Gifts from a chimney

Gifts from a chimney

Gifts from a chimney


“And we suspend a basket or a bucket from the chimney with sweetmeats for the children to pick up!” The elderly man in a remote Taurus mountain village was telling me about their New Year’s traditions. I asked again, thinking that I heard wrong. “Yes, he said, we put a carrot, some dried fruits and nuts, a few sweet nibbles, a few fun things, maybe a glass marble, and the children will pick them from under the chimney... One guy paints his face black with charcoal and chases the children. It’s fun really!” He was just telling me about the origins of Santa Claus!

It was a balmy late summer afternoon, and we were chatting about celebration rituals in Ağlasun, the town adjacent to the Roman site of Sagalassos. In this almost isolated little town, the villagers were telling me about their traditions. I was conducting a survey on the food habits of local villagers in the area, as a part of social research for an archaeological team. Celebrations and rituals often remain unchanged through the years, so I was asking also about winter and spring solstices, rites of passage, and important agrarian traditions that would give me clues of the distant past, maybe of the Roman origins of some foods. New Year’s is a rather new invention here in Turkey, and when it slipped from my tongue, asking about how the New Year’s celebrations would be, I was instantly very ashamed to ask such a stupid question. They’d probably gather around a TV and endlessly watch the New Year’s shows, but there wouldn’t be any old traditions. I was in no way expecting such an exact Christmas story of gifts from a chimney. I heard the voice of Turkish excavation coordinator Ebru Torun, who resides and raises a child in Belgium, murmuring to herself: But this is Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet!

In Dutch folklore, in countries like the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, Zwarte Piet, otherwise known as Black Peter, is always at one side of Sinterklaas to give gifts to children. The steam boat in which they arrive from Spain, must have originally come from the shores of Demre. Many Christian celebrations have their Pagan roots in Anatolia, later adopted to religious holidays. Santa Claus is one of them, the hometown of St. Nicholas is just on the Mediterranean coast, on the skirts of the Taurus mountains. The fact that St. Nicholas, otherwise known as Sinterklaas, lived in Turkey from 270 until 343 remains little known in the West. He was a respected bishop in ancient Myra, today’s Demre, a place near Antalya, known for his generous anonymous gifts to those in need, especially to poor children. In our minds, Santa Claus is associated with the icy North Pole, sliding with a sled across the snowy landscape, but in reality, the correct scenery surrounding him would be that of palm trees, or for a more Christmasy feel, cedar or fir trees with a background of snow-capped Taurus mountain peaks. Legend has it that he saved three young girls from prostitution by throwing their dowries tied in a sack down the chimney to remain anonymous. It seems that it was not only a legend, but gift-giving through a chimney had truly been a local tradition in this mountainous zone of Anatolia.

This week our recipe is from the outskirts of Taurus Mountains. The sesame seeds of Phoenicia were much praised in ancient Greek and Roman times, and it was a luxurious export item to Athens from the port of Demre. Also regarded as a symbol of plenty, and much loved by children, it is just right to have a sweet with lots of sesame for Christmas day. Enjoy and raise your glasses for St. Nicholas of Demre!

Recipe of the Week:

“Babata” is an unusual cake from the Antalya region, baked in tins and cut into squares or lozenges, it is more like a nutty blondie. This recipe can be an exciting option for the holiday season; these sesame- and peanut-studded morsels are rich with tahini and go equally well with tea or coffee, and are also great with mulled wine or eggnog. Whip four eggs with 11/2 cups sugar, when thick and creamy add one cup of milk and continue to whip. Add 3/4 cups of oil, preferably groundnut or hazelnut and one cup of tahini. Mix 2 cups of corn flour, a 1/2 cup of flour, 1 sachet of baking powder, 1 tsp of cinnamon, and add to the cake batter, mixing thoroughly. Pour the batter in a lined shallow cake tin or a brownie tin. Sprinkle with 3 tbs of sesame seeds. Place a 1/2 cup of raw peanuts in an orderly pattern, so when cut each square will have a peanut on the center. Bake at 175ºC for 40 minutes or until golden. When completely cool, cut into squares.

Bite of the week

Fork of the Week: For a different Christmas taste you can head for Kars-style goose at Osmani, İstinye Park. Osmani is the only quick diner serving Ottoman-style dishes and regional specialties. For the New Year’s season, they will be offering goose dishes from Kars, the remote snowy town on the eastern border of Turkey. They can also home-deliver readily cooked goose stuffed with rice. Keep in mind that this goose is brined and salted and hung dried first, then buried in deep snow to be preserved. Because of the peculiar preserving techniques, the taste can be an acquired one, so it would be wise to taste a portion at their place in İstinye before ordering.

Cork of the Week: This is the time for mulled wine, or Glühwein, as I like to call it, thanks to my German grandmother. Glühwein comes from the verb “Glühend,” meaning to glow. This mulled wine really makes you glow after a glass or two, but do not overdo it, as you may glow like embers the previous night, but feel like the cold ashes under the chimney the next morning. Choose fruity mid-range wines, never oak-barrel aged ones. “Cumartesi,” sold by the liter, is a nice, affordable option, a crowd-pleasing choice for a party. For a liter, add the peel of a tangerine, an apple and an orange. Add the spices of your choice. My suggestion is to split open a vanilla bean by incising it with a sharp knife lengthwise; add 2-3 pieces of star-anise; 1 stick of cinnamon, broken into pieces, 10-12 pieces of cloves; half a crushed nutmeg and an inch of fresh ginger. You may add a few teabags with spicy fruity flavor, such as plums and cinnamon. You can put in sugar to taste – 5 tbsp will be more than enough. Heat through, but take care not to boil. Serve with a slice of orange and a few blanched almonds.