The grey and overcast sky looked ominous and, just as we started to walk towards our breakfast stop in Beşiktaş, the heavens opened. It was going to be a wet walking tour….
But nothing was going to stop us. The streets of Beşiktaş may have been a bit more deserted than was usual for a Saturday but this didn’t deter us.
With Culinary Backstreet’s Born on the Bosphorus tour we were about to explore three different neighbourhoods for a taste of the Bosphorus…
Beşiktaş, on the European side of the Bosphorus is a middle class area, more liberal than conservative and with quite a few students residing here. They are proud of their football team, Beşiktaş JK. Statues of their emblem, the black eagle, appear when you least expect them. Loyal football supporters they definitely are.
Our day started with breakfast at Çakmak Kahvalti, a simple cafe that is frequented by the local residents young and old. Bal kaymak, that wonderful breakfast of kaymak and honey, was served to start with.
Kaymak, made from the milk of buffalo is similar to clotted cream but not nearly as sweet. With a drizzle of honey from Eastern Turkey, it is delicious.
Our guide Benoit explained that it’s not easy to milk buffalo. The buffalo need to be able to see their calves whilst milking is taking place. It’s probably just as well that the herds are small, numbering about ten buffalo in all. Kaymak can also me made from cows milk but it’s not the same! Kaymak is the basis for many dishes, this katmer we ate in Gaziantep being one.
Breakfast hadn’t finished. The kaymak was followed by four different variations of the Turkish breakfast dish, menemen. I hadn’t realised that menemen came from the town of Menemen , which we had been very close to on our drive from Alicati. The tomatoes in this area are famous…no wonder the menemen tastes so good. Our four menemen dishes included one with fetta, one with pastirma, one with sausage(selcuk) and the last just with the eggs, peppers, onions and tomatoes that menemen is usually made from. It was hard choosing the best!
The Greek influence
There are somethings you will never find by yourself which is why I love small tours. Our stop at a small greek orthodox church was one of these. An unobtrusive doorway in the street gave no clue as to what lay behind.
Unfortunately photos were not allowed but like all Greek Orthodox churches, its lavish decorations were beautiful. Gold embellishments, icons covered with silver plate..all dating back to the days of the 19th Century when twenty percent of the population of Beşiktaş were Greek. The nearby school has closed as there are now only 3000-5000 Greeks in the area but services still continue at the church.
A short walk through the back streets, past the recently restored Sinapasa Camii, a 16th century mosque that was designed by Sinan according to a commission by an admiral and we were at the town’s market square.
Beşiktaş market has a reputation for its fabulous fresh fish, fruit and vegetables. The fishmongers were setting up when we arrived. Fish were still stacked in their boxes, water and ice was being sloshed around on the floor whilst others had finished setting up with their beautifully displayed fish.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see a fabulous display of figs…my favourite summer fruit. Infact all the fruit and vegetables looked fabulous. A sale made, we proceeded on to our next stop.
A bakery stop
The two hundred year old 7-8 Hasanpasa Bakery was our next stop. The windows were full of their wares and I gazed longingly at them as we stopped to hear the story behind the name of the bakery. The general at this time couldn’t read or write, so if he had anything to sign, he would use the turkish words for 7-8 (yedi-sekiz) as his signature and this is how the bakery was named.
Stepping down into the old shop, we were greeted by trays of freshly baked biscuits and breads covering the counter. Sweet and savoury biscuits, coconut macaroons, rye and bran loaves, and if you’re lucky, there’s sometimes a delicious carrot cake.
It was then time to face the weather and catch the ferry to Usküdar on the Asian side of the Bosphorus.
Usküdar lay at the end of the silk road and was important in its time. Compared to Beşiktaş, it is a more conservative neighbourhood, again with its own personality. There’s a stronger Muslim population here with more mosques in the area. Most of the mosques were built by women, usually the mother of the sultan who had a lot of power being number two in the heirachy.
Our first stop, in the basement of the local school attached to the mosque, sold nothing but honey. The honey comes from the Eastern Turkey town of Bilop. We tried a lighter honey from mountain flowers in the area and a delicious chestnut honey from Bilop that is famous.
Just down the street was a shop specialising in cheese. We tried three chesses…a tulum, a goat’s cheese that is aged in goat skin and another that was a mixture of goat and sheep but not aged. For comparison we also tried cows cheese. The cheese aged in the goats skin won hands down…far sharper and tastier than the others.
Olives marinated in brine and bakes olives (selve) were also sold along with halva. I’m not sure that you could call the halva we get at home halva. In Turkey there are so many different ones to choose each with its own distinctive taste. Summer halva is dark, made with almond and semolina whilst winter halva is made with sesame paste and herbs. What I really wanted to take home was the isot (dried pepper) paste and tapenade that I spied sitting in the corner.
We wandered slowly in and out of the shops lining the main street, tasted fabulous pickles, cheese and and pastirma, the popular dried meat that had originated from beef being salted and kept in the sides of saddles and then pressed as the horsemen rode.
Stories flowed. In the time of the Ottomans, there existed a private army, the Janissaries. When a new sultan came to power they would be offered a tray of rock candy. As a thank you a tray of baklava would be sent back. Tired of the candy, the sultan organised a competition to make a softer sweet…and so turkish delight was born. It is presumed that this must have been around the 18th century as starch only appeared in 1770.
I loved these little pieces of history that Benoit shared as we walked from one stop to another. By the time this story was finished we had arrived at one one of Istanbul’s well known, family owned sweet shops where a tantalising array of rock candy, turkish delight and marzipan was on display. Turkish sweets are made using mastic, a white sticky substance that comes from the resin of white pistachio trees which are found mainly on the island of Chios and a little in Cesme.
We probably should have visited the sweets shop after our next tasting! Have you ever eaten sheep’s head? Yes, the sweets would have gone down well after a nibble of sheep’s head!
Which part would you want…the brains, the cheek, the tongue maybe or would it be the fat from the back of the eye which we were told is delicious!
As it was raining we caught the bus further up the coast to our next stop…..Kuzgunick
Again, this area was very different to the previous two suburbs. We wandered away from the Bosphorus, along tree lines streets into the back streets where old wooden homes stood.
In the first couple of minutes in Kuzgunick, we had passed a Greek church, an Armenian church and a Jewish synagogue. Everyone lived together in those days.
In the 70’s and 80’s the Greeks left the area and villagers from Black Sea came. Today the area has attracted writers, intellectuals and film stars. Trendy cafes, olive oil shops and boutiques stand next to old shops still selling staples from the Black Sea area.
We stopped at a small cafe for a delicious fish soup, balik corbasi and then continued on.
We weren’t sure where we were going as we wandered the streets, passing beautiful wooden homes and a communal vegetable garden until we came to a stop. Benoit disappeared and knocked on the door.
What a pleasant surprise to find that we were having another lunch at a private home. Fatima is a teacher at the local school teaching history and geography. The table was set with many dishes that she serves to the family…..stuffed eggplant, lentil kofte, cig kofte,
We finished the meal with a special dish that is normally served at Ramadan. Rose Gulloc is made of layers of a white starch sheet similar to rice paper soaked in milk, sugar and rose water. Chopped walnuts and pomegranate seeds are added on top. What a treat!
This was a perfect end to a fabulous tour of the suburbs on either side of the Bosphorus.
Exploring a culture through it’s food is one of the highlights of travelling and tours that offer an insight into this offer so much. We loved the historical insights, learning of the differences between the suburbs on either side of the Bosphorus and of course, tasting so many delicious bites in the local shops and cafes. Culinary Backstreets are experts at this and even though my tour was complimentary, I can highly recommend it to learn about a side of Istanbul you may not find on your own. You can see all their Istanbul tours here. Thank you Culinary Backstreets.