Cloudy foams, snowflake flowers
Imagine a flower that resembles a snowflake and makes a foam as white as snow. The “Çöven” plant is one of the natural treasures of the Anatolian plateaus and mountains which blooms in May with white or pale pink flowers so small that they appear as snowflakes flying lazily in the air. The plant is foraged that has strong saponification properties, which is used in traditional confectionary to make cloud-like sweets from the essence of the root. This is the hidden secret of “tahin helva,” or tahini halva, that sweetened our palate for hundreds of years.
The plant is almost a miracle of the Anatolian geography. Everybody knows and enjoys halva, but very few know its hidden secret that gives this hard-to describe chewy, chalky consistency. A good halva is always about this peculiar texture. It is also used in other varieties of halva, the White glue that stick layers of papery wafers in “kağıt helva,” which means paper-helva, is actually made with the very same secret ingredient, and of course all the chey nougats, and the snappy white tablets of sesame sweet cracker-like “susam helva” or sesame halva. There are more uses to this miracle plant. In Antakya, Mersin and Tarsus, it is used to transform a simple sugar syrup to a snow foam, a sort of eggless meringue, used as a frosting to cover the local “kerebiç” cookies. Bartın’s foamy halva and Ordu’s walnut halva are among other several uses. In many parts of the eastern Black Sea region, a cloud-like sweet foam named “Mayıs Yedisi Helvası,” which translates as Halva of May 7, leaves its mark on the spring festivals. There are also white colored Turkish delights, the secret of its smooth opaque whiteness is çöven, this time used instead of Titanium dioxide which is used as a food coloring elsewhere.
The secret of the plant lies in the essence extracted from the root which has a foaming property. The gypsophila root has a woody appearance. The roots collected from nature are chopped and dried in pieces, and when the dried root is boiled in water, a light tea-colored extract is obtained which turns bubbly when shaken. When it is added to sugar syrup by whisking, it forms a foam that appears like an eggless meringue or a spreadable marshmallow.
Gypsophila species do not only grow in Turkey, there are other species that grow in other geographies, but some plants from the same family contain high levels of toxins, so they cannot be used for culinary purposes. However, in Turkey there are numerous species which are perfectly edible, and thus used in countless ways in our kitchens. Today, the plant is gathered in many places in Anatolia ranging from the Taurus highlands to high plateaus of the eastern provinces such as Van, including the countryside of Çorum, Yozgat, Niğde, Konya, Beyşehir and Isparta. The variety of gypsophila from Van has the most foam-creating properties, being also the most sought-after one. Luckily, now there is a new project conducted by the university to have the cultivated variety. The leading manufacturer of gypsophila extract Kalealtı also started to cultivate the plant in Diyarbakır. This means that it will not be necessarily foraged from the wild threatening its natural existence, but also be cultivated for a sustainable choice for a plant-based future. This traditional ingredient that has given an unmatched texture to our sweets and confectionary for ages can also be used for other purposes. Traditionally because of its saponification properties, it was also used to wash fine textiles such as silk, but new horizons for its culinary uses is up to creative chefs to explore. I notice that a growing number of mixologists are incorporating the extract in cocktails to achieve that foamy feel, normally created by egg whites. I’m sure it can also be used for savory taste, such as mayonnaise. Many chefs are trying to use plant-based alternatives to egg whites such as Aqua Faba, aka chickpea water, obtained by boiling chickpeas. But how sustainable is that, unless you have close ties with a hummus maker?
Well, I’ll leave the innovative creations to Spanish chefs hopefully. Why? Let me give you the good news. I’ll be talking about our miraculous “çöven” gypsophila root at the Science and Cooking World Congress to be held in Barcelona on Nov. 8-10. The talk of the Turkish Delegation is on Nov. 9, our team consists of me as the researcher/writer, Maksut Aşkar as the chef and Gökmen Sözen as the founder of the Gastromasa organization. The congress can also be followed online. https://scienceandcookingworldcongress.com/
While I am getting ready to conquer the hearts of Spanish chefs with my humble plant-based çöven extract, Spanish chefs will conquer the hearts of the audience in Istanbul at the annual Gastromasa event that brings world-famous chefs for a single-day marathon of inspiring talks. Gastromasa is the brainchild of Gökmen Sözen who travels around the globe the whole year visiting chefs and persuades them to join Gastromasa and similar events he organizes in Turkey. This year the theme is chosen as “Design,” and apparently the talks will be even more inspiring than ever before, with a line of 21 creative chefs. This year we can talk of a Spanish Conquest, that is what I call the culinary revolution of Spain, the Spanish chefs are winning our hearts in every way possible. That is proved by their powerful existence in Gastromasa this year with the participation of seven chefs, outnumbering any other country, such as Dabiz Munoz, who took the first place in The Best Chefs Awards this year, and Oriol Castro of Disfrutar, one of the most successful and creative restaurants of recent years, Juanjo Lopez, who made a difference with his minimalistic game-changing attitude in Madrid, and the legendary Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz Restaurant in San Sebastian. I just watched a video of Disfrutar, and overly excited that that its three founder-chefs decided to open up their own restaurant after the closure of El Bulli at a hotel in Turkey when they were vacationing here. This led to their first venue Compartir, and then to their multi-award winning Disfrutar, which simply means to enjoy. I enjoyed my birthday there five years ago, and I plan to do so again.
When talking about Spanish chefs visiting Turkey, recently two other Michelin-starred chefs visited Turkey. Pere Planaguma had a week of cooking at Paloma resort in Antalya, and María José San Román cooked for distinguished guests of protocol at the Spanish Embassy in Ankara. Planaguma is a regular visitor to Turkey, and I am sure San Román will also be a frequent visitor soon. She is a powerhouse of ideas, she is the running force behind the MEG, Mujeres en Gastronomía / Women in Gastronomy, an association aiming at empowering women in the gastronomy sector. She has already established great contacts in Turkey, ready to launch the Turkish chapter, hopefully organizing a meeting early spring in Barceló Hotel in Istanbul early spring with the support of the Spanish Embassy.