Meatball hopping in Thrace
When visiting the Thrace region, there is one dish that appears all the time. In most small villages, it seems to be the only choice. Sometimes it appears in a tiny shed-like shop, or is even sold from a street cart in the middle of nowhere. That one ubiquitous dish is “köfte,” Turkish-style grilled meat patties or meatballs. Some are meatball places more known outside the region, some are like the best-kept secrets of the town. In certain places, there seems to be an inflation of meatball joints. On a recent drive from Tekirdağ to Kırklareli with dear Mustafa Çamlıca, owner of Chamlija winery, we counted at least a dozen meatball places in the Ahmetbey village alone.
For two years, Süleymanpaşa Municipality in Tekirdağ has organized an event on the meatball culture of Thrace. Süleymanpaşa Mayor Ekrem Eşkinat is a true visionary, and although Tekirdağ is associated with the best meatballs, he embraces all of Thrace from Edirne to Tekirdağ, from Kırklareli to Lüleburgaz, inviting renowned masters from around the region. The idea is brilliant, even if you are keen traveler, to drive through the countryside and taste all these meatballs in a single day that is a challenge hard to achieve. To have all in a single plate is simply impossible.
This year, there were seven masters setting up their grills and serving their meatballs side by side. This is thrilling enough for köfte-holics, but what is even more exciting is most of these masters have never seen each other before, or even tasted each other’s famed morsels of meat patties. Obviously, they have their own secrets of trade that they would rather keep for themselves, but at a panel held just before the great meatball challenge, they had to spill out at least some of their untold tricks.
The panel, led by Eşkinat and proudly moderated by myself, had a two-fold layer. One group was the masters; the other group was experts on local animal breeds, geographical appellation and Thracian food culture. The köfte masters gave a brief explanation on their background, how they started the job (most are third or even fourth generation on the trade), which ingredients they put in their meatballs, the type of meat they use, from which animal and which part of the animal etc. Some use veal, some use lamb, some use a mixture of meats, never telling the exact ratio, but apparently they are very specific in choosing their meat. It is amazing all those minor details make a difference.
The second group was academicians. Prof. Dr. İhsan Soysal is a leading expert in Turkey, specializing in native indigenous farm animal breeds of Turkey. He gave an eye opening brief on local animal breeds of Thrace emphasizing the importance of safeguarding their existence and how they are threatened by crossbreeding with imported foreign animal breeds. Actually, my own encounter with him about 10 years ago had been quite hilarious. Right upon meeting, the second sentence he uttered was, “Sorry for my boldness, but if we love these animals we have to eat them!” That was quite straightforward and very accurate indeed. As the law of supply and demand dictates, if we, as customers demand more local varieties, the supply will be sustained. As simple as that!
So, this is the secret of Thracian meatballs. The secret lies in the animals. Grass-fed animals make all the difference; local cattle and sheep breeds give the most flavorful meat coming from wild herbs, especially from several varieties of wild thyme from pastures. Ali Çakır, leader of Slow Food Thrace, told about an old köfte-master who used to go to the butcher every single day at 5:30 in the morning, even before the butcher arrived, to be the first in line and select the best meat parts.
No panel on the taste of locality would be complete without Prof. Dr. Yavuz Tekelioğlu, the first ever defender of Geographical Indication System in Turkey. Now retired, he is still actively working as the founder leader of YÜCİTA, a civil society working on gaining recognition for local foods registering them. He talked about fifteen köfte dishes that received the mark of origin in Turkey, but there are none from Thrace. Interestingly, there is only one sheep breed that was listed with a Geographical Indication mark from Balıkesir and again there are none from Thrace. Now, Bülent Oral from Kırklareli is actively promoting the reputed Trakya Kıvırcık Kuzusu, a Thracian lamb breed, to sustain its farming, and also to receive the much-deserved GI recognition. This type of lamb does not have a fat tail like the other Anatolian breeds, so the fat is dispersed evenly in the body making the meat full of flavor. It was much sought after in the Ottoman palace. Actually, if we are talking about reviving Ottoman recipes, the meat that has to be chosen is this lamb. As Prof. Soysal says, if we love this animal we have to keep eating it. That simple!
Fork of the Week
Here is a list of seven köfte places from around Thrace that were chosen for the event: Köfteci Selim in Sanayi and İki Kardeşler from Tekirdağ; Köfteci Osman from Edirne; Çerkezmüsellim Pabuç Köfte from Hayrabolu; Uzunköprü Köftecisi Mustafa Alsat from Uzunköprü; Küçük Mustafa Köftecisi from Kırklareli and Fazlı Usta from Ahmetbey, Lüleburgaz. This last one does not have a shop, but stands for all köfte makers in town, which as I said there are a dozen of them in a single street. A good selection indeed!
Cork of the Week
Meatballs are traditionally served with ayran, the ubiquitous, salty yogurt drink in Turkey, but apparently red wine makes a good pairing. The meatballs at the event were washed down with award-winning wines from the fourth Thrace Wine Competition that was organized by wine expert Burçak Desombre. I was personally inclined to have Chateau Nuzun reds, all are sublime and unfortunately this year they only submitted their wines in the pre-release category where the wines are rated but not given medals. Shame, because there would be four medals in their bucket: Chateau Nuzun Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, Chateau Nuzun Syrah 2015 both received 91 points worth a gold medal; and Chateau Nuzun Merlot 2016 (87 points) and Chateau Nuzun 2012 (86 points) worth silver. Make a note of them and watch for their release, hopefully soon.