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From violet sorbets, cinnamon drops and the sugar cones offered as sweeteners for sultans, to helva, sugared almonds and ‘lumps of delight’…You don’t need to have a sweet tooth to enjoy a history of Turkish puddings and sweets, but it’s all the more delicious if you do. Berrin Torolsan savours a feast of fascinating facts
Sherbet & Spice
The Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Desserts
By Mary Işın
Pharmacology has long thrived on the human yearning for immortality. From the 16th century, plant-hunters, explorers and often adventurers took great risks travelling into the unknown East, first the Levant, sometimes further into Central Asia, in the quest for new plants. To them we owe the birth of botany – and more besides. For sometimes the pursuit of the elixir of life led to finds that were at very least wonderfully life-enhancing.
The food historian Mary Işın, in her latest book, Sherbet & Spice, delves into the history of sugar and sweets, and compiles a wealth of fascinating anecdotes and curious facts. For instance we learn that Biblical manna is in fact an edible sweet lichen, Lecanora esculenta, sometimes blown great distances by storms, thus raining from heaven to be gathered by astonished locals. She tells us of the German physician Leonhart Rauwolf, who travelled in the “Morgenland”, the Near East, throughout 1573 and 1574 in search of medicinal plants and wonder cures. (Alas in 1596 Dr Rauwolf was to die on the battlefield in Hungary, fighting the Turks he had been among.) From the book of impressions he published on his return from his travels we hear of a substance known as “manna”, that was sold in the markets of Ottoman Baghdad and Mosul: it was “of a brown colour, a great deal bigger and firmer, and not so sweet as that of Calabria, yet very good and pleasant to eat”.
We hear of a syrup called balısıra, or honeydew, found on pine trees, especially in the western Anatolian mountains. Having the fragrance of musk and ambergris, wrote the 17th-century Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi, it was harvested by man as well as bees.
Such sweet diversions are all part of the long story of sugar, which was originally obtained from sugar cane and known as “plant sugar”, a rare and precious ingredient. The Venetian bailos (ambassadors) in Istanbul included sugar cones among their precious gifts to the Porte. Imperial weddings, the enthronement of a sultan, the birth of his children and military victories all called for impressive feasts to which the public were invited. These banquets would include sweets and sweetmeats made with sugar rather than honey, as a special treat for subjects who might otherwise never taste it.
Sugar preserved its status as a luxury into the 19th century, when its production from sugar beet was invented. Until then expensive ingredients such as sugar and spices were, like the best chefs, affordable only by the palace and the upper classes, which in time led to the creation of Ottoman haute cuisine. Iﬂın tells how this cuisine evolved over six centuries and reveals the most extravagant and diverse, as well as enjoyably sweet, side of the story, exploring the confections and desserts of traditional Turkish cuisine, from cinnamon-flavoured drops to violet-scented sorbets, from fondants to toffees to pastries…
Cornucopia 49 for the complete review
From the Danube to the Caucasus, conflict raged. The Ottomans were fighting for their territories and their lives, but the full story of their courage is only now being told, says the military historian Mesut Uyar
The war of 1853–56 was a calamitous clash of imperial ambitions. Turkey sustained heavy losses, but without them she might have ceased to exist. David Barchard puts the conflict in context
With its healing brine baths and golden beaches, its wealth and variety of architecture, and its layers-deep history, this resort offers something for everyone – from hedonist to hypochondriac
Yevpatoria in Crimea was the home the young Anna Akhmatova, an icon of Russian literature, who fell foul of Stalin
Like many writers, Chekhov made his way to Crimea to nurse his TB in a milder climate. His two houses, now museums, became magnets for artists. One he left to his sister, the other to his wife.
Philip Mansel on the future Edward VII’s Ottoman expedition
By any standard, Hüsamettin Koçan’s mountain-top Baksı Museum, in the northeastern Anatolian village where he was born, deserves a place among the world’s top ten remote museums.
This silver goblet was one of more than 600 medieval treasures from Central Asia crowding Bonhams’ elegant rooms in Edinburgh for six days in January.
Mulberries come in an array of hues: black, white, pink, purple; some enticingly sweet, others astringent and healing. As Berrin Torolsan can testify, having grown up with them in her Istanbul garden, all are adored – by man, mallard and pine marten alike. Here she traces the history of this lucious fruit
Thomas Whittemore, the American scholar and philanthropist, was instrumental in restoring the Byzantine treasures of Ayasofya. Robert S Nelson delves into his enigmatic life
The V&A’s Tim Stanley eyes up the Louvre’s astonishing new Islamic offering
From the towers of Tatary to the tombs of Scythian kings, from clifftop citadels to an underground castle, from Balaklava to the beaches of the Tsarist Riviera, Crimea is a land to fall in love with, waiting to be enjoyed, not destroyed
As the Sadberk Hanım Museum celebrates the art of embroidery, Min Hogg marvels at the motifs of palaces, fruit and flowers, sea and cityscape, wrought stitch by stitch, to adorn every Ottoman home
Aard Streefland tells the story of the Dutch orientalist Marius Bauer (1867–1932)
The Crimean khans founded their capital in the fertile foothills of the Crimean Mountains in the 15th century. This was the nucleaus of the land known as Cim Tartary. The garden palace of Bahçesaray is a glorious reminder of the khans’ 350-year reign
Dramatic and picturesque, Crimea’s southern coast became a resort for doomed royalty and a refuge for ailing literati
Two ports – Sevastopol and Yevpatoria – rule Crimea’s flat west coast. One was built for war, the other for recreation. Both played a part in the Crimean War
Geonese merchants, a millionaire painter and a symbolist poet brought fortune and fame to the eastern stretches of Crimea’s south coast and its fertile hinterland
Balaklava, Sevastopol, Inkerman, the Valley of Death – in Britain, where the savage toll was so acutely felt, these names still have the power to arouse pride and fury. Algernon Percy travelled to Crimea to visit the evocative battlefields
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