Sweeter than honey

Sweeter than honey

Aylin Öney Tan - aylinoneytan@yahoo.com
Sweeter than honey Once upon a time, the town of Melita was famous for its legendary fruit orchards. Even the name of Melita sounds delicious. This is the old name for Malatya, the unrivaled capital of apricots in Turkey, and the world in a way. The city produces 90 percent of all dried apricots exported from Turkey, which sums up to almost 80,000 tons worth $290.7 million. Every single dried apricot sold in Europe is probably from this city. Having worldwide recognition, the honey-sweet apricot of Malatya is already famous; hopefully it will be more so, after having earned the EU geographical indication recognition after a long wait of three years.

The name of Melita is said to have been derived from the Hittite word melit or milit meaning honey. The Hittite period Melita was known for its lush gardens laden with fruits; another suggestion to the meaning of its name is believed to be a fruit garden. The 17th century Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi describes the city having a pleasant climate with fresh air and plenty of delectable water sources and home to wonderful vineyards and fruit gardens bearing the sweetest fruits. He emphasizes cherries, apricots and grapes and mentions a variety of crops from grains to legumes, counting 7,800 vineyards and 600 fruit and vegetable gardens. Evliya Çelebi also points to the manna from heaven, a gift of God from the sky, a honey-like substance collected from oak shrubs. Manna is not obviously “raining” from the sky above, but it is a resinous sugary formation that forms through a relation of insects and plants, and in that sense it may still be considered a miracle from God. Actually, the name of the town related to honey may have been derived from this miracle sweet substance that appears overnight on oak leaves, but nowadays there is a rightful tendency to relate it with the honey-like taste of its apricots. Apparently, the long valley of Malatya is so bountiful with its ideal soil, air and water sources that its fruits outburst with taste of honey. 

The apricot was not just any fruit in Ottoman cuisine. It was used in savory dishes, especially in stews with lamb meat. One of the first mentions of an apricot dish is mishmishiya coming from the word mishmish, one of the names for apricot in Arabic. The recipe dates back to the 13th century, first written in a cookbook titled “al-Baghdadi,” one of the primary sources in early medieval Arabic cuisine. The revised and expanded Ottoman version of the book later appeared in the 15th century, this time penned by Shirvani, again featuring the recipe. The fruit is still lovingly called mishmish in Malatya, where the lands surrounding the town is colored bright orange with apricots drying under the strong sun. One of the reasons for drying apricots is its life as fresh fruit is so short; once picked it is perfect, but almost in a day it goes mealy and mushy. If picked under ripe, it lasts longer but lacks the full-honeyed aroma. The Arabic proverb “fil mishmish,” which translates roughly as “tomorrow, when apricots are at their prime,” is in a way the equivalent of “when pigs fly.” Once you miss the ideal time to pick an apricot, you probably have to wait another season to have your chance. These are the last days of the apricot season. Let’s not miss this chance and enjoy its heavenly, honey aroma, before it becomes “fil mishmish!”

Bite of the Week

Recipe of the Week: When apricots are abundant it will be good to have some of its delightful, sunny taste preserved for the winter. While apricot jam or preserves seem to be the first to come to mind, a denser, more concentrated version with less sugar is my choice. This apricot paste is a classic, either as a breakfast spread, or as an accompaniment to the cheese board, or even better for teatime together with a rich, buffalo milk clotted cream, or in a tart filling. Wash and stone about 3 kg apricots, put them in a big preserving pan, add a cup of water just to start steaming, and put on a very slow fire with the lid on at the start, until the fruit softens and breaks into a pulp. Add 500 g sugar, stir and let simmer for another hour or so; this time with the lid open and stirring occasionally. Towards the end of the cooking time, add the juice of half a lemon, and watch not to let it stick to the bottom of the pan, taking to stir the paste occasionally. The result has to be thick, put into sterilized jars when still hot. This sunny apricot paste will still be as sweet as honey despite the limited sugar content.

Fork of the Week: One good source of guaranteed Geographical Indication labeled Malatya apricots is Metro Cash & Carry markets. They have been supportive about the GI label products in Turkey from the very start, and had been instrumental in getting the EU label together with the Malatya Chamber of Commerce.  “With the registration, Malatya’s apricots will be sold in European markets with an official EU geographical indication logo. This will protect it from fake products. We are getting our produce from the Karacaköy cooperative of 100 active producers, supporting sustainable agriculture,” says Kubilay Özerdem, director of Metro Group in Turkey.

Cork of the Week: Another way to preserve the taste of apricots is to let them steep in brandy, just fill a jar with sun-dried apricots, fill with a brandy of your choice, add a few kernels of crushed bitter almonds or mahaleb, and forget the jar in a dark corner of a cupboard. It will be like a gift from heaven in Christmas or New Year, with its fruits perfectly fit for a boozy fruitcake.