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‘Health to the Body, Food to the Soul’

Sherbets and sorbets: their story and recipes

Centuries ago, travellers to Turkey were amazed by a new, uplifting taste sensation: the sherbet, flowery or fruity, and served with ice. Berrin Torolsan traces the history of sherbets and the sorbets made from them, and serves up an irresistible array of cooling summery treats

  • Rose sherbet, made with particularly scented double roses, and a few drops of lemon juice that magically transforms the colour. Photograph by Berrin Torolsan, May 2020

Ever since the conquest of 1453, Western visitors had grumbled about the Ottoman Empire and its Turkish ways. But two things never failed to titillate: the harem and sherbet, two exotic notions plucked from The Arabian Nights. “Worthy of cooling the ruby lips of the houris who people the Abode of Felicity” was the usually phlegmatic foreign correspondent Charles White’s verdict on sherbet. In his book Three Years in Constantinople, published in 1844, he singled it out as one of the pleasures of Ottoman daily life.

How did a simple drink acquire this mystique?

The word “sherbet” comes from the Arabic shariba, which simply means “to drink” (the word syrup, or şurub in Turkish, is related, as is şarap, the Turkish for wine). But in passing into almost every language on every continent it has acquired connotations of sweetness and delight.

Central Asia adopted it from Farsi, the lingua franca of the day, and sherbet became she-li-pa, a favourite drink of the Mongol court. Its status was assured when Genghis Khan’s grandson Kubilai appointed Mar Sergius, a Nestorian Christian, as his sherbet-maker in 1268, requiring him to supply the palace in Beijing with 40 jars a year. The post of she-li-pa-chi (şerbetçi in Turkish) became sought after at the Chinese court. In 1330, pomegranate and redcurrant sherbets were prescribed in Proper and Essential Things for the Emperor’s Food and Drink, a Uighur physician’s dietary manual written for Kubilai’s descendants (and published recently as A Soup for the Qan).

It was the Ottoman Turks who popularised sherbet in the West. The German traveller Hans Dernschwam noted in 1525 that in Istanbul they added honey to drinking water and called it “czerbet”. Three decades later the French botanist Pierre Belon described sherbets made with figs, plums, apricots and raisins – thirsty passers-by would buy glasses of “syrup” from itinerant sellers or market stands, mixed with water and chilled with ice…

A recipe for Rose Sherbet

Gül Şerbeti
Rose Sherbet
3 or 4 scented roses
1 red rose (for colour)
2 glasses water (500ml)
1 glass sugar (200g)
Juice of half a lemon

Using roses in any recipe always raises the spirits. This sherbet could not be simpler to make, but two golden rules: the roses should be a scented variety, and the water the best you can find, preferably spring water. In Istanbul we are f0rtunate in having water delivered straight from the spring in large glass flagons.

  • 1     Remove the calyxes and spread the loose petals on a tray to ensure no insects are trapped in the blooms (earwigs love roses).
  • 2     Bring the water and sugar to the boil. When all the sugar has dissolved, remove from the heat.
  • 3     Drop the petals into the hot syrup, stirring gently to make sure they are all steeped in the syrup. Cover and leave until cool enough to put in the fridge to chill.
  • 4     When serving, stir in the lemon juice and add cold water, tasting for sweetness. Strain and serve in tall glasses with ice.

Rose Sorbet: This sherbet makes a delicate, refreshing and uplifting sorbet. If your roses have thin petals you can leave some of them in the sorbet, which gives a lovely, slightly crunchy texture as the sorbet melts in your mouth.

How to Make a Sorbet

These instructions for making a sorbet from a sherbet apply to all the sorbets that follow. As the legendary Elizabeth David wrote in Summer Cooking (1955), “Water ices made simply from fruit juice and sugar and frozen in the ice tray of a refrigerator make a delicious and refreshing end to a meal.” It really is that simple.

To make a sorbet:<br />
Prepare the sherbet as in the recipes below. The fruit is less sweet and slightly blander when frozen, so dilute with a little water, but do stir in some lemon juice to bring out the colour and flavour. If you want a fluffier texture, add a lightly whisked egg white.</p>

You then have a choice:

  1. ●  Transfer to an ice-cream machine if you have one, churn until firm, and serve at once or keep in the freezer until needed.
  2. ●  Alternatively, pour into a container and place in the freezer. After a couple of hours, stir lightly with a fork when ice has begun to form around the edges, so that it doesn’t freeze solid. Repeat two or three times until the liquid has frozen. This is the classic method. You can also leave the sorbet without stirring to form a solid block; serve it by scraping the top of the block with a metal spoon – this is best for small amounts.
  3. ● For the slightly coarse texture of Italian granita, chop the hard sorbet into chunks while still in the container, and whizz what you need briefly in a food processor or blender.

Sorbet will keep almost indefinitely. Whichever way you make it, it is delicious.

Other recipies in this article include sherbets and sorbets made with violets raspberries, strawberries, pomegranate, sour cherries (vişne), mint and lemonade and poppies, as we as Lohusa Şerbeti, traditionally offered after a mother gives birth.

To read the full article, purchase Issue 61

Buy the issue
Issue 61, Summer 2020 The Road to Pergamon
£12.00 / $14.95 / €14.03
Other Highlights from Cornucopia 61
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Buy the issue
Issue 61, Summer 2020 The Road to Pergamon
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