Sweet delights: Grapes and figs

Sweet delights: Grapes and figs

Grapes and figs always belong to August in Turkey. First it is the grapes, then the figs, they signal that the summer has reached its peak, and now autumn is fast approaching. Either fresh green or a mature deep purple, grapes and figs are the ultimate sweet delights of Anatolian landscapes. They are enjoyed fresh but also provide sweet sustenance for coming winter months in dried form. They surely reflect the bounty of August.

Raisins and dried grapes have always been a great trade item of Aegean ports. Being the closest port to Aydın plain where the best figs and grapes grew, the port of İzmir (Smyrna) flourished by the wealth these fruits provided. Sweetest sultanas, amber colored raisins, pressed figs reminiscent of golden disks have been delights of Christmas in the Western world, thanks to the August sun that gives them their extraordinary sweetness. Sultanas are actually the dried Sultaniye grapes, named after the Ottoman Sultan as they were like the king of all grapes, the sweetest of all. Smyrna figs were also world famous. They are not only named after the town, but they also are a different variety belonging to the Aydın plains, which produce the best dried figs. Both Sultanas and Smyrna figs were once the most desirable luxury food items; though not considered as luxurious, they are still very popular.

Smyrna figs have a peculiar lifecycle. In order to reproduce, they need the existence of two things, first another fig species known as caprifig and second an insect known as the fig wasp. In ancient times, people discovered through experience that these figs that we know as Smyrna figs today, would bear fruit only if there is a caprifig tree nearby. Now recognized as caprification, the pollination is achieved by the help of a fig wasp, a tiny fly tat hatches in the caprifig fruit and eventually passes on to the Smyrna figs carrying the pollens on their miniscule bodies. Observing this habit was developed to encourage fertilization; hanging a caprifig branch to the Smyrna fig tree is still widely practiced. The co-existence of these two fig trees and the love of the fig fly for both of them is what gift us with the sweet goodness.

Sultanas were not only meant for European Christmas tables, they were also destined for Ottoman court kitchens. Ottoman history scholar Soraiya Faroqhi points out that vast quantities of raisins were consumed in the court kitchens as early as the 16th century, mostly as a sweetener rather than an ingredient or a sweet snack. Raisinis were the 16th century equivalent of sugar; there were grape mills in Istanbul, to extract the syrupy juice of semi-dried seedless grapes. They are still the most popular table grapes enjoyed fresh, interestingly usually called not Sultaniye, but Izmir üzümü, that is grapes of Smyrna. It seems that the very same grape is called sultana in the English-speaking world when dried, simply kuru üzüm in Turkey, literally dried grape. When applied to wine, the majestic Sultaniye name is preffered, and when it ends up in a humble summer table, they are either called çekirdeksiz üzüm, which is seedless grapes, or sometimes İzmir grapes. Too many names for one grape, but that fits well, as its sweetness is multiple times greater than most other grapes.

The month of August is the spiritual opening of the grape season. August 6 is the Hristos Day of Greeks, which is the first day when grapes are blessed and eaten. Armenians wait a week longer to bless the grape: the day for honoring the grape is 15th of August on the Surp Asdvadzadzin Day. A common saying in Turkey is that August is half summer, half winter. Another belief is that when figs are fully ripe, it is a sign that the winter is soon to approach. Well, we have witnessed that on Saturday, Istanbul received a disastrous rainfall equaling that of a whole winter season: maybe it was a sign, telling us to eat your grapes and figs before it is too late. They are in their prime time!