Call of the cold
Snow is the origin of ice cream in Turkey. Cold winter months used to be the time for getting ready to harvest snow for summer months. Ice cream in Turkey used to be confined to summer months only. Most ice cream makers and street vendors would resort to selling the warm hot drink, salep, in the winter months. A quite logical switch, as the ingredients used in both are basically the same A quite logical switch, as the ingredients used in both are basically the same; milk, sugar and salep, which is the magical secret ingredient of both ice cream and the hot drink that bears the same name.
Salep is the dried tuber of various wild orchid flower varieties and is used both as a thickener and a flavoring. However, despite being the key ingredient in ice creams, salep is more associated with the thought of winter in minds, simply because of the warm feelings the beloved drink brings to one’s soul. A feeling that can be best explained in Nordic terms, the Danish “hygge,” as a sip of salep makes one feel warm, cuddly and safe like under a furry blanket. In reality, nowadays, pure salep is seldom used alone, if at all, but adulterated by mixing with other starchy thickeners like arrowroot, potato starch, or the like.
The pure wild orchid root powder is wildly expensive, and harvesting is restricted as most plant varieties are listed as endangered species. However, the pure stuff makes a difference. Orchid bulbs possess certain qualities that make them a precious ingredient much sought after. It gives a slightly thick but silky-smooth texture, nothing like a thick pudding, but more like a satin sensation. It is a joy to sip slowly the piping hot, almost viscous, frothy liquid with a slurping sound. Salep drink made from real pure salep goes down so glidingly smooth that it feels like one’s inside is lined with a thin film of protective coating, the chest, the throat, the esophagus tract and beyond. In summer, it is used to make the amazingly fulfilling, almost chewy and stretchy ice cream that is rather eaten than licked. This stretchiness and almost resistant to melt quality are much sought after for prolonged pleasure when indulging in enjoying ice creams.
The arrival of the first snowfall once used to mark the time for collecting snow for the coming summer months. In the case of Istanbul, snow harvest for summer months meant meticulous strategic planning and strenuous work, which also required a good deal of muscle power. Ottomans were obsessed with cold drinks, sherbets and chilled desserts, and apparently, the chewy ice cream made with salep. So, collecting ice for hot summer months was almost like a necessity rather than a fantasy. Snow harvest and ice delivery had become an organized profession in Ottoman times, institutionalized under the administration of the “Karhane-i Amire,” which can be translated as the Royal Snow Authority.
Sources of the much sought-after snow were numerous. Istanbul had several sources for snow supply. First, it was the city itself. When it snowed, the cleanest new snow was hastily shoveled into snow wells and compressed, and then covered with multiple layers of insulators to prevent melting. This way, the snow would last long through the warmest days of summer. When collected from high mountains, the snow and ice blocks were carried to cities wrapped in heat-insulating layers of felt and straw and kept in cool chambers dug in the ground, the so-called snow wells or snow houses. Snow gatherers were called “karcı,” which can be translated as the snow collector or dealer or snowman (of course not the snowman you know). The luxury of having snow or ice during summer was not confined to Istanbul only. All cities and villages in Anatolia enjoyed their share of snow from the nearest mountains. Especially in the Aegean and Mediterranean regions, a favorite treat called “karsambaç” is still sold in local market places and can well be described as archaic ice cream. Its roots go back to the simple winter treat of rural Anatolia called “kar helvası” (snow halwa or helva), in which fresh snow is enjoyed with a good pour of grape or white mulberry molasses or just honey. The first snowfalls in Anatolia once used to be the time to get ready for the only cold winter treat, the snow helva. I deliberately used the past tense here because it is almost a lost taste, nowadays only made in remote snow struck rural villages.
To make the snow helva, the very first fall of snow is not used as it brings down all the dust in the air. The second, or even better, the third fall is considered pure and safe to eat. The fresh puffy snow is spooned into a large deep dish or a big round tray and drizzled with grape or mulberry molasses to sweeten. Voila! The quickest snow helva or archaic ice cream is ready to be enjoyed convivially. Family members, relatives and neighbors come together and gather around the snow helva -- squatted on the ground, legs covered with a blanket, children and the elderly cramped together to reach the snow-laden tray - and start digging the sweetened snow delight, which combines the harvest of vineyards, fruit orchards and the new harvest of winter, the snow. This used to be the Anatolian “hygge” -- a cheerful conviviality, a feeling of warmth of being together, a feeling of security, and the power of solidarity against the dark winter night. Snow is really magical!