Delight for the palate

Delight for the palate

Aylin Öney Tan -
Delight for the palate Pistachios and chocolate: These two have an affinity for each other according to the Turkish palate. All Turkish patisseries feature a chocolate specialty with pistachios; chocolate ganache cake is almost always sparked with bright green pistachios; I bet there is not a single pastry shop in the whole country that does not have a chocolate-pistachio combo product on its shelves. Similarly, chocolate-coated pistachio Turkish delight, once a novelty, is now all around and almost considered a classic. The Turkish obsession in combining these two tastes has an interesting story; and no it is not a Turkish chocolatier who invented a creation by accident, or something similar. It originated in Switzerland. 

One would never imagine that the much-loved Turkish pistachio chocolate has had a Swiss connection. It was the Swiss firm Nestlé which came up with the idea almost a century ago, and although they were already strong in the Turkish market with a factory in Istanbul, they kept it to themselves; the pistachio chocolate was initially not intended to seduce the Turkish palate. 

All this is revealed by an amazing research undertaken by a curious historian, Saadet Özen, and now also featured in a documentary on the history of chocolate in Turkey, conducted by Coşkun Aral for İz TV, based on the same research. The local history of chocolate had not been studied in depth before Özen tackled with the subject. In the foreword of her book, she admits that, though the topic seems so attractive and seducing, it proved to be a tough one; even composing a single statement had been hard. The topic might have been a tough one, but Özen, a tough cookie herself, was very determined and keen to solve every possible problem she comes across. She possessed one crucial quality to do this: a true passion for chocolate. 

She got the passion probably in her early school years, where they were served bread and chocolate in the afternoons at the French school Notre Dame de Sion, to boost the energy of students. That boost of energy kept her going when she was scrutinizing the past of this chocolate passion in Turkish palates. The late 19th century was the time when Westernization was in full swing in the Ottoman Empire. Food culture could not be kept aloof from those winds of change. 

Already having a sweet tooth, the Ottomans could not be kept away from the chocolate fashion that was sweeping the European market. An initial appearance of chocolate tablets were recorded in a pharmacy in Istanbul, advertised in the local newspaper Journal de Constantinople, and there are records of chocolate imports in the archival documents of Ottoman customs in 1848. Soon, many European chocolates made their appearances in Ottoman cities, such as Louis Marquis in 1855 and Menier chocolates in 1856. The foreign chocolates were soon to be rivaled by local companies such as Royal and Hilal and later by Zafer and Melba in the early 1900s. But it was the Swiss Nestlé, the first multinational company to be established in the Ottoman Empire, who challenged all, and became the official chocolatier of the Ottoman court in 1908. 

However, the company’s first initiative was not about selling chocolates to the Ottomans, it was about a milk product the company invented, Farine Lactée, milk flour which was created as a substitute for breast milk. Fresh milk was problematic to get by, so this new product, first launched in 1868, was soon imported into the Ottoman world in 1875, and was embraced with enthusiasm. Already famed for its milk-based products, and thanks to the trust stemming from the health aspect tied to milk, the chocolates of Nestlé would easily be welcomed. Eventually, the company opened its first factory in 1927 in Feriköy, Istanbul, in the early years of the young Turkish Republic. 

Coming back to the iconic pistachio and chocolate creation, it was in 1933 when the company came up with the idea. It was called Damak and was within a line of other Turkish-inspired products such as Kaïmak, a double cream extra milky chocolate; Selim, a milk chocolate with almonds and hazelnuts; and Pachas marketed as “bonbons surfins.” All these Turkish names were intended to evoke an oriental connection for the European market, as none were available in Turkey. Some were branded under the Caillers or Kohler labels, other companies owned by Nestlé. Among all, Damak was a pure success and proved to be the last one standing. But it took some time to invade the Turkish palate, more than three decades actually. The first Damak in Turkey was launched in 1966. 

Damak, as a name, means palate in Turkish, but also refers to good taste, evoking a sense of “delight for the palate,” but one reason it was chosen was because it has connotations with Damascus, the hometown of Turkish pistachios. Until not long ago, the Turkish pistachio, a.k.a. the Antep pistachio, the variety most suited for sweets, was known as “Şam fıstığı,” the Damascene pistachio. The first European package informatively wrote: “Chocolat au lait aux pistaches de Damas.” So the connection was obvious; Damak & Damas. Of course nobody in Europe would know the Turkish meaning of Damak, but the bright green package made one think of the pistachio connection at once. 

Turkish pistachios have a delicate taste, strangely both sweet and slightly savory, which contrasts beautifully with the deep earthy seductive flavor of chocolate. 

The taste combination became an icon amid its successful fusion of the local and global, Turkish and Swiss, traditional and modern. The Swiss company was already trying hard to be as local as possible, making appearances in local produce fairs, and advertising its chocolates as a totally local product, though cacao beans were obviously neither Swiss nor Turkish. It was perhaps Damak that had the chance to make a chocolate truly local, from a much-loved nut that already had its place in sweets from baklava to halvah.

Pistachio was totally grown in Turkey, and in 1977 it would eventually be recognized as Antep fıstığı (Antebi pistachios), rather than the Şam fıstığı, as a sign of the sense of strong ownership of the Gaziantep people. 
There is no escape now from the pistachio-chocolate marriage in Turkey; it is a unique fusion, just like the country itself, so open and embracing of Western ways, but remaining traditional in many aspects, adding this familiar pistachio bite to even the most alien and bitter taste, ultimately transforming it into its own.