratched the top few metres of an enormous mound…’ ‘I think that we can be satisfied, though, that we have made a good start’. This book is a good start to learn more of this rich seam of the field of Assyrian studies focused on this edge of empire settlement whose last guardians must have seen the frontline approach with devastating consequences as the enemies closed in on one of its last hold-outs. Let’s hope such books help put into the mix in the balance of future decisions by Turkish planners of what can be gained in development versus loss in cultural heritage of prestige projects that still come in with their promises and inherent threats in different guises across this cradle of civilisations.
This is a ‘compilation’ book by somebody who as the wife of retired British diplomat Sir Timothy Daunt who has developed a deep love affair with Turkey and has contributed to the iconic Turkish culture magazine Cornucopia over 25 years with articles, many now collected here. Patricia Daunt is a highly observant outsider looking in to a multitude of subjects and written panoramas whose linkage is a nostalgia for Turkey. Patricia Daunt met her husband when they were both stationed in Ankara in 1960 and over the past 60 years has travelled widely across Turkey, often on horse or foot, acquiring first-hand knowledge of places and their inhabitants. Her abiding passion has been the ancient city of Aphrodisias in south-western Turkey and since 1993 has been the chairman of the Friends of Aphrodisias Trust, a British charity that supports archaeological work at the site.
The book has 20 stories broken up with chapters such as ‘Window on the Bosphorus’, ‘Travels in Anatolia’ and the opening story is titled ‘The Winter Palaces: Pera Embassies’. This is a gentle introduction to the complex world of early European merchants and their nations’ representative diplomats in their ‘palaces’ symbolising just how important the Levant trade had become from the 16th century onwards. The buildings of today are those from later period, the earlier edifices are burnt by the frequent catastrophic fires that raged across the city. Description of the buildings is certainly not comprehensive but the stories that have survived the time more than make up for it of former balls and eccentrics of history such as the last Venetian bailo Andrea Memmo for whom no luxury was too much. There are other gems in this article such as the story of the late establishment of the United States legation in Turkey … in 1901 John G.A. Leishman as minister of the legation that the present building was hired and later bought. It had been built by one of the ‘last opulent Franks to move up the hill’, Ignazio Corpi, a Genoese shipowner who had amassed a vast fortune since arriving in Turkey as a young man. It was a Neoclassical momunent to prosperity on the western slopes of the Heights of Pera. Its Italian architect, Giacomo Leoni, had imported all the building materials from Italy – marble for the floors and mantelpieces from Carrara, rosewood for the window frames and doors from Piedmont – a team of Italian painters had been specially commissioned to cover the walls and ceilings, even those of the bathrooms, with frescoes of heroic and bacchanalian scenes. It is said a soothsayer had foretold that on the completion of the palace it owner would die. During the night of its inauguration in 1882, Ignazio Corpi did indeed expire, allegedly in the arms of a mistress, his cousin, a liaison considered incestuous. The house stood abandoned and was fought over by his heirs, who were undecided whether to lease or to sell. The United States government bought it in 1907. The story goes that Leishman, unable to persuade his government to buy what was to become the first state-owned embassy in Europe, arranged a game of poker between himself and those of the department concerned. If they won, Leishman bought it; if Leishman won, the government bought it. Leishman won.
The book continues with stories and descriptions of the past and present grandeur of Turkey reflected in the yalıs on the Bosphorus, though sadly many in threat through neglect and decay, such as the Italian summer palace of Tarabya. The story of many of these buildings are also told from the ‘inside’ as the author clearly befriended some of the owners and the elegant interiors depicted in photos is complemented with anecdotes and observations by this custodians.
Half-way through the book the literary journey takes us to deep Anatolia, with articles such as ‘Lake Köyceğiz: The lake that time forgot’, ‘The great mosque and hospital at Divriği’, describing a lesser known, more infrequently visited Turkey, a window to the rich tapestry of this land yet to be explored by the adventurous.
The latter part of the book returns back to diplomatic and architectural themes but on a modern slant with Ankara now the setting as it became the new capital of the state with the establishment of the republic in 1923. The author is more than descriptive for example has examined the accounts to see the various sources of materials and their costs for the building of the ‘last of the Boulevard villas’ in that new capital by the Belgian industrialists. The author also has surprises for the non-experts on Turkey, such an article with the title ‘Ankara’s hidden assets: Fly in the face of fashion’ where the little celebrated history and sights to see of the capital are outlined. The final article is the author’s passion: ‘Excavating Aphrodisias: City of Aphrodite’, where a non-technical overview of the site’s history and photos of statues exhibited at the dedicated museum are shown and described.
The book has an index of all the articles that have appeared in the Cornucopia magazine in different issues but of course having all to hand in one hardback book has its advantages. A minor criticism is nothing seems to be added in this book, such additional text, maps, directions, a bibliography perhaps. But the literary style is full of the under-stated enthusiasm of the author and the excellent photography balances the style of nostalgia to a Turkey that is alas rapidly changing in outlook yet in other aspects remaining in tradition, bringing their own hopes and fears. Alas as a reader we can only hope that future urban development damage is controlled through a sensible vision of what is important.
There is no shortage of cookery books on the market and there has to be an edge to a publication to merit its celebration, and this book seems to hit a number of those edge markers.
Özlem is clearly a highly experienced cook, having taught at the Central Market Cooking School in Texas since 2005 and guest chef elsewhere in that state. Since 2009 she has authored her blog on Turkish cuisine and later was teaching classes in the JA University in Amman, Jordan; London’s Divertimenti Cookery School and the Istanbul Culinary Institute in Istanbul.
The other edge of this book is the local emphasis on the author’s home region of southern Turkey with its own regional specialities highlighted and clearly she is highly qualified for this gastronomic exploration of that heritage. This book is also is a celebration of Anatolian culinary varieties that Özlem has picked up in her many wanderings across that wide geography. There is a meaningful emphasis that Turkish cuisine is very much a fusion of the cultures living there and its past tapestry of communities and the Antakya region is one of the few areas of Turkey that still has Armenian, Jewish amongst other communities that have contributed to the mix of recipes. The book also has a brief section dealing with her own family heritage in the region, adding that extra personal touch. That region also is prominent in using spices and regional specialities are also highlighted such as Antakya’s signature desert, künefe, and speciality ingredients of that region such firik, pomegranate molasses, sumac etc. are also introduced.
The book is divided into logical sections past these introductions, such as soups & dips, hot & cold mezes etc. and each recipe has a corresponding full page illustration opposite. In its 300 pages there are also a fair sprinkling of double page mood creating photos of Turkish foods and scenes, which do not detract from the subject matter, so it has a part ‘coffee table’ book feel. Each section such as meat & poultry has an introductory page explaining the significance of that culinary division’s importance in Turkish cookery so the book is far from a long list of recipes. The final chapter is an interesting twist of ‘suggested menus’ for entertaining, followed by an index but no bibliography.
The author clearly loves her subject and that enthusiasm is infused by the style of the book without being over-bearing. The only criticism if it is one would be perhaps a deeper historical analysis of how far back certain dishes go but this would stray the topic from the practical to the academic perhaps. All in all, a well written and well-presented book for the beginner or those familiar but who wish to experience the pleasures of this rich cuisine to a deeper level.
1- This is your first book so when did the idea of this book first arise? What was the main tenet to separate it from the myriad of other Turkish based cookery books out on the market? How long did the research and preparations take for this book?
The book idea first came out, while I was teaching Turkish cookery at the Central Market Cooking School in Austin – Texas, about 10 years ago. Participants to my classes often asked where they can buy my book. We were moving back to the UK that time so best way to tackle I thought was to start my blog, Özlem’s Turkish Table, where I published and shared my recipes. My readers hugely encouraged the book idea too, I am grateful to them, so it is about 10 years in making. I wanted to give a bit of personal touch with my family’s traditions, recipes passed down from my mother and grandmother. More than a cookery book, I wanted the book to convey the warmth, generous spirit of the Turkish culture. My book also focuses of southern Turkish cuisine, especially Antakya’s, where my roots are from. This region hasn’t been explored much yet and I wanted to showcase this rich cuisine.
2- Clearly family memory and traditions are important to you. Were recipes purely an ‘oral tradition’ or did you find notes from your grandmother etc. to which you referred. What was the first dish you remember that left an impression as an infant?
Very good question. Traditions, culinary memories shared are really very precious for me. Majority of the recipes were an oral tradition (most of whom I retrieved over expensive phone calls overseas or whenever I visited back home). I did have a few written down notes from my mother, I treasure a few letters she wrote with recipes in it. As a child, I spent many happy childhood holidays at my grandmother’s 450 year old home in ancient Antioch, Antakya. Making oruk, oval bulgur balls with walnut and minced meat filling, I remember as always being such a grand event. Bulgur and meat would be grinded by my mother and grandmother in hand held machines and whole family, cousins and aunts would participate to knead the bulgur dough and make the filling, as we would make huge quantities. A day event; I loved everyone helping and we would all sit at the courtyard around the big table under the fig tree, to enjoy this specialty. Happy memories.
3- Based in the West clearly some of the ingredients from your home region are hard to obtain. For those that are difficult to source, can you suggest near alternatives or do you think it is important to stick to the spices etc. as much as possible to avoid a creeping ‘blandness’.
Another very good question. I feel very lucky that now, we can get almost every southern Turkish ingredient in the UK, such as the specialties like pomegranate molasses, za’atar blend. The pepper paste, biber salçası, is the only item not easy to find. For that, I included my home made pepper paste recipe and possible substitutes such as the Amore chili paste or combining concentrated tomato paste with chili flakes. It always is best to have a chance to access to the real thing, but living abroad, I learned to make do and make the most of what is available. I learned to love filo pastry sheets as yufka is hard to find and found a way to make mean böreks!
4- You worked in different food establishments and schools. What was the most gastronomically trying experience for you in that period?
I have worked in some amazing cookery schools with state-of-the-art facilities and at very modest kitchens to teach cookery. During one of my culinary tours to Turkey, we had a very memorable cooking class, cooking with locals in a village near Şirince, Turkey. 10 of us were invited and crammed in a tiny kitchen, making stuffed vine leaves with our local village lady. Though the space was limited, the enthusiasm of the participants and the hospitality of the locals exceeded everyone’s expectation; we rolled the leaves on copper plates on our laps, outdoors under the trees and cooked in a great big pot. We then enjoyed our labour in a very casual but memorable picnic, eating under the tree as a group al fresco, washed down with endless glasses of cay, Turkish tea.
5- If suddenly you had guests announcing they would be coming at short notice, assuming the ingredients were already in stock, what would you cook to still impress?
I think I would go for this lovely Aubergines, lentils and peppers cooked in olive oil, Antakya’s Mercimekli Mualla. I always have lentils and peppers around and aubergine is our much loved, national vegetable (actually fruit as it has seeds in it). This dish is beautifully flavoured with dried mint and a real crowd pleaser, being vegetarian, gluten-free and vegan it is easy to accommodate various dietary needs too. And it is so easy to make and gets better the next day, if left any!
6- Do you think the noted Turkish restaurants either in Turkey or England try hard enough to reflect the richness and diversity of that cuisine – do you think the trend is positive or negative?
I have mixed feelings; as still there are still far too many kebab houses and not enough restaurants serving the authentic, regional flavours. I am hopeful though as there is a growing popularity for the eastern Mediterranean cuisine and that overlaps with especially southern Turkish cuisine, with our shared love of meze, stews and casseroles. And there are some good examples of recent restaurants in London, showcasing regional cuisine and I hope to spread the word and showcase more of the authentic flavours through my supper clubs in near future.
7- Are there dishes in the book that you have had to adapt for a Western audience either because some of the ingredients are truly local in Turkey or the level of spice would be too much for the average Western palate?
I tried to stick to authentic flavours and managed that over 90 % I think. There were only a few times I needed to suggest an alternative – for instance the dried spiced surk cheese is hard to find abroad so I substituted with crumbled feta cheese with spices including cumin, sumac, za’atar. I always try to make sure the ingredients are accessible to my audience or offer near best so that they can be able to recreate at home easily. In terms of spicing; I suggest a moderate fair but did say they can increase the amount if they like a spicier flavour.
8- Do you see dangers of some of the Turkish dishes becoming history as ‘globalisation’ and ‘fast food culture’ also makes in-roads in Turkey and perhaps family run small restaurants / bakeries close down?
That is a worry unfortunately and I feel sorry for that. I love our Esnaf Lokantası type restaurants where you get “slow cooked” traditional trays of casseroles, stews, vegetables cooked in olive oil and more in such great value, cooked fresh from scratch. They are still around but one wished they would be higher in numbers. On the other hand, some high profile chefs like Mehmet Gurs at home are passionate about bringing the authentic, Anatolian flavours and fusing with modern touches and I see this as a positive.
9- Does your family have a ‘signature dish’, and is that a regular theme in small places in Turkey where a dish style may be confined to just a family unit?
Very much so. Both my parents are from Antakya and that region’s cuisine is enjoyed at home greatly. My mother’s signature dish is Mevlubi, also known as Maklube, consisting of layers of aubergines, meat, potato, onions and rice cooked together – very slow cooking- and then turned upside down like a cake. A very special, impressive dish (variations of which found through eastern Med) that always turns up at any special occasion at our family table.
10- Do you know if in Ottoman times the average dishes of Turks were mostly the same, or has some dishes now gone out of favour? Is there much research on this that you know of?
There’s a strong legacy of the Ottoman cuisine that we can see in Turkish cuisine though, as you pointed out, so many dishes and style of cooking evolved since then. For instance there was a heavy use of butter, animal fat and we don’t use it much and prefer olive oil and butter – I am happy with that. On the other hand, I wished we could continue the use of fruit such as quince, plums etc., that the Ottomans used in the savoury dishes, regularly. That seems to have disappeared greatly, other than in some regional cooking.
11- Any future plans to open your own restaurant? Or a follow-on book?
I don’t plan to open a restaurant at the moment but plan to host Turkish supper clubs in various locations. I would love to write more books, hopefully in near future. A vegetarian one is high on the list, with regional Turkish flavours. I also love the healthy side of Turkish cuisine and it may tie with that too.