Pistachio passion

Pistachio passion

Aylin Öney Tan - aylinoneytan@yahoo.com
Pistachio passion Green gold they like to call it. It is as precious as gold to them. They are the locals of the southeastern Turkish province of Gaziantep, the folk who are fiercely proud of their cuisine and above all, passionate about their pistachios. Antep people put pistachios in almost everything, from soup to desert, but mostly reserve this tasty treasure for baklava, the ubiquitous signature sweet of the city.

One anecdote, often repeated here, recalls Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s visit to the city. After being served endless pistachio treats and a whole meal with each dish containing pistachios, he was served menengiç coffee, an ersatz coffee made with roasted wild pistachios. Rumor is he politely asked: “I’d like to have a glass of water please and without pistachios if possible!”

Every year there is a zealous pursuit of pistachios in Gaziantep. The early bird wins the treasure in the pistachio market. Many baklava makers start appearing in groves to choose their crop even weeks before the harvest season begins. The leading baklava shops always secure their yearly stock directly from the tree. This year, it has already hit a soaring price of almost 110 Turkish Liras/kilo, almost triple of last year. So the metaphor gold is not a farfetched one, considering the value of a quarter gold dime is near to a kilo of the new crop. One drawback will be it will not be easy to adjust the price of baklava in accordance with the rocket-high cost of the pistachio. It is not only baklava makers, but other buyers compete to buy the best crop for the best price as possible. Chocolate producers, including Ülker (which also owns Godiva), Eti and Nestle, buy a good portion of the total produce.

Usually there is an almost secret, not-much spoken rule of thumb in baklava pricing. The most expensive ingredient in baklava indicates the price of a kilo, regardless of the actual amount of that particular ingredient used. There have been times in the past when sugar was very expensive and then the price of a kilo of baklava was equivalent to the price of a kilo of sugar. The most expensive ingredient practically fixes the price of the whole baklava market. Other ingredients and other costs, such as rent, fuel, labor, craftsmanship etc. are all covered by the market value of the leading ingredient. Nowadays pistachio is the priciest price-fixer. That is why pistachio groves are frequented by baklava makers every end of summer, all trying to get their deal, even before the crop is harvested.

Timing is everything in the pistachio business. If you are not an early bird in buying your pistachio, then it means you’re going to be ruled by the market price often determined by the middlemen. Of course baklava makers always price their baklava in accordance with the market price of the green gold, regardless of the deal they get: The amount in between is pure profit.

There is also another side of being an early bird. Early harvest is the secret to the best pistachio. The ideal baklava pistachio must be early harvest, when it is still shocking green in their brightest pink pods, sweeter and tenderer, with an intense aroma only found when gathered slightly under-ripe. This means more flavor, but also less yield, hence more money. All in all, the tender little gems are as precious to the baklava maker as are emeralds to a jeweler. That is why they secretly tour around pistachio trees these days.  

Pistachio definitely is pure passion for Antep people.  A pricey passion indeed and big business!

Recipe of the Week: Antep style pistachio shortbread is a melt-in-the-mouth delight. Beat 450 g clarified butter with 450 g sugar until white and fluffy. Mix in 600 g flour and 400 g fine semolina. Knead for about 30 min. until the paste is firm enough to shape. Add 350 g finely ground pistachios and knead until evenly blended. Take walnut sized pieces of the paste and form into broad fingers. Arrange on a baking sheet and bake at a low oven of 100 degrees C for 35-40 min., taking care not to overcook so as they do not lose their fresh green color. Remove from the baking sheet when completely cool, otherwise they will crumble.

Bite of the week

Fork of the Week: I’ll not suggest the obvious when it comes to pistachios and stay clear from baklava places. If you need to have only one sweet in Gaziantep, it should be the insanely pistachio laden kadayıf from Erçelebi. The kadayıf pans are slow roasted on charcoal grills and are crisp outside, tender and sweet inside without a single excessive drop of butter or syrup, plus it is dotted with the best kaymak from Kilis. Another pistachio heaven in Gaziantep is Orkide Patisserie. They make the most delicate and refined katmer, and pistachio cookies surpassing any fine macaroons, but the real gem is their pistachio croquant. Out of this world, don’t miss!

Cork of the Week: I still recall the milky green pistachio cocktail at The Shard in London, when I was in there for the World Class 50 bartender competition. I asked the bartender to check the pistachio puree they use in the concoction, unfortunately it was not a Turkish product, but it may have contained Antep pistachios. However, we have an alternative to use from drinks to shakes, from ice creams to macaroons. Samlı produces the finest paste of pistachios, unfortunately impossible to find retail.

Take any fine pistachio paste such as that of Güneydoğu Birlik, or even finely ground raw pistachios, infuse them in your favorite vodka for about a week (mine is Ketel One now). When the vodka has the wild green of the nuts, double strain and use in your cocktails.