Sugar plums and figgy puddings

Sugar plums and figgy puddings

Turkey is a country bountiful with fruits. From stone fruits such as apricots, cherries, peaches and plums to apples and pears, the varieties are enormous. And of course, there are grapes of all kinds and figs. In fall and winter months pomegranates, quinces, bananas and the citrus fruits adorn the tables. Still, the other fruits do not disappear, they continue to exist, mostly in dried form, or turned into healthy snacks, often with nuts.

Ottoman court kitchens excelled in captivating the essence of fruits and transforming them into the most exquisite preserves, syrups, sherbets and sweet nibbles. The rural Anatolian kitchen also had a great tradition of drying fruits, as well as turning them into sweet nibbles for winter months. Although certain melons and grape bunches can be stored hung in cool places for a long time, drying fruit is a very important practice for keeping the bounty of fruitful seasons for the snowed in days of winter. Considering all the concerns about the climate change and energy saving ways, sun-drying is the most sustainable form of preservation. Today, Turkey holds a very important place in the world market in terms of dry fruits, being the world leader in raisin, dried apricot, and dried fig production. Malatya apricot and Aydın fig are registered on the geographical Indication list in the European Union program. When it is Christmas time, the European festive cates and cookies are often laden with dried fruits from Turkey, and above all sultanas. This particular dried grape is the most popular of all in Turkey, the dried form of the Sultaniye grape, known also as the Sultanina, a pale green seedless variety which dominates the vineyards around İzmir and Manisa. As the same suggests the grape is considered fit for a sultan, super fine with thin skin and sweet as honey, hence the name. Of course, there are countless other grape varieties that are dried, some seedless some with seeds. Raisin types with seeds include the amber colored Besni grape of Adıyaman, and deep dark Horozkarası of Gaziantep and Kilis, and Dimrit grapes of Malatya, sometimes reaching to the size of a prune. The latter is often dried as whole bunches, which make the loveliest Christmas table decoration.

Figs compete with raisins in sweetness, the Aegean Sarılop fig (sari means yellow in Turkish, hence the name given to this blondish variety), is a pale yellow-green, honey-sweet type which is the one most fit for drying. The epicenter for this type of fig is the Aydın province, though it is famous with the name Smyrna, the ancient name for İzmir, as it used to be the port city where it was shipped to the western world. In recent years, dried mountain figs and black figs have also become popular, but when one talks about dried figs in Turkey, it is always that blonde variety. Figs can be dried flat by pressing lightly or as-is, but traditionally they are usually submerged in a bath of hot water infused with thyme to be sterilized in order to prevent mold. The blonde beauty of Aegean Turkey travelled also afar, from that particular variety, the famous Calimyrna type emerged, combining the names of two cities California and Smyrna. The voyage of figs which took place back in late 19th century from the port of İzmir to California is a long story, worth another whole article, but the road to success had not been easy. Most of the first saplings could not survive the long voyage, the ones that made it to the other side of the globe proved to be fruitless. The fruits were formed, but never reached to full maturity, they dropped dead when small and green. They later discovered that the essential fig wasp was missing to pollinate the fruits, and dried figs full with wasp eggs were also exported to imitate the habitat of the Aegean on the other side of the world.

When it comes to apricots, the drying method provides nuances in the final product. There are two main types of dried apricots in the market. If the apricot is as bright and sunny as the sun itself, then it must be treated with Sulphur fume during the drying process. Dark brown apricots are tagged as Günkurusu, which refers to sun-drying. There is also a sour apricot called Yaprak kayısı meaning leaf apricot, which is butterflied and dried cut open. This one is preferred for compotes for its sourish taste. Prune types are also quite diverse. Dried damsons, dried yellow plums, and sour plums are used both as a snack and to make compote. One very famous type is Kastamonu Üryani plum, which is peeled and dried, actually the name implies that it is peeled, as in old Turkish Üryan means naked. This naked one of the most desirable dried plum for compotes and cooking not only for its tart taste, but also its smooth skinless texture.

Considering that any dried fruit was called plum in English once, or the fig in the figgy pudding may have referred to any dried fruit, especially the grapes, it is time to head for the Spice Market and shop for these endless varieties. Stay away from the imported sugared exotic fruits that usually come from India, but go for the truly local naturally dried fruits that reflect the bountiful fruit cornucopia of Anatolia. Last but not least, look for dried white mulberries (Dut Kurusu), one of the most traditional but underrated dried fruits of Turkey, and the latest addition to the scene dried whole persimmons (Trabzon hurması), a true nectar from heaven.

Fork of the Week: Aila Restaurant at the Fairmont Quasar Hotel is elegant and stylish with its great Art-Deco style interior in the most unexpected corner of the city. The kitchen can be seen from the dining room through an open grill where most of the cooking takes place. The hidden power of the kitchen comes from its library of dried flavors, a heaven of flavors in powder form. Named the Spice Library, the cupboard of intriguing spices and house-made dried fruit and vegetable powders gets inspiration from the Spice Bazaar. Expect to see the unexpected in your plate, the white powder on your grilled octopus lying on an amazing bed of sour cherry puree might be a salty touch of tangy dried yoghurt powder. The new chef is the young talent Kemal Can Yurttaş, formerly at the celebrated Alancha Restaurant kitchen, his plates reflect his own style, and the Aila tradition which is strong in adding unorthodox twists to traditional tastes. The selection of meze plates is particularly interesting, but above all his hummus with a sweet and savory topping, combining bits of dried fruits, apricots, figs with the salty and spicy Turkish pastrami is exquisite.

turkish cuisine, gastronomy, aylin öney tan,