The snow man cometh

The snow man cometh

The snow man cometh Ice is a symbol of mankind’s age-old passion to challenge the climate. Harvesting coolness from winter to refresh oneself on hot summer days was itself a challenge and strenuous work. The recent ALS awareness campaign “Ice Bucket Challenge” may have hit that nerve in people, their craze about ice.

The obsession about coolness and addiction to ice is an old one in this region. Snow and ice has always been harvested since ancient times from the mighty mountains of Anatolia, and the snow harvest became an organized profession in Ottoman times, institutionalized under the administration of the Karhane-i Amire, which can be translated as the Royal Snow Authority. After all, the amazing Ottoman sherbets could only be enjoyed very, very cold. 

Istanbul had several sources for snow supply. The hills of Gemlik, mostly Katırlı Dağı, used to be the regular source. It was also known that when it snowed in Istanbul the cleanest new snow was hastily shoveled into snow wells. Snow gatherers were called karcı, the snow dealer or snowman. It was a long journey to Istanbul; the snow gathered in early spring from the hills south of the Marmara Sea was brought to the port of Mudanya to be stored in ice-houses ready to be transported to the capital as soon as possible. The transport was always realized at nighttime, ready to be delivered to the house of the elite or to the markets early in the day. Carriers would keep on the shady side of the streets so as not to waste the precious ice. Once at home, snow was stored in the cool basement or cellar, covered with straw, branches, hay, sackcloth or best of all, with thick sheets of felt. In this way it would keep for months, and when necessary it would be carved in chunks to cool beverages and food.
This was also true for rural Anatolia. In the Aegean and Mediterranean regions the archaic ice cream karsambaç is still a regional favorite in local bazaars. Snow from the mountains or shaved ice is flavored with fruit sherbets, usually with deep purple mulberry syrup, to be enjoyed in a small cup eaten with a spoon. This is the living proof of the origins of sorbet, or the first practices of sherbet. It is actually a kind of ancient slush.

One of the most thorough information on the history of ice and sherbets comes from the delightful book “Sherbet & Spice,” by Mary Işın. There is a good section on history of ice, ice cream and cold beverages and Mary gives detailed accounts from travelers, who were all astonished to see the abundance of snow and ice used in Ottoman kitchens during the hot summer months. Bizarrely, the millennia-old practice of keeping ice was somehow forgotten in medieval Europe. It was re-introduced to Europe via the Ottomans in the 16th century. French botanist Pierre Belon, who had been in Turkey between 1546 and 1551, gives a detailed depiction of icehouses and suggests that the practice be introduced to France. He also wrote fondly of sherbets made from fragrant and colorful fruits and said: “The sherbet-maker mixes snow or ice with them, to cool them: for otherwise there would be no pleasure in drinking them.”

Similarly, German physician and botanist Dr. Leonhart Rauwolff, who travelled in Syria and southeastern Turkey between the years 1573 and 1576, gave descriptions of chilled sherbets and baskets of snow sold in bazaars that made one’s teeth chatter.

According to the culinary historian Dr. Özge Samancı, the cleanest and whitest snow was supplied to the royal court from Horminium Mountain, now in Tessaly, Greece. The purest ice was cut from the lakes of Uludağ, ancient Mount Olympos, in Bursa. The elite used special glass-blown flasks called karlık, which had an ice-pocket to put the ice lump to cool the beverage without diluting it. This also prevented probable contamination from ice that was kept for a long period of time.

There were also charities founded to provide free snow to all during the hot summer months and to cool the potable water in the fountains. It was an outstanding fact that snow gatherers and suppliers were exempt from tax. Obviously it was not only a luxury for the Ottomans to have ice, but it was considered a necessity and a right for all to enjoy!

Bite of the week

Recipe of the Week: Black mulberries are just in season to make the most delightful deep purple mulberry sorbet. Mix two parts mulberry with one part sugar in a glass bowl or big jar and cover. Leave overnight, but mix or shake a few times to extract the juice as much as possible. The mixture can be kept a few days in the fridge. Strain through a muslin cloth to collect the clear syrup. You can use the pulp to make a jam, or puree to further use it in desserts, or ice cream. Place heaps of shaved ice, or finely crushed ice in stemmed goblets. Pour the mulberry syrup over and serve with a thick straw and a spoon. For an extra challenge you can add a jigger of vodka!

Cork of the Week: The best way to enjoy an ice cube is with vodka. My new favorite, Ketel One, is as pure, steely and glacial as ice. In July when I had the opportunity to meet Bob Nolet, the 11th generation in the family with a long tradition of distilling in the Netherlands, I was amazed by their keenness to perfection and precision. Their passion is reflected in Ketel One, which gets its name from the copper kettle in which it is distilled. Both smooth and silky and fresh and crispy, Ketel One is best enjoyed with an oversized crystal-clear big cube of ice, with maybe a twist of citrus!