Glittery glory

Glittery glory

Aylin Öney Tan -
Glittery glory

A picture taken on Dec. 3 in Strasbourg, eastern France shows the sign of a foie gras shop in a street near the city's award-winning Christmas market. With over 300 market chalets, Strasbourg attracts over two million visitors during the Christmas season. AFP Photo

Last Saturday was the day of our good old man from Demre, south of Turkey, who turned about to be the most beloved man of the children, St Nicholas aka Santa Claus. Dec. 6 is believed to be the day the saint had passed away, and the day is dedicated to commemorate his benevolent being. On the holy day, I happened to be in Alsace, where the Christmas season is exceptionally beautiful and celebrated in magical charm. It felt like it was just the right place to celebrate St Nicholas Day. The oldest Christmas market in Europe was set in Strasbourg in 1570; then called the Christkindlmärik. All the Alsatian towns welcome the Noël, or Weichnacht, in an insanely decorous and joyous way, very traditional and charming, elegantly opulent, but nothing close to the cloyingly sticky “Jingle Bells” style.

This year Strasbourg was awarded the title of “Best Christmas Market in Europe 2014”; and even a short glimpse around the town proves that it has earned this title. Each 11-market sites scattered around the town have an individual charm to them, some dedicated to fine food, some to arts and crafts, all with an Alsatian style. The gigantic tree placed on the Place Kléber sparkles like a jewel, overlooking the light performances right across. The Christmas tree tradition in the town is an age-old one, recorded in a manuscript dated 1605 describing fir trees adorned with decorations in the guildhalls of Strasbourg during the Advent.

St. Nicholas is about giving and generosity. Many European countries have developed their own heroes around the saint, the Dutch Sinterklaas being the most famous; the Swiss folklore has Samichlaus, the Portugese have São Nicolau etc. It is often not known that the Saint was a rejected bishop in ancient Myra, west of Antalya, a town known as Demre today. He lived in the 3rd-4th century A.D., and was known for his anonymous gifts to children and the ones in need. His most famous legend was paying the dowry for three unmarried poor girls, in little mysterious sacs, of course thrown in through the chimney. In France he is also known for saving children from horrible situations. One story is that three boys wandering away who got lost ended up in a wicked butcher’s shop. The bloody butcher killed the boys and salted them in a tub to make the tenderest cured ham. It was St. Nicholas who ran to the rescue, and revived the boys and returned them to their families. Since then he became the patron saint of children, giving away sweets and special treats to the well-behaved; and the evil butcher was condemned to help him as Père Fouettard, carrying switches to threaten the ill-behaved children.

In Alsace the heroes of Dec. 6 are not restricted to the generous saint and his scary companion. Actually, the greatest hero of the children is edible. A special man-shaped brioche known as Bonhomme de Saint-Nicholas, or shortly as Mannala, celebrates the day dedicated to St. Nicholas. The delicate taste of the brioche contrasts wonderfully the densely spicy Pain d’Epicés, the foremost Christmas cake in France. The starry nights of cold winter is warmed by all the spices, sweet delights and the endless flow of the most glorious decorations soothing the eye and the soul. All the glowing glitter in Alsace is to celebrate the glorious generosity of St. Nicholas, the father of all children and the ones is need. St. Nicholas is the day of light and hope, hopefully for the future as well!

Bite of the week

Recipe of the Week: The recipe of the past Saturday in Alsace was naturally the “Bonhomme de Saint-Nicholas.” These man-shaped brioche breads are typically made on Dec. 6, the day dedicated to St. Nicholas. Children love to dip legs and arms into dense chocolate drinks and amputate the poor pastry limb by limb.

In a large bowl mix 300 g flour, 50 g sugar, a generous pinch of salt, 20 g yeast, 110 ml milk and 1 egg. Knead all into dough, either by hand or by hand-blender. Add and work in 75 g melted butter until the dough is smooth and elastic. Roll the dough into a ball, dust with flour and cover the bowl with cling film and leave to rest in a warm place until it doubles in size. Knead the dough once again and pull off approximately 75 g pieces. Roll into sticks, flatten to a rectangle, and make a longitudinal cut on one side with a knife to form legs. Pinch the other end on both sides to make a neck and form the head; form the arms by making cuts on both sides. Push in two raisins or blackcurrants on the head to make the eyes. Place the little men on a backing tray lined with parchment paper. Cover and let stand in a warm place till they double in size. Brush with egg yolk, and bake in an oven at 180°C for 15-20 min.

Fork of the Week: Strasbourg is the capital of goose liver, foies gras. Even if we do not have the fatty delicacy in Turkey, one goose specialty is the dried cured goose from Kars, which is usually reconstituted and roasted. One holiday dinner option is available for this specialty: The Osmani Restaurant in İstinye Park has just started the goose dishes days, and can cater a whole roasted stuffed goose to your home as well. Just call 0212 345 56 00 to order.

Cork of the Week: In Turkey, mulled wine is often badly made, never with the right spices, often disturbingly sweet, and usually ending up as a boiled wine “hoşaf.” However, one surprisingly nice and delicately sweetened wine was at the bar of Morini in Zorlu Center, Istanbul. Good to have at hand, especially if you hang out in the open air in front of the restaurant.

Tour of the Year: My best trip this year was the last. The Christmas markets tour to Alsace was also a gourmet tour, with each eating venue carefully chosen, including two restaurants with a Michelin star each in Strasbourg and Colmar; and a visit to the wine fraternity organization Confrérerie Saint Étienne in Kientzheim, not to mention the sweet delights in the market and the haunting smell of Vin Chaud in the air. Wine expert Murat Yankı, who happens to own the lovely hotel Şıra, in Cappadocia, is the ultimate tour guide; and the tour was meticulously designed by Fikret & Martine Atalay of Koptur. Their tours are not to be missed, either in Turkey or abroad. Visit Koptur or Dunyanın Renkleri.