One at the market, a thousand at home
Pomegranate has been regarded as a symbol of fertility and abundance by almost all the cultures that existed in Anatolia, Western Asia and the Middle East. It is surely the most attractive fruit once it is burst open when countless jewel-like seeds inevitably remind one of a treasure chest full of precious gems. The Turkish expression “One at the market, a thousand at home” signifies the local trust of its stand for prosperity.
Pomegranate has always been depicted in stone reliefs, sculptures, tiles, wall paintings, kilims and carpets, miniatures, and all sorts of artifacts throughout the history of Anatolia as a talisman for plenty. Every single archaeological site in the country has pomegranate carvings along with grape bunches and wheat stalks representing the bounty of the land, but one particular site stands out in owning the prosperous fruit: The town of Side, whose name also meant pomegranate in ancient times, having the fruit as the symbol of the city minted in its coins.
Pomegranate grows in all regions of Turkey, but it is particularly much valued as a vital ingredient in the regional cuisines of southeastern provinces and districts such as Şanlıurfa, Gaziantep and Antakya where it is turned into its most concentrated form, “nar ekşisi,” known as pomegranate extract, sour or molasses. Pomegranate extract is now becoming quite popular worldwide as the new trendy ingredient, especially with the growing interest in Middle Eastern cuisines. Traditionally pomegranate extract is made in huge cauldrons by boiling the pressed juice of the fruit until it is reduced to a thick syrup. Depending on the variety of the fruit, the extract can be very sour or, on the contrary, quite sweet, usually having a bitter tartness from the tannins in the skins.
However, this precious ingredient is also prone to fraud. Many bottles in the market may contain adulterated concoctions of glucose syrup, citric acid and colorants, which do not have even a drop of real pomegranate juice. They are usually cleverly labeled as pomegranate sauce, or pomegranate-based extract, or similar, but it is doubtful that the contents of the bottle have the fruit. It is hard to produce large amounts of pomegranate extract in the traditional method, but the demand is increasing with the growing interest in local regional ingredients, so fake products start popping up in the market. That is one trap that consumers have to be aware of. But then there is another dangerous zone, the traditional so-called homemade unlabeled bottles. They seem to be a safe bet, but then even if the pomegranate extract is made of pure 100 percent fruit juice, the product can have alarming levels of HMF, hydroxyl-methyl-furfural, an organic compound formed by the dehydration of sugars in the juice, which is regarded as potentially carcinogenic. Pomegranate extract is used in small amounts in cooking, most recipes call a mere dessert spoon or a tablespoon, but even if the possible harm of HMF is considered negligible, it imparts a burnt unpleasant aroma to the product which masks the clear taste of the fruit.
According to connoisseurs, the best pomegranate extract is made not by boiling on fire, but reducing the juice under the sun, pretty much like drying fruits, peppers or tomatoes. This way the aromas of the fruit are better maintained and do not alter adversely the taste of the dish. Some claim that it is also time to start talking about the variety of pomegranate, some fruits are extremely sour and some are too sweet. The right balance can only be achieved by making a “coupage” of different varieties, just like in wine-making. New technology helps to have flawless products by using methods as reduction under vacuum conditions enabling to keep HMF levels as low as possible and having high brix values, which translates as more concentrated flavor. It seems that the much-loved pomegranate might have a bright future with a new approach in making the traditional product with modern technology.
Fork of the Week: Punica is the right product that is the answer to all written above, actually it might be the only right one available in the market. They label their pomegranate extract “Only Pomegranate” and might be the best of the world. Last week I brought a little bottle of it to Guggenheim Bilbao Museum’s 2-Michelin-starred restaurant Nerua as a small gift. It was the new harvest season bursting with fruit aromas, fresh and juicy, a blast of fruit in your mouth, like the old saying “one-drop in the spoon, and a thousand drops in your mouth.” Famed chef Josean Alija’s claim was it would make a wonderful ice-cream base. I hope he tries one in the near future.
Cork of the Week: Thracian wines rock! That was the first verdict of me when I saw the list of Master Class tasting on the first day. Out of 54 bottles 13 wines were chosen in the blind-tasting to be judged in the Master Class by master sommeliers İsa Bal and Matt Wilkin, and out of this best 13, one was foreign and among the 12 Turkish ones, nine were from Thrace and Marmara region wineries. Better to watch this area in the future.
Object of the Week: Nude glasses brought the recent Sommelier selection to the highest level possible. Even their mid-range glasses are amazing, but Stem Zero series glasses are pure finesse. With fine glasses as such I have double feelings, though I enjoy sipping my wine in such delicate design, I become nervous with the fear of breaking them. Stem Zero overcame this problem with ion shielding technology developed by the company which makes the glasses shock-resistance to wine-enjoying hazards.