Beyond the bottle
Anatolia is like a cradle of grape civilization. When I say grape civilization, I mean everything related to grapes, vineyards, and culture developed around them, including food. Grape in Western culture is more about wine and other distilled drinks, but in Anatolia, it is beyond that.
Grape stands firstly for its sweetness. Dried grapes, especially the Sultanas from the Sultaniye variety burst with sugary sweetness. In the old times, the dried sultana grapes would be pounded and soaked in water to obtain a sweet taste in the absence of sugar. Huge sums of dried sweet grapes used to be purchased by the Topkapı palace court kitchen to be used as a sweetener. In the Turkish kitchen, another source of sweetness is pekmez, the boiled down grape must or grape molasses, which has been a natural sweetener for ages. Dried grapes are also the best energy-boosting nibble ever, a few of them used to make the best snack, along with a few walnuts for the school children in the countryside. Then there are other nibbles made with thickened grape juice or molasses.
When the heat subsides in late summer it is time to harvest ripe grapes and set up the huge cauldrons to make şire. Şire is boiled down grape juice, which is then turned into grape molasses and also used to make a variety of delicious sweetmeats. In the case of Gaziantep, the dökülgen grape is the variety preferred for şire. This local grape is juicy, honey-colored and thin-skinned. In the past, when everyone prepared their own şire in their gardens, this was a day of fun as well as hard work, prevailing a festive mood. Many hands make light work, and neighbors gathered together to share the preparations, chatting, singing and laughing as they worked.
The process of making şire is hard labor. The harvested grapes are picked over, removing the bruised and over-ripe grapes to be used for making vinegar. The selected grapes are washed well and placed in a large container carved out of wood or stone. Some white calcareous clay is sprinkled between each layer of grapes. The clay causes the solid particles, which would impart a bitter flavor to the şire to rise to the surface when it is boiled. Then the grapes are trodden to release the juice, which flows out of an aperture with a sliding cover on one side of the container into a large pan-like cauldron placed beneath the spout. The pan is then placed over an open fire and brought to the boil. Traditionally bunches of dried vine twigs saved from the spring pruning of vineyards are used as fuel. These twigs produce a fire that is not excessively hot and smoky and gives off a pleasing fragrance. When the grape juice comes to the boil the solid particles rise to float on the surface, and are carefully skimmed off. Then the fire is put out and the boiling juice is poured into big saucepans or containers. Immediately some cold water is sprinkled over the surface for any remaining solids to sink to the bottom of the container, leaving the grape juice crystal clear. Now the boiling pan is washed thoroughly and the grape juice is poured back in through a muslin cloth, being careful not to disturb the sediment on the bottom of the containers. Then it is brought to the boil again. This is the first step to obtain either pekmez or grape-based sweetmeats.
Sweetmeats made from grape juice are numerous. When the grape juice reaches the desired concentration, wheat starch is diluted with water to the consistency of thick soup and stirred into the pan. Stirring constantly, it is brought to the boil again and cooked until it thickens. Then the thickened grape juice is either turned into thin silk-like fruit leather called pestil or poured in trays to make bite-sized nibbles. To make pestil it is poured onto large muslin cloths and spread to an even depth of millimeter or so using wooden spatulas. This dries in the sun, which are then peeled away from the cloth, cut into wide strips, folded up and put away as a winter provision. The best way to enjoy them is to tuck in a few nuts and wrap them into a bundle to make the most delicious quick snack ever.
Sometimes the thickened grape juice is mixed with whole pistachio nuts or walnuts or flavored with spices like cloves, cinnamon, and allspice and poured into shallow containers to a depth of an inch or so. These are covered with muslin and dried in the sun, then cut into squares, rectangles, or lozenges. This method later gave way to the world-famous Turkish delight, the same millennia-old idea later refined in the court kitchens of the Ottoman palace. Another method is to thread walnuts onto fine cotton strings and hang the threaded strings from sticks. The nut strings are then dipped into the thickened hot grape juice and hung up to dry in the sun with a large pan underneath to catch the drips. This process is repeated 5-6 times until the nuts are coated sufficiently. Funnily this walnut-grape sweetmeat is called sucuk in Turkish, the same word for cured meat sausages.
The grape harvest time is in a way the celebration of sweetness for Anatolia. The grape has given the sweet taste to all the civilizations that have lived in this land, the energy and the will to survive. So it is time to celebrate the sweetest time of the year!
Cork of the Week: Look for the grapes in your glass too! Dimes fruit juices owned by the Diren family has a fantastic grape juice from the Horoz Karası grape. They also started to replant the strawberry-scented black grape of the Black Sea in search of making new beverages. Another grape they are saving from extinction is the Karaoğlan grape from Araptir, Malatya, literally meaning the dark-head boy, a term affectionately used for the young boys, especially to emphasize their courageous fearless brave nature. This dark grape indigenous to east Anatolia was in danger of being lost, but now with a new project, the vineyards are re-planted and survived to take its place back in viticulture.
Fork of the Week: When talking about viticulture, one aspect unique to Turkish cuisine must be remembered. The grape leaves are used to make dolma and sarma, stuffed vine leaves with meat or rice stuffing. The best of best grape leaves come from Tokat, a town famous for its vineyards, and the ideal grape variety is the white Narince grapes, which means delicate-like in Turkish. The thin-skinned grape is indeed delicate; its thin leaves are perfect for making the most-loved stuffed grape leaf dishes of Turkish cuisine. Nobody seems to remember these days, but this grape was going almost extinct with the phylloxera disease in the 1980s. In 1984, Tokat Viticulture Congress was assembled as an initiative of the Diren family, gathering all viticulture experts from around the country. That is how the planting of disease-resistant American vines was started, propagated by the Narince grape. Today, it is hard to believe that we owe the taste of our beloved dish to that congress held in Tokat.