May is for spring

May is for spring

His exact birthday is unknown. As it was the case in the old times, for such unspecified dates, they say when the plums or cherries bloomed, or it was sowing or harvest time, or any other indication of nature or agrarian calendar that may point out to a certain narrowed piece of time. So with such clues, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, is thought to be born in May. 

Today, many like to consider his birth date as May 19 as a symbolic gesture because the day is also considered the start of the War of Independence, May 19, 1919. It was the day when he took the lead, left Istanbul — then the Imperial capital — and landed in Samsun on the Anatolian Black Sea coast in a humble boat to launch a political and military resistance by Turkish people against the allied partitioning of the Ottoman Empire. It was like the rebirth of a nation. Later, after the founding of Turkey, he dedicated the day to the Turkish youth. Today the date is celebrated as the Commemoration of Atatürk and Youth and Sports Day.

I’m often fascinated by the exactness of Atatürk’s visions, giving the precise symbolic attributions to historic days on the path of independence. He also dedicated April 23 to children, as it was the day when the National Assembly of Turkey was founded and the first parliamentary meeting was held. It was the day when the Turkish nation stood up on its feet for the first time, pretty much like the first steps of a baby, one of the most important days in the path that lead to the establishment of the Turkish Republic. Similarly, I find dedicating May 19th to the youth very meaningful. It is the young that has the rebellious energy and fearless drive to change things make a change and create the future.

Atatürk’s symbolic attributions of certain days are also in line with seasons and mythological significances and folkloric beliefs. Following April, which is the blooming month, May is when the nature is in its full swing, lush greens flood the landscape, pretty much like the awakening act when the independence movement was spread throughout Anatolia, as if evoked by the awakening of nature. In Anatolian folk culture, the year is practically divided into two; from May to November it is the summer days, the days of abundance, fertility and plenty, from November to May it is the period of winter days, the gloomy times when survival and perseverance is the key. Atatürk was born in spring, supposedly in May, and brought spring to Turkish people. With a twist of fate, or a Godly act, he died in November, leaving the nation in despair and anguish. His birth and death truly represent Anatolian divisions of bright days and dark days. Sometimes I tend to think, like many others in Turkey, that he was almost otherworldly, probably sent from outer space to save the people living in a geography that has witnessed one of the greatest turmoil of history. Probably that is why he could not be fully understood by his lesser successors, incapable of applying his visions. 

One thing is for sure. Atatürk was a spring boy. He was born on a wonderful spring day. He remained true to his birthday, and started the Turkish spring that still blooms despite countless politicians unworthy of his legacy. After a full century without a single dull day in politics, he still inspires a great majority of youth in Turkey. May is his month, and May is undoubtedly spring.

Fork and Recipe of the Week

May is the month of leaves; to be precise, vine leaves. They are stuffed, or rather wrapped with various fillings to make the infamous dolma (literally meaning stuffed) or sarma (literally meaning wrapped) dishes. The stuffing can be meat- or rice-based, the latter cooked with olive oil and served at room temperature. However it is not only about vine leaves; Anatolian regional cuisines have countless variations, almost any leaf or edible foraged green can be used in wrapped dishes. This is a traditional Thrace region recipe that is traditionally made when cherries are collected. Turkish Thrace region is not far from Salonika, where Atatürk was born, so we may speculate that it would be a close taste to his childhood days. It is totally vegan, so in a way also in line with environmental concerns to safeguard the environment, that must be the youth’s foremost concern for the future.

Vine leaves stuffed with lentils: Take about half kilo of young vine leaves, wash and blanch them for a few minutes, five minutes at most, in boiling water. Drain and set aside. Have one bunch each of spring onions, fresh mint and dill, wash, clean and chop finely. Finely chop 2 onions and sauté in one-cup olive oil until sweated and translucent. Reduce the heat to low, and add 1 cup fine bulgur and 2 cups of red lentils. Add 1.5 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon black pepper and 1 tablespoon sugar. Stir to mix and toss in the finely chopped spring onions and fresh herbs. Add 1 cup of boiling water, cover the lid of the pot, turn off the heat and let steep in its own heat. To assemble the dish, lay each vine leave one by one in a plate shiny side down, cut off the stalk, place a tablespoon of stuffing on the leaf and flatten with the back of the spoon. Fold in the pointy edges of the leaf onto the lentil patty in a clockwise manner, making a hexagonal flat bundle or pillow-like shape. Line the bottom of the pot with a few vine leaves, using the tougher ones or just stalks to make a lining so that the bottom will not catch. Arrange the stuffed vine leaves tightly in layers folded part facing down. When all is tightly placed, pour over 2 cups of water, place a porcelain plate over as a weight to keep them in place. Cook over low heat until all the water is absorbed. Let cool, and eat when lukewarm or cold. 

Cork of the Week

Special days require special drinks, and anything to be celebrated requires bubbles. Atatürk was also a visionary for viticulture, he initiated studies on serious modern wine making in Turkey and also established vineyard institutes to make an inventory of Anatolian and Thracian indigenous grapes. One new bubbly is made with a truly Anatolian grape Narince comes from Thrace, from Arcadia winery. Nareen is the first and only sparkly making use of Narince grapes with the traditional “Methode Champenoise.” Arcadia’s late oenologist Michel Salgues believed in using the original champagne method, that is in-bottle fermentation, and thought that Narince grape would do wonders in this method. I wish Atatürk could taste that miraculously unique and special drink, and be proud of his country and its people. Unfortunately it is only available to guests at Arcadia’s Bakucha Hotel close to Kırklareli in Thrace, or perhaps fortunately because being there is an opportunity to enjoy a perfect spring day. Note that for stuffed vine leaf dishes the finest and most popular leaf choice of Narince grapes.

turkish cuisine, Food, Aylin Öney Tan