The Color Purple: Byzantium Flavors

The Color Purple: Byzantium Flavors

The Color Purple: Byzantium Flavors Purple was the color of Byzantium. Tyrian purple is the name given to a crimson dye obtained by some mollusks that was used for the fabric worn by the emperor and senior magistrates in Byzantium. While mollusks gave Byzantium its royal color, those very same mollusks and seafoods like mussels, octopus, and fishes like tuna, mackerel and bonito gave Byzantine cookery its royal taste. This week there is an opportunity in Istanbul to travel back in time to learn about trade and commerce in Byzantium, and peek into the markets of old Constantinople.

The theme of “The Third International Sevgi Gönül Byzantine Studies Symposium” has been chosen as “Trade in Byzantium.” There will be talks by 34 presenters and 14 discussants, covering topics related to merchants, market places, harbors, and shipwrecks. Chair of the scientific advisory board Zeynep Mercangöz states that new studies of ship cargoes such as salt, wood, wine, medicine and ceramics - together with original discoveries and finds - all papers will provide Byzantine studies with new information and a new point of view. The presentations will continue with the papers on reflections of trade of the states of Nicaea and Trebizond in the historical sources, evidence of trade in the harbor towns of Andriake and Olympos in Lycia from excavations, and also harbor towns in Western Anatolia in the navigation charts as well as land routes and caravanserais in general.

In the Middle Ages, Constantinople was located in the center of the trade network from Islamic states to the western Mediterranean, and even to the Black Sea, and was a center of both production and consumption. Byzantine gastronomy surely was developed dependant on the unique location of its capital Constantinople, today’s Istanbul. The Greek fishing colony of Byzantion had already prospered on exports of tuna, mackerel, bonito, anchovies and other fishes and seafood of Black Sea and Bosphorus. Once a year, great shoals of bonito and other fish descend the Bosphorus on their way to the Mediterranean. Fishers of Byzantion developed various ways of curing, salting, dying fish produce to conserve the bounty of the sea, and by the 12th century the Byzantine court already had a taste for luxurious caviar.

The harbors of Istanbul exported not only these fish products but also the salt and wine of the Marmara and Thrace regions. This unique location on the cross roads of commerce from Asia to Europe, and from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, made Byzantine ports the hubs of novelties and exotic tastes from far away lands. Real cinnamon from Ceylan was such an exciting spice and so precious that the privileged few used to carry their own cinnamon in small spice boxes. Spices of the Greek and Roman world like anise, fennel, cumin, caraway, mustard and celery seeds were already abundant, and the cuisine was enriched with rare spices and aromatics that came along with eastern trade routes to the Byzantine world by way of Trebizond, Mosul, Edessa and Alexandria. Along with cinnamon, other rarities included musk, saffron, nutmeg, mace, spikenard and sandalwood. Flowers like roses and violets were used along with spices, and mastic of Chios was a particularly favored flavoring. Sugar was another luxury, though the reign of honey continued. The rich and the royal loved to perfume their wine with flowers and honey and enjoyed confectionary. The increased availability of sugar inspired the confectioner’s inventiveness and fruit preserves of all sorts began to appear. It surely was an exciting twist in the course of culinary history, a drastic change from humble fishermen’s grub to the glamorous imperial table in the lap of luxury. Make your table a Byzantium one this week. Have the color purple on your food and table, and feel the vibe of history in just the right spot, on the shores of Bosphorus.

Bite of the week

Recipe of the Week

Byzantium cuisine was very fond of fragrant spices. Salt was a main export item and rare spices precious imports. The fragrant flavor of roses was also much loved. This spicy fragrant salt-mix will add a touch of Byzantine breeze to any of your dishes, and surely more so on your grilled fish. I get my spices from Ucuzcular Baharat No:51 at the Spice Bazaar. Ask the owners - sister and brother Bilge and Ahmet - about the pink peppercorns and dried rose buds, they also stock artificial musk (the real one is non-existent worldwide) and good quality Iranian saffron.

Put a handful of each dried roses and pink peppercorns into a blender together with a 2-3 cm stick of cinnamon, 2-3 pieces of mace, and a few cloves. Blend roughly, taking care that the mixture remains grainy rather than powdery. Mix with 2 cups of sea-salt. Put the spiced salt in clean mussel shells for a purple Byzantine touch on your table.

Fork of the Week

Byzantine cuisine was all about sea food. They mastered the art of curing, drying, and conserving the bounty of the sea. The legacy of Byzantine still survives in certain delicacies in Istanbul. Both Doğa Balık and Cankurtaran in the Spice Bazaar stock good stuff. At Doğa Balık you can get good botargo, “balık yumurtası” in Turkish, cured, dried grey mullet fish roe sealed in beeswax. They also stock real caviar from the Caspian Sea, but you have to ask for the real stuff, not the fish flavored gelatine beads. At Cankurtaran you can find good quality botargo and also wonderful anchovy paste and fish roe in tubes, and sumptuous lakerda, cured bonito.

Cork of the Week

Byzantines loved their wine with roses. Make your own wine punch with roses, this simple recipe is very feminine and will definitely make you feel like Empress Zoe. For a more masculine kick have some crushed peppercorns and a grating of cinnamon added, you’ll be amazed by the contrast of flavors. Mix in a large serving punch bowl or giant jug, ½ cup of rose syrup, ½ cup of rose water, 1 cup of vanilla flavored vodka, 2 bottles of rosé wine, all well chilled. Add plenty of ice cubes and a handful of unsprayed rose petals for decoration. If you can find, you can also use syrup of violets to give a purplish Byzantine hue.