Sweet memories, bitter moment
There is something in coffee that bonds people. There can be no other explanation that coffee traveled the world, conquering every single place it landed. Despite its bitterness, the alluring smell and atmosphere it creates captivates people, captures the moment, and sometimes creates the sweetest memories. But now it is a bitter moment for me to write about the passing of the most wonderful lady Ülkü Kahraman Houssein, with whom I had the sweetest memories of coffee. She was the secret hero of Turkish coffee, in quest for spreading it to the world. Like coffee, her allure was captivating, her vivacious smile contagious.
I knew her from gastronomy circles in Istanbul, we often met on occasions, drinking coffee of course, and as she was the representative of Caffè Vergnano 1882 in Türkiye, our conversation usually pivoted around coffee. But it was in Italy when I realized her importance for Turkish coffee, when coincidentally I met with Carolina Vergnano from the company, up on snowy slopes of Sestiere mountains, and there Carolina announced that soon they will be launching their own Turkish coffee. Exactly that moment, I realized that it must have been Ülkü, that persuaded a major Italian company to have a totally new product in line, a courageous attempt in a country of espresso aficionados. But strangely it was just the right attempt, coffee was introduced to the Western world by the hands of Ottomans, and the very first spot in Europe outside Ottoman boundaries was in Italy, it must have been somewhere near Grand Canal in Venice, most probably in the quay of Fondaco dei Turchi, the inn for Turkish merchants.
I wrote about the whole story in my article dated Dec. 26, 2016. As a reminder, after getting the exciting news from Carolina, I called Ülkü in Istanbul, only to learn how amazing her story is and how it all began and ended. Upon answering the phone, she did not wait for me to utter even a word, and asked: “It must have been you who was in Italy? Carolina told me that she met a Turkish food writer journalist, I said it must be Aylin!” It was true that a foreign brand, an Italian was about to produce Turkish coffee, and not only to be sold in the Turkish market alone but also targeting the international world market. And the whole thing started with a joke, Osman Serim, one of the founders of the Turkish Coffee Association, that continuously teased Ülkü to push Vergnano to initiate their Turkish line. Ülkü took it seriously, very seriously indeed. Carolina was a dedicated espresso drinker, having exactly 11 shots a day, starting at 6:30 a.m. in the morning. It would be almost impossible to convert her to the idea of the muddy sedimented Turkish one. But to Ülkü’s surprise, father Vergnano was very fond of Turkish coffee, and was making his own several times a day. So, he welcomed the idea, and the search for the right taste combination to fit both the Turkish, Italian and international palates began.
But where to start? When coffee first arrived in Venice, it probably had a different taste, it was not of Brazil as most of today’s Turkish brands are, but coffee is 100 percent Arabica from Ethiopia. Turkish coffee is both a method of brewing coffee and also the type of coffee, it must be 100 percent medium slow roast Arabica, very finely grounded to an almost powdery stage. During the Ottoman period, coffee came from Yemen. Its origin was Ethiopia. The Ottomans discovered coffee following the conquest of Yemen in 1517. According to 17th-century historian Peçevi, the first coffeehouse in Istanbul was opened in 1554. By 1582, the fame of coffee had spread across Europe. Venetian Ambassador to Istanbul Francesco Morosini reported that Turks drink “Acqua Nera,” literally “Black Water,” a black and hot liquid, and that they gather several times a day for this accompanied by a heated conversation. Soon the smell of coffee bewitched Venetians, making the city famous for its dark seductive beverage with the first coffee houses booming around the 1640s. Here, I must stress again that there is a false story that coffee was introduced to the Western world when Turks left behind sacks of coffee after the unsuccessful Second Siege of Vienna in 1683. That is fakelore, somehow a favorite fake history repeatedly told by tourist guides, on the contrary, it was Venice, who had strong commercial ties with Istanbul, with Ottoman merchants having their place reserved for their accommodation near Rialto bridge, Fondaco dei Turchi. So, it was almost a century earlier that Venetians encountered the aroma of coffee, and from there it spread to other places in Europe, and even brought to the New World by Captain John Smith as early as 1607, and the first coffee house in Boston opening in 1670, way before the falsely famed coffee sacks of the siege of Vienna.
Though the Ottomans were instrumental in spreading the taste of coffee, they were not as good at holding the trade in their hands. There was a shift of trade by the establishment of coffee plantations in afar lands. It was in 1616 that Pieter Van Der Broecke, a Dutch merchant, bought coffee saplings in the port of Mocha in Yemen, and brought them to Amsterdam, and then by 1658, coffee plants grown in the nurseries of Amsterdam were sent to the Far East to create coffee plantations, first in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and later in Java and Sumatra. In 1718, the coffee plant was taken to Surinam by the Dutch, from where it spread to Central and South America. Then there were the French who brought the plant to Martinique in the French Caribbean. By 1727 the first coffee plantations in Brazil were established. This was not only the shift in trade but the shift in taste. The taste of coffee was way different in faraway lands, and the New World coffee even reached Ottoman lands, and became popular in Anatolia as early as the 1730s. Grown in Dutch and French colonies, these western coffees reached as far as Erzurum in East Anatolia by 1739. Eventually instead of Ethiopian origin beans, Rio Minas Arabica beans form Brazil started to dominate even the Turkish market.
Aware of this shift in trade and taste, Ülkü and Carolina started the quest for finding the original taste. Ülkü gathered samples from brands available in the Turkish market, sent them to Torino, where they did several tastings and started to experiment to come up with the right combination. They first tried a four-bean blend, which is quite unusual for Turkish coffee. The first trial blend was a mix of Brazil, Guatemala, Colombia and Ethiopia. The first batch that arrived in Istanbul was very good, but it was not yet totally Turkish, and it was simply not ground fine enough to be considered as Turkish coffee. Ülkü requested the beans whole, and had them ground to the right fineness, almost like powder. The grinding machines in Torino were adjusted accordingly, and to ensure the right cooking method, Ülkü also had an Okka Turkish coffee machine by Arzum shipped to Italy for the tastings. The next step was the tastings in Türkiye. Ülkü distributed the first samples to several friends and coffee aficionados she knew, noted all the tasting notes, and conveyed the comments to Torino. This taste exchange between Torino and Istanbul continued until the coffee was almost ready to be marketed, but Carlo Vergnano, uncle of Carolina, was not totally convinced. There was something lacking. Finally, he nailed it and added a minor trace amount of Rio Minas, which has become associated with the taste of Turkish coffee due to the course of taste change in history. Now the boxes were ready to be marketed. But Ülkü was not totally happy, the boxes did not appear as Turkish at all. Every package of the company was traditionally black, and it just did not seem right, so she took a daring step and suggested a Turkish turquoise color for the packaging. The idea was welcomed by the family, the design was a stylized Seljuk tile pattern, with its turquoise face, it was bright and cheerful, just as Ülkü herself. Ülkü’s surname Kahraman means “Hero” in Turkish. She had been the heroine of Turkish coffee, she was like a cloud of positive energy, her vivacious personality and bright smile will always be remembered with every sip of coffee by all who had the chance to have known her.