Local Heroes Desperate!

Local Heroes Desperate!

AYLİN ÖNEY TAN - aylin.tan@hdn.com.tr
Local Heroes Desperate

DHA Photo

There were three “local heroes” on stage, picked by three food writers and researchers, each with unique stories to tell. The stage was a discussion panel held in the first day of the Gastro Istanbul event as a part of the Turkish Culinary Association Activity Tent. Their stories were all sad, simply sad.
Sad because what they were about to tell us contained no hope for the future!

All three heroes were chosen for their particular story: a watermelon farmer from Diyarbakır, hero of Nilhan Aras, editor of Gastro magazine; an artisanal “helva” maker from Edremit, hero of Tangör Tan, an anthropologist and agriculture engineer; and a cheese defender, a hero of mine.

Zafer Yaşar, the young bureaucrat from Karaman was in dispair. He surely did not feel like that five years ago. Back then he already had successfully completed an EU-funded project titled “My Cheese.”

The project was aiming to achieve sustainable development of Divle cave-aged cheese made in Divle, Üçharman village in Karaman. The cheese is a totally artisanal product made from sheep milk pressed in goat skin sacks aged in the cave near the village developing a bluish mold. It is not creamy like Roquefort but hard like stilton with slightly crumbly texture. I met him at Akdeniz University in Antalya where he presented the project at an international symposium on geographical appellation. Although it was an academic organization he brought along with him two women from the village, both producing cheese, and the village headman. I was impressed and curious. When I asked him why he did so, his answer moved me deeply. He said these women were out of their home village and for the first time seeing a big city like Antalya, first time ever seeing the sea, first time ever staying in a hotel and they will tell other women about their exciting voyage to Antalya, and this happened just because of the wonderful cheese they made. All the other women listening to their story will be keener making this cheese, and it will have a positive effect on the villagers in total. I thought he needed recognition for his project and nominated him as a delegate to the Terra Madre Slow Food gathering in Torino. The same year he went both to Terra Madre in Italy and to Montpellier in France, the latter to study the geographical appellation system. It was the year 2008 and he had a dream. He was going to make the Divle cheese the Roquefort of Turkey. After five years I found him quite pessimistic. They could not get geographical indication, the cheese was “illegal” according to new EU standards applied, no funds were generated to support the production, and the list of obstacles went on, sometimes including tragicomic stories. One was mind-blowingly absurd. The pasture the herds were grazing was under threat of erosion, as the herds were grazed on the very same limited area as they could not go farther away due to lack of shelter and water supply for animals. Lack of watering spots could be overcome if money was available, but even if funds were found shady shelters to protect animals from scorching sun during noon hours were not possible to be built simply because it was illegal to build any kind of construction in pasture land!

All three heroes had bitter stories like that. The helva producer Murteza Helvacıoğlu from Edremit was as sweet as his helva, but what he told us left a bitter aftertaste. He did his best to keep the 400-year-old family tradition going, taught all of his children the art of making helva, but the local sesame and the gypsophila, two essential ingredients for helva making were both under threat, replaced by foreign lower-quality and cheaper ingredients. Likewise the story of huge famous Diyarbakır watermelon was not as sweet as the watermelon itself. Producer Adil Aydın expained all the difficulties of sustaining the much-loved fruit of his city. The local variety is on the verge of extinction because of a series of reasons, one being the Ataturk dam altering the climate and flooding the natural habitat of watermelons, the second of course our ridiculous seed law!

During the following days of Gastro Istanbul there were two successive sessions discussing Italian and Nordic success stories. I’m sure all the audience was green with envy when they heard about the governmental support and huge amounts of money poured into the food sector to promote their cuisine. I was glad our heroes were already back in their hometowns, and did not hear about how local producers were supported in those lucky countries. They would be even sadder if they heard success stories were possible elsewhere.

Bite of the week

Cork of the Week: Our wine heroes of the week are Kavaklıdere and Arcadia. They had a huge success at Sommelier Wine Awards in London. The following are from the British press, we are proud of both companies:

“The real surprise of 2013 comes from “forgotten” wine nations of Europe, such as Turkey, Greece, Slovenia and Lebanon. Spearheaded by producers like Kavaklıdere and Arcadia, these countries gave some of the more established wine regions a run for their money. Turkey took the competition by storm, moving to 10th place (ahead of the U.S. and Germany!) in the medals league table. With no less than 20 medals, including 4 Golds and 4 Silvers, in one fell swoop the country has positioned itself as a place that ought to be on every restaurant’s radar.”

Fork of the Week: A new exciting book is just out, alas in Turkish only. However the good news is that the English is on the way! The Cuisine of Antioch by Hatay Keşif Yayınları includes many wonderful recipes from this magnificent region.