Land of fairy chimneys

Land of fairy chimneys

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
12 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740669276
Photographer
Lisa Cohen and William Meppem

We flew into central Anatolia, Turkey’s rural heartland, on a bright clear morning. The plane from Istanbul had taken us over a wilderness of craggy mountains, darkly hidden lakes and a vast, icy plateau. Gazing down, it was easy to imagine that grey wolves still roamed the rugged landscape. Easy, too, to picture the rampaging hordes of Turkic warriors, who rode into Anatolia a thousand years ago from their own windswept steppe-lands further east.

And now we were making our descent into Kayseri, an ancient trading city situated almost slap-bang in the middle of Turkey. Leaving the city’s charms for another day, we jumped into a hire car and sped off towards our destination: the famously strange and twisted topography of Cappadocia.

The forty-minute drive took us through remote, dun-coloured plains, dotted here and there with little huddles of black-eared goats. Above us the sky was a brilliant blue and in the distance the snow-capped peak of Mount Erciyes was clearly visible. It was called the White Mountain by the Hittites, who occupied the region from 1800–1200 BC, and the rose-pink ash from this still-active volcano formed the region’s fantastical rock formations.

As we sped further on, the bare broad landscape began to change, erupting into folds and furrows, winding hills and plunging valleys. The fertile volcanic earth was a deep cocoa brown and in the shadows small patches of ice still clung to the ground. In summer this region is transformed into a lush market garden, but now, in the early spring, the land was bleak and bare. Small tidy fields were as yet uncropped with wheat, potatoes and pumpkins. Gnarled black vines striped the hillsides, and little orchards of fruit trees were spiky against the blue sky, but in the summer their branches would be laden with cherries, peaches and plums.

Our first stop was in the village of Ürgüp, to check into our tiny hotel, the Sacred House. It had been lovingly created in a refurbished medieval mansion, and, like other dwellings in the area, many of the rooms were carved deep into the soft volcanic rock. All were delightfully decorated with antique furniture, textiles and knick-knacks; it was all we could do to drag ourselves away from the sun-splashed courtyard and welcoming glasses of homemade cherry wine – but we still had fairy chimneys and cave churches to explore before bedtime.

‘Fairy chimneys’, we agreed, is a coy euphemism for what must surely be the gods’ idea of a dirty joke. Formed by centuries of erosion of the soft volcanic tuff, these knobbed pillars burst priapically from the corrugated hillsides and deep ravines. But as we hurtled through the eccentric-looking countryside the snigger factor quickly subsided. We wound down the car windows and gazed out at the play of light across the cliffs and curves. What seemed from a distance to be uniformly dull grey rock was, close up, a riot of soft pinks, chestnut browns and mustard-yellow striations. In places, the foreground flattened out before a vast Wild West backdrop. Around another corner we plunged back into a mad profusion of cones, turrets and valleys, where pigeons swooped around myriad carved dovecotes.

The highlight of Cappadocia is near Göreme, where settlements of early Christians hid in the hillsides, hollowing a cluster of thirty or more monastic cells and chapels, bedchambers, refectories and wine cellars into the steep valley. Apart from a coach-load of Korean tourists the place was deserted, and we wandered lazily from church to tiny church, ducking inside to admire the superb frescos. Untouched by sunlight, many still retain their gorgeous glowing colours. They’ve fared less well at the hand of humans, though, and many of the faces of Christ, the disciples and saints have had their eyes roughly scratched away by superstitious religious vandals.

Despite the desecration, the power of Göreme is undeniable. It’s impossible not to be moved by the thought of these early communities hiding from persecution and holed up against the elements in their damp, dark caves in the depths of snowy winter. They must surely have been a gentle, spiritual people, creating images of exquisite beauty and simplicity from the deep reds and ochre and brilliant blues of their paintbox.

We ate that evening at Sömine, reputed to be Ürgüp’s best restaurant. A fire blazed in the central stone fireplace and the room was cosy and welcoming after a chilly walk to the restaurant. Our long day of sightseeing had left us ravenous and we scoffed down a succession of delicious mezze dishes with puffs of golden bread, hot from the wood-fired oven. There were stuffed vine leaves as skinny as my finger and a spiral-shaped oversized fried mantı (dumpling). A grilled vegetable salad was tangy with pekmez (grape molasses) made from Cappadocian grapes. Greg watched the chefs in the kitchen making pilav from the locally grown burgul wheat, which we ate with the house speciality testi kebab – a casserole of lamb and vegetables, slow-cooked in a sealed clay pot. This, it seemed, was the touch of theatre that all tourist-restaurants seem to embrace: a chosen diner at each table gets to smash the top off the pot and release the fragrant steam. But the meal was none the worse for it and the dish itself was tender and tasty. A few glasses of pale, melon-scented local white wine had washed it all down nicely, and we ambled back to the Sacred House through the snow-streaked streets in a glow of good humour.

A little while later, as I lay between crisp cotton sheets, snuggled up in the antique four-poster bed, a small lump of rock fell from the ceiling onto my pillow in a sprinkling of cave dust. I switched off the bedside light and the room was plunged into a blackness that was almost palpable. Outside in the icy night I heard the wind blowing up and my mind wandered back to those monks, huddled into their bleak cave bedrooms, with the wolves howling in the mountains beyond. A fleeting sense of panic shivered down my spine, and I lay awake in the dark listening to the sound of my beating heart.

Rice and grains

Turkey is unquestionably a wheat-oriented cuisine. Wheat crops comprise the major portion of the country’s agricultural production, and its cultivation and use in food production date back many centuries to the Central Asian steppes, in the period before Turkic tribes migrated west into Anatolia. And yet one of the most famous Turkish dishes around the world is the rice pilav.

Rice is an ancient crop, and it’s generally thought that it originated in the hot, humid foothills of the mountainous region between China and India. Around 2000 years ago, rice had spread through India to ancient Persia, where it was cultivated with great success. From Persia it was spread by the Arabs to Spain, while migrating Turkic tribes took it with them into Anatolia.

For many centuries in Anatolia, the bulk of the population consumed wheat as their staple grain, either made into bread or in the form of bulgur – cracked wheat. Rice was generally considered to be food of the wealthy, eaten on celebratory occasions. It was during the Ottoman period that pilav reached its zenith, as chefs competed to create ever more luxurious versions: laden with dried fruits and nuts, enriched with butter, tinted with saffron and scented with exotic spices or flower waters, or made more substantial with the addition of meats, offal, shellfish, game or vegetables.

The word pilav is of Persian origin and encompasses a variety of dishes made of cooked grains or pulses. Although rice pilav is eaten all around Turkey, rice is still largely an imported product. Most rural Turks, especially in parts of central and eastern Anatolia, still favour locally grown bulgur wheat for making their pilavs. With its nutty flavour and slightly chewy texture, bulgur pilav is as delicious as its more sophisticated rice cousin.

Whether made from rice or bulgur wheat, Turks take the business of making pilav very seriously. As often seems to be the case with Turkish cooking, there are a number of ‘rules’ associated with making pilav, which frequently differ, depending on who you talk to. But one thing is a given: to make pilav you need to invest time in learning about the basic ingredient. Bulgur wheat is a sturdier, more forgiving grain than rice, and merely needs to be soaked briefly and rinsed before cooking. When it comes to rice, though, it’s another story, as the grain behaves differently depending on the variety. Some types – short-grain in particular – are naturally starchier, while older rices tend to be more absorbent. Turks tend to favour long-grain rice for making pilavs (we find basmati to be ideal), and use short-grain rice for making stuffings, soups and puddings; pilavs served hot are usually made with butter, if served lukewarm or cold they will be made with olive oil.

During our experimenting we found two steps that were critical to making a good rice pilav. First, you do need to wash the rice before cooking it – this is especially true if you make pilav using short-grain rice. All Turkish housewives devote considerable time to soaking and washing the grains to remove as much excess starch as possible. Next, don’t skimp on the steaming time. After the rice has finished cooking, we always slip a tea towel under the lid of the saucepan and leave it to steam for a good fifteen minutes or so. The tea towel absorbs the steam and leaves you with delectably fluffy grains of rice.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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