Saturday, July 22, 2006

Turkish Path

Turkish Path
Food writer Claudia Roden guides Kevin Gould through the maze of busy streets and alleys that make up the fascinating city of Istanbul, taking in bazaars, mosques and mulberry ice cream along the way.

Claudia Roden's Istanbul is a world of fabulous feasts and fond family memories. Beaming with pleasure, she pronounces: "Istanbul has the best food in the Middle East." This from the writer of the definitive Book of Middle Eastern Cuisine, which has, for a generation, transported cooks to the warm, well-spiced world of the mysterious Levant. "It really is a magical city," she sighs, drinking in the sight of medieval bazaars and Ottoman minarets from the bouncy back seat of our yellow taksi. "You feel elated to be here."

The seeds of Claudia's fascination with the city were sown as a child, when she heard stories of her great-grandfather, who lived in Gaziantep, southeastern Turkey. "He was summoned to Istanbul by Abdel Hamid, the last of the Ottoman Sultans," she relates with a hint of pride. "Here, he was appointed Chief Rabbi to the Empire." The family moved to a villa in Ortaköy, a village on the European shore of the Bosphorus, in the lee of Abdel Hamid's gingerbread, rococo Yildiz Palace. "My grandmother was born in Ortaköy, which in those days was a village, far removed from the city's hurly burly." Today, the village has become subsumed into Istanbul, one of the world's largest, most extraordinary cities.

With undisguised delight, Claudia leads us on a tour of her Istanbul, a day which starts with fresh pastries from Güllüoglu. "This is the city's finest bakery," she says, "As you walk in, you bathe in the smells. They make baklava with 40 layers of filo pastry, each so thin as to be almost transparent." Claudia takes a portion with a square of kaymak (clotted buffalo-milk cream). "You die for it," she says smiling, "and you die from it."

Our taksi joins the nose-to-bumper stream of cars and people crossing the Golden Horn into the Old City, an Istanbul of ancient mosques and cascading domed tombs, of grand palaces and humble tumbledown streets. "This city was founded almost 1,700 years ago by Emperor Constantine to rival Holy Rome" she explains. "Since then, it's been the seat of power for both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires." The Old City's hill is crowned by the Blue Mosque, an essay in architectural harmony, decorated within by 21,000 priceless turquoise Iznik tiles. She points across to the 6th-century cathedral of Aya Sofya, and takes in the Topkapi Palace, famous for its intrigues, its harem and its eunuch stranglers. "In Istanbul, tradition is everything, and you really feel the past."

Claudia sweeps us into her favourite köfte salonu, a midday stop for viziers and workers alike. On a marble-topped table at Selim's Sultanahmet Köftecisi, we're served soft patties of minced beef, with a salad of lemon-dressed white bean and carrot on the side. Claudia beams broadly. "The best köfte I've ever eaten. And I've eaten a lot of them."

There's no time to dawdle as we head to the Kapali Carsisi (covered bazaar). "It is a city within a city, with 5,000 shops and bargain hunters from all over the world." Erected by Sultan Fatih Mehmet in 1458, the bazaar's character has barely changed. We are borne on a tide of lingering shoppers and lippy hawkers, of scurrying tea-boys and labouring porters. "Such a pleasurable place to shop," says Claudia. "There is something to suit every mood."

The bazaar ends by the shores of the Golden Horn and the huge studded doors of the Misir Carsisi (spice bazaar). Piles of nuts and herbs, spices, sweetmeats and caviar fill each stall. Claudia is emphatic: "The best food market in the world."

As well as bridging East and West, Istanbul also straddles two continents. "How romantic," she delights, "to pop over to Asia for a late lunch." Our idyllic table at Cengelköy Iskele is right over the water, the Bosphorus Straits, which glint in the sun, while the European side shimmers in the haze. Claudia thinks that Asia seems calmer, less frenetic. "You somehow feel closer to the countryside here."

Feasting on beer-battered anchovies from the Dardanelles and turbot plucked from the waters of the Black Sea, on pungent roka (rocket) salad and potent anis-based raki liqueur, the afternoon would be idled away were it not for the lure of Mado's karadut (black mulberry) ice cream, sold on Istiklal Caddesi in Beyoglu, Istanbul's (rather more charming) version of Oxford Street. Boys on the Clyde-built ferry that glides us back to Europe serve refreshing black tea in tulip-shaped glasses.

Beyoglu offers excellent shopping "for silks and bargain CDs" and numerous meyhane (beer halls). "The tradition is to have an after-work or late-night restorative pitcher of pilsner, or carafe of wine, accompanied by meze such as hot potato krokets stuffed with cheese," says Claudia. Tonight, however, we have a dinner date in Ortaköy.

During the pre-dinner passeggiata, Claudia asks an aged Ortaköy fruiterer with a nose like a pomegranate if he recalls her ancestors, the Al-Fondari family. She's led to the street where her grandmother was born, the house long since demolished, where a resident shares her memories of the school at which Claudia's grandfather was headmaster.

Dinner is at Istanbul's most sumptuous restaurant. Feriye Lokantasi is run by Vedat Basaran, Turkey's leading chef, from waterfront premises. Tonight, he has commanded an Ottoman feast in Claudia's honour. Artichokes are filled with olive pilaf and wrapped in vine leaves; haricot beans are stewed with wild fennel; and sweetbreads and milk lamb tripes are sautéed with orange zest and served with tomato-scented oil. With the floodlit minarets in the distance, and the glittering waters of the Straits reflected in her eyes, Claudia sighs. "I love it here. There are times when you're by the Bosphorus that you feel there's nowhere on earth you'd rather be."

This article was first published on in August 2002

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