Follow the tastes of fall
Aylin Öney Tan - firstname.lastname@example.orgThe question was simple: “Just the season for (fill in the blank). Where to savor it best?” I was called by the Turkish edition of daily Hürriyet to take part in a survey of food writers to determine the much sought after tastes of fall.
To my astonishment, I found it quite impossible to answer such a simple and straightforward question. Filling the blanks was easy, as the bounty of fall is everywhere and it is the ideal season for many fruits, vegetables, fishes, foraged wild foods, or products prepared as winter provision. But the second half of the question was trickier, as certain fall tastes are easily reached in markets but not reflected in local restaurants. Anyway, I compiled a list of five items as I was asked, without naming any specific restaurants as they did not want me to, (even if they did it would be difficult to give addresses for the items I listed).
Some tastes are worth making a small trip for to get them at their best. Here is my list:
1. Freshly squeezed early harvest olive oil: Yes, I mean squeezed, not pressed, as the new olive oil from the early harvest tastes like pure olive juice rather than olive oil. The Italians must have a point, they call the unfiltered freshly pressed olive oil “spremuta d’oliva” (juice of olive), and rightly so. There will be an olive harvest festival in the Aegean town of Ayvalık on the first weekend of November, where freshly pressed olive oil can be tasted and purchased at festival stands or savored in all restaurants in Ayvalık and Cunda. It is worth paying a visit, especially to taste the olive oil drizzled over another delicacy of the season: The “vongole,” or baby clams.
2. Wild Mushrooms: Mushroom-hunting is tricky business and if you’re unlucky it may well be your last ever food-driven event in this wonderful world! Even if you know about mushrooms, one needs an experienced local guide who knows about regional varieties. Sign up for Jilber Barutçiyan’s mushroom hunt tours, or if you’re confident about your mycology expertise, head for the Küre Mountains in the northern province of Kastamonu to scour the forest to find a few porcinis. Real aficionados of mushrooms could also head for the southern Taurus Mountains or check the local markets in Antalya or Alanya to find the precious matustake, locally known as “katran mantarı.”
This has been one of my own revelations: Years ago I bought loads of the mushroom previously unknown to me, cooked it in a zillion ways, and adored its unusual taste squishy texture, but I felt that it yearned for another style of cooking: Finally I found it, it had to be Asian. Instinctively, I knew that it belonged to another cuisine, but I could not name it. After some research, I realized that it was the infamous and precious matsutake, usually available in dried form. It was, after all, our own “katran mantarı,” named after the “katran ağacı” (tar tree), more widely known as the cedar tree, the symbol of Lebanon. Cedar had been a source of producing tar to impregnate ships in the ancient world, which eventually caused deforestation of most of the cedar grooves in the Mediterranean basin. Matsutake or “katran” mushroom grows only under the cedar trees, which is why it has become so sought after and rare. Asian varieties of the mushroom are even rarer, so almost all matsutakes are directly shipped to Japan, to appear in luxury markets with a hefty price tag. Isn’t that a reason to follow its path and go to Alanya just for a few mushrooms?
3. Concord grape: The grape that thinks itself as a wild strawberry. This grape variety, which is not considered a Vitis vinifera, is a grape with a fascinating story and taste. As it is not a proper wine grape, according to regulations, it cannot be legally processed into wine. But anyone who has had a chance of diving into the drinking scene in Venice knows that there is always a bottle of “fragolino” under the counter for locals. As the name fragolino suggests, the grape and the slightly frizzy wine made with it tastes strongly of strawberries. In Turkey, the grape is wildly loved for its unusual taste, but mostly processed into molasses as winter provision or enjoyed fresh. It is known as strawberry scented grape (çilek kokulu üzüm) or named locally as “kara üzüm,” literally black grape. Head for Black Sea region, or in Istanbul local markets of the Asian side, especially Beykoz, to find this grape. On the European side you might find the one man who brings a basketful every day in front of the fish market in Beşiktaş, The season is almost over, so hurry up!
4. Pumpkin: Pumpkins stacked in front of a local eatery are one indication that it is a truly reliable taste spot. Fussy owners of such neighborhood restaurants are quite picky in selecting the right pumpkin destined to turn into a wonderful dessert. And it is just the right season to select your own ideal pumpkin, either to carve for Halloween or to make the perfect Turkish-style pumpkin dessert (kabak tatlısı). A slab of buffalo milk clotted cream would be nice with it, but a good heap of newly harvested crushed walnuts is the classic topping. The destination is east of Istanbul to Düzce or Adapazarı, where you can fill up your car trunk with several pumpkins and your belly at a local “köfteci” (meatball joint), to finish off with a sumptuous pumpkin sweet.
5. Bonito: There is a local belief that people truly have faith in: If the bonito is abundant in fall, it is a sign that the following winter will be harsh! If true, get prepared for a cold freezing winter. While an Indian summer still prevails in Turkey, it is still possible to enjoy a lovely lunch al fresco on the Bosphorus, especially with the freshly caught bonito of the season. For a trip outside town, head for Mudanya, Gallipoli or Çanakkale. The amazing fish restaurant, “Yalova Lokantası” in Çanakkale, is highly recommended as it makes stuffed bonito to its own family recipe. A trip to a seaside restaurant will be a warm memory of fall in the forthcoming chilly days of winter.