Save The Lettuce!

Save The Lettuce!

Early in the morning I received a phone call from Andrew Finkel. It was sad news, and Andrew seemed to be very concerned. It is always awkward to receive bad news from one’s country when you’re away from your homeland. I’m currently at the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, and strangely enough the disturbing news I received from Andrew was related to my two fields of profession: 1) The preservation of historic monuments; 2) Food culture and culinary history.

The news was about the ongoing destruction of Yedikule Bostanları, the orchards along the walls of the Istanbul Citadel. These orchards have been cultivated uninterruptedly since Byzantine times, supplying the city of Istanbul with fresh salad greens and vegetables. In a way, the orchards are actually older than Istanbul, dating from a period when the city was still called Constantinople. The destruction comes as a part of a new, so-called restoration project being implemented by the municipality.

UNESCO conventions insist not just on the protection of ancient buildings and landscapes, but also what is called “intangible cultural heritage” – a way of life and a relationship of people to their environment. The land in front the walls is part of the historic landscape and the agricultural activity carried along this land must be regarded as intangible cultural heritage. It is of utmost importance to preserve the walls not only as a historic monument, but also together with their natural environment and cultural context. If the landscape along the walls cannot be maintained as orchards, but rather converted into a cafeteria next to a meaningless new park, centuries of cultural heritage connected to it will be totally lost. The market gardens beside the land walls at Yedikule represent a continuous link to the early Byzantine period. In 2004-2005, the Byzantine architectural historian Alessandra Ricci conducted a school project in the area. In her words:

“The project focused on an awareness building program about the city’s cultural heritage with special interest on the tangible and intangible heritage of the metropolis. We focused on the stretch of the Land Walls comprised between Yedikule and Belgrat Kapı. There, the survival of orchards is still apparent. They are squeezed into the Land Walls’ moat – a moist environment favorable for cultivation - and are now mostly raised by modern ‘restoration’ works’ outer and inner terrace.”

She discovered that the unusual mix of crops under irrigation (and the more common mix of crops not being cultivated) corresponded almost exactly to a description of what was under cultivation in a 6th century Byzantine text known as Geopontica. “Our survey indicated a near absence of legumes, eggplants and millet contrasted by an intense cultivation of onions, cabbage, carrots, parsley and collars.”

Her conclusion - and mine too - is that the practice of cultivation along the Byzantine land walls is “a social practice with deep historical roots” - an intrinsic part of Istanbul’s intangible heritage that is protected under UNESCO convention. It is a tradition that has been handed down through countless generations. The destruction of this example of urbanite living in tandem with nature is not something that can be contemplated. It is an act of cultural vandalism as great as the cutting down of trees in Taksim Square.

Recipe of the Week: Yedikule Bostanları has always been famous for its Romaine lettuce. Probably the best recipe made with lettuce must be the Caesar Salad. Some people like to think that it is named after the legendary Roman Emperor, maybe because it is made with Romaine lettuce. However, the salad’s creation is attributed to restaurateur Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant who operated restaurants in Mexico and the United States. It is said that he invented the dish when a Fourth of July 1924 rush depleted the kitchen’s supplies. Cardini made do with what he had, adding the dramatic flair of the table-side tossing “by the chef.”

Take a whole head of romaine lettuce. Tear the lettuce with your hands, make a dressing of one part lemon juice with two parts of olive oil, an egg yolk, salt and pepper. No anchovies please, the original recipe of Cardini did not have anchovies! Toss the lettuce with the dressing. Add a generous shaving of Parmesan cheese. Serve with garlic croutons, made simply by frying garlic rubbed stale bread slices, cut into cubes and pan fried in olive oil.