Muhtar, my mentor and muse

Muhtar, my mentor and muse

Muhtar, my mentor and muse

Muhtar Katırcıoğlu

My memory is hazy; it must have been 1982, or maybe even a year earlier, but I clearly remember the moment we met at the old harbor of Assos, just in front of the wonderful house he had restored near the sea. Reclining on one foot on the ancient stone, he was watching a huge grouper recently caught by fishermen. He looked at me for one moment and asked if I’d like to buy half of the gigantic fish. He said, “It’s just me and my wife; we cannot possibly eat the whole fish, but it would be a shame not to buy it, it looks magnificent.” That night, we had our dinner at Pis Mustafa (literally meaning Dirty Mustafa), the only place where we could have our fish cooked. Grouper is still one of the few fish I really like, and that dinner we had with my father, mother and me, just the three of us, is now stuck in my mind. The rest of the fish was consumed in the beautiful stone house across the harbor, cooked by the late Julia, and happily eaten by her husband Muhtar Katırcıoğlu. That is how simply I met my muse, a man that would play a big role in my future life.

Muhtar Katırcıoğlu was an avid collector of maps, a true enthusiast of food matters, the first and biggest collector of historical menus, and above all, an endless learner. Born in 1928 in Cairo, he studied at Merton College, Oxford University where he met his lifelong soul mate Julia. His background being in Political Science and Agricultural Economics, his real passion was cartography. After his early retirement, he developed his antique charts collection, and for several years he had been the representative of the International Map Collectors in Turkey. He had attended scientific meetings of The History of Cartography Association and several international conferences. In 1999, he organized the “Ottoman Charts” International Conference in Istanbul. His own collection was exhibited by Yapı Kredi Bank and later he published a comprehensive catalog “Images of the Earth.” He also had another passion, almost rivaling his dedication to cartography. He was a keen collector of historical menus; his collection might be the first and biggest of its kind in Turkey. His vast and deep knowledge in gastronomy was unmatched; he never ceased to look for new information, trying to solve mysteries of culinary history.

Actually, it was initially our mutual interest in history that crossed our paths. On the day we met in Assos, I decided to have my master thesis on architectural conservation on the historical quay of Behramkale, Assos. He has given me tremendous help in my historical research, providing historical maps on routes of Albanian travelling stone masons that have built the valonia storehouses on the embankment. I was just a young architecture student, and he was already a retired renowned collector, but he did not skimp on giving his precious time and generously sharing his knowledge. Years and years later, when I called him to discuss how to make Turkish cuisine known more widely, he was more than eager to give a helping hand. It turned out that this was the beginning of a long adventure for me, eventually leaving my career in architectural conservation and becoming a food writer. It was him that introduced me to Slow Food in the late 1990s, as the international jury for the Slow Food Award was being formed. I became a jury member for Turkey together with him, and we had our first amazing journey to the deep woods of the Black Sea to find about our nomination for the award, a bee-keeper from Hemşin, Veli Gülas. Our hero bee-keeper won the Premio Slow Food, and made his first and only travel abroad to receive his award. Julia was always together with us, she practically devoted all her time from Turkey to Torino, just to help her beloved Muhtar. Their dedication and devotion as a couple was inspiring, his energy and eagerness to find out everything about food and its history was contagious. He was always ready to go; he never missed a chance to travel far away to remote villages, only to taste one single humble peasant dish. I felt exactly the same way, so I did just like Muhtar Katırcıoğlu; I tried my best to learn more about culinary culture and ended up writing about food, now exactly a decade ago. He became my foremost reader, usually ringing up at exactly 09:30 am on Sunday mornings to comment on my weekly article.

It is hard to believe he passed away already a month ago, on 29th December, on a Sunday, the very same day I thanked him in Cumhuriyet, on the occasion of my 10th anniversary in food writing. This time, the telephone rang at exactly the same time, but this time it was his daughter Nimet. She told me she heard about my article, did not have a chance to see it yet, but unfortunately her father had passed away before dawn earlier that day.

“Muhtar” means “chosen” in Arabic, and refers to the elected head of a village or neighborhood in Turkey, also used as a nickname for a person who knows all. Muhtar Katırcoğlu surely deserved that epithet; he was a chosen man and knew all.

It was he who opened a door for me in pursuing my passion and becoming a self-attained food researcher. Just like him, my quest to look for more knowledge will never end, as well as my wish to travel afar to see, taste and understand food and people. Rest in Peace my mentor, Mr. Muhtar!