Mahlep, the hidden taste of Easter
Easter smells different in Turkey. The symbol might be colorful eggs, and it is true that molded chocolates in egg and bunny forms invade pastry windows, but there is a particular aroma of the Easter days that attracts people like a magnet. That particular aroma is hidden in Paskalya Çöreği, aka Easter bread. The braided Easter cake is so loved that some pastry shops make it yearlong, but it is the Easter time when aromas linger long in the streets, along with queues in front of certain patisseries famed for their braided beauty. The unique smell is of a particular ingredient called mahlep (mahaleb in English), an essential ingredient of the yeasty slightly sweet bread which is enjoyed not all year round by Christians and non-Christians alike.
Interestingly, this much-popular bread is still called Paskalya (Easter in Turkish) even in other times than Easter, but also under the name of Pandispanya. This latter name actually has a Ladino origin with an Italian twist. Ladino, the language of Sephardic Jews has numerous words from other languages including Italian, and Pan di Spagna means nothing else than Spanish Bread. Things get more complicated here, the Jewish connection might be because of its resemblance to Challah breads, braided in the same way, and thus attributed to the Jewish community, but of course, it was not meant for Pesah. That said, the world of braided breads is huge, but the essence of this particular one is not its form, but of its particular flavor which is unique to Anatolia. The botanical name of the wild-growing Prunus mahaleb is the wild cherry tree in its most primal form, and the source of this special aroma is the miniscule kernels inside the wild cherry pits. It is usually paired with “Sakız” or “Mastica” the resin drops from a variety of wild pistachio tree. Cherries are not the most aromatic of fruits, they are cherished more for their sweet taste with a tang, but not strong in the smell part. Still, there is something called a cherry flavor, and this comes from this tiny kernel.
Resembling an almond from a doll-house kitchen, these tiny kernels are ground to a spice which is called “mahlep” in Turkish. Being almonds of a wild cheery, the spice bears a faintly smell of Kirsch, or resembles the taste of bitter almonds, but in a much more subtle understated way. This subtlety makes it even more intriguing, wherever it is used, there is a haunting smell that captures people. Mahlep is also the key ingredient of “Kandil Simidi,” the much-popular ring-shaped savory simit variety specially made for the five holy nights in the Islamic calendar. These Kandil nights (Kandil same with Candle, aka Candela) are never without this special taste.
The use of mahlep is not confined to these festive occasions. In daily usage, mahlep is added to many sweet and savory baked goods, whether for festive breads and cookies, or anything for the teatime. Wildly available in powder form like vanillin, it is at hand in most Turkish kitchens, for example it is reached out when making “poğaça” the ubiquitous baked savory treat popular from breakfast to office breaks, to teatime gatherings and even sold on street carts. “Çörek,” a term applied to a range of baked goods, from cookie-like forms to sweet rolls and breads, also frequently features a generous dose of mahlep. Many regional Ramadan specialties also make use of it. These typically bear the name of particular cities, such as Diyarbakır çöreği or Mardin çöreği. These çörek varieties are also made for a number of holidays, including Christmas, Easter and Ramadan, a proof of mahlep’s wide-ranging appeal, which transcends national, religious and class divides. Some flat versions without yeast can also appear as “Hamursuz,” a term meaning without dough, in this case referring to yeast rising. Though the term is used for Pesah breads, they still appear as regional specialties, without the Pesah connection regardless of calendar, available yearlong. And there are other, less well-known applications for mahlep. For example, when added to buttery rice pilaf, it gives an amazingly sophisticated taste to the dish. One last mention deservedly goes to Mahlep, a uniquely tasting Aperitivo, created by the late Vasfı Diren, a native of Tokat province. Tokat is known for its formidable vineyards, and it was the brilliant idea of Diren who was determined to create a vermouth with an Anatolian twist, using Anatolian botanicals, then he suddenly had the wild idea of using the wild cherries of the region. Afterall, it was the taste that united all, and the mahaleb tree was almost like the native tree of Tokat. Rightly so, the wine aperativo proved to be the choice of even Bayram celebrations in many houses instead of the traditional liquors served along Turkish coffee and Turkish delight. Mahlep is surely the unseen magical bond, a secret weapon to bring together Muslim, Jewish and Christian festive tastes.