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In a chilly spring the apricot trees of Cappadocia were frothing with white blossom. By early summer the boughs would be heavy with fruit, to be eaten fresh from the branch, dried in the sun – or made into conserves like bottled sunshine for the cold winter months. Text and photographs by Berrin Torolsan
The 19th-century geologist William Hamilton, whose father took the Rosetta Stone to London, is best known in Turkey as the first foreigner to climb the central Anatolian peak of Mount Erciyes. In his Researches in Asia Minor, he recalls sitting on the summit, feeling no wind but hearing it “rushing and whistling among the clouds and rocks below us”. A few days later, riding into the village of “Utch Hissar”, in the wondrous landscape of Cappadocia, he was struck by the “most curious and extraordinary sight” beneath his feet, of many thousand “pointed pinnacles… so slender and close together that they resembled a forest of cedars or lofty fir trees”. Following the road down from the village and across the valley, Hamilton remarked on the fertility of gardens and orchards in such dry soil. “But the apricot was the only tree in abundance, producing fruit of an excellent flavour, and I should think indigenous to the country.
The apricot, Prunus armeniaca (kayısı in Turkish), belongs to the rose family and is related to almonds, peaches, plums and cherries. It is an undemanding tree, freely self-seeding, possibly one of the oldest in cultivation, and is well established on Anatolian soil. This spring, we visited Uçhisar in Hamilton’s footsteps. Before a fresh fall of snow had thawed in the valleys, the apricot trees were already in bloom. It was breathtaking to wake up to the sight of those trees covered in delicate white blossom, in a landscape of towering cones, against a peerless blue sky, and easy to imagine that they would be just as spectacular in summer when the boughs were laden with fruit. Hamilton was wrong in his surmise, however: the apricot is not indigenous to Turkey, and to trace its roots we must look elsewhere, across the Caspian.
If Cappadocia is to all human eyes otherworldly, Central Asia has long been, to Western eyes, another planet entirely, cloaked in myth and mystery. But it is there, in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, that the apricot has its origins, and as the region becomes more accessible, it offers up more of its secrets. Fruit hunters have in recent years found native apricot trees in the Pamir plains to the north, and forests of wild varieties with smaller, sweeter fruit in the Tien Shan mountains. Names of places such as Ming Uruk (The Thousand Apricots), near Tashkent, tell us how ancient the groves are. The apricots of Central Asia are the great-grandmothers of all apricots, just as the native apples that grow in wild abundance there are the great-grandmothers of all apples.
The Indo-Scythian Kushan Empire of King Kanishka covered most of India, Iran and Central Asia in the second century AD, from the Pamir plains to Turfan in the Tarım basin in the north, to the fertile plains of the Indus and Ganges in the south. During his reign the apricot (and possibly the peach) is said to have travelled east to China, and south to India and Persia, reaching as far as the Roman Empire, where cargoes of mouthwatering golden fruits entered the Mediterranean, with Chinese silk and other luxuries, by way of the Silk Road. A recipe for fricassee of pork and apricots, flavoured with pepper, cumin and mint and seasoned with the fermented fish sauce garum, appears in Apicius’ De re Coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking), compiled in the fourth century.
n his book Sino-Iranica: Chinese contributions to the history of civilization in ancient Iran (1919), the Sinologist Berthold Laufer tells the history of cultivated plants introduced from China, quoting a diplomatic document of AD625. From the kingdom of Sogdiana (today split between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) a gift of fruit was sent to the Emperor of China: “…they were as large as goose eggs and their colour was like gold”. This reveals how apricots, their cultivation perfected through selection and grafting, were exchanged by imperial courts. In 13th-century Baghdad the royal chefs of the caliphs included apricots in their repertoire of lavish dishes, calling the fruit mishmish – the name still used today. It was perhaps the Crusaders who first tasted the honeyed apricot of the Levant and took it back to Europe, calling it “dimesk”.
By the 1500s, when apricot stones arrived in the New World with the Spanish conquistadors, dimesk had become “damasco”, the name by which it is still known in Mexico, Argentina and Chile. The modern name in European languages – abricot, Aprikose, albicocca, albaricoque, albricoque, albercoc, etc – is borrowed from the archaic Arabic al-barqouq. The Ottomans meanwhile took the fruit and the name kayısı with them as their empire spread across the Balkans. Apricots flourished above all in Hungary, where, according to Anikó Gergely in Culinaria Hungary (2015), “the Turks possessed huge plantations of kajszi” – flowering gardens that withered away after they left but have since been revived.
Those who have only ever tasted cottony, flavourless supermarket apricots from cold storage can scarcely imagine how delectable is the fruit ripe from the tree, or the difference between apricot varieties. Connoisseurs of old had their favourites. The 14th-century traveller İbn Batuta records that the orchards of “Antailya” (modern Antalya) on the Mediterranean produced fine fruits, including an admirable kind of apricot called the Qamar ad-Din, with a sweet almond in its kernel. “This fruit,” he wrote, “is dried and exported to Egypt, where it is regarded as a great luxury.” Three centuries later, another traveller, Evliya Çelebi, also praised the “kamereddin” apricot as a paradisiacal fruit. But Evliya’s favourites were the seven different types of large, luscious apricots of Aspuzu, modern Malatya, in eastern Turkey.
Mahmut Nedim bin Tosun, too, extols the Malatya apricots in his 1898 cookery book, Aşçıbaşı (The Chef). He gives a recipe for a sweet-sour stew cooked with these apricots, which he says are unrivalled and far superior to apricots from Damascus or those imported from Algeria. He thinks it must be a godly gift to the soil of Malatya that results in fruits of such superb taste and size.
Wild or locally derived apricot cultivars grow profusely all over Turkey, except in the moist Black Sea region, but today Malatya remains the epicentre of apricot production. Indeed, “Malatya” has become the generic term for all Turkish apricots. The best-known of the numerous varieties grown there – the red-cheeked, freckled şekerpare(sugar lump) – has all the sweetness the name suggests. The apricot belt runs from Malatya to the Hunza Valley on the fringes of Tibet, from Turkey to Turkestan, and along with Uzbekistan and Iran, Turkey is one of the world’s three largest producers and exporters of both fresh and dried apricots.
Trees grown from the stones of grafted apricot trees are known in the Turkish countryside as yeğen, or nephews, and produce an inferior fruit. But the large, succulent cultivated varieties are sought after both at home and abroad. One variety is the early, slightly oblong apricot from the distinctive microclimate of the Iğdır Valley in the east. The pale, creamy skin is delicate and the flesh ambrosial. The longish stone inside contains a tasty kernel. Another variety, the round, pink-cheeked tokaloğlu, is grown in Konya in central Anatolia and Tokat and Erzincan to the north and east. The fruit ripens slowly, allowing it to be harvested in three different stages. The fragrant, juicy first and second crops are sent to market to be enjoyed fresh, while the late crop of smaller, firmer fruit is ideal for preserves. The leftovers from the last harvest are stoned and spread out to dry in the sun for later months.
The wild apricot Armeniaca vulgaris (the Turkish zerdali, from Persian zerdalu, or yellow prune) is sold dried for cooking. Its tartness goes well with lamb, duck and game. Evliya Çelebi tells us that wild apricots in Malatya are countless: only God knows their quantity, he says, and the fruit is turned into pestil (sheets of dried paste, or fruit leather) for export – pulped apricots are poured into containers and set to dry in the sun.
Like the plum, the apricot dries and stores well, providing a precious source of year-round nutrition. On our visit to Cappadocia, last year’s dried sweet apricots were heaped up on the stalls of Nevşehir’s Monday market – an excellent pick-me-up snack and a delicious addition to savoury dishes. We were told how in early summer the fruit is spread out on every available surface to be sun-dried, painting the landscape with dashes of yellow.
Every region boasts hoards of the finest apricots, each with its particular qualities. The Sufi writer Samiha Ayverdi describes life in a 19th-century Istanbul household in her novel İbrahim Efendi’s Konak: “Entering the larder, one would always see shelves of [dried] apricots from Şam, Malatya and Tokat, prunes from Kastamonu, honey from Ankara…” The şam, or Damascus, apricot was highly popular in the Ottoman Empire. Today it is farmed in Thrace and all around the Aegean and Mediterranean.Apricots are an excellent source of vitamins A, C and E, copper, potassium, iron and fibre. They provide lycopene and beta-carotene, which also gives carrots their reputation for enhancing vision. Drying increases the nutrient content, particularly of vitamins A and E, potassium and iron.Even medieval doctors knew of the fruit’s benefits. The 14th-century physician to Celâlüddin Hızır Pasha prized the cooling effects on “hot humours” and used apricots to treat malaria. Mahmut Şirvani, scientist and physician to Murad II, the father of Mehmed the Conqueror, gave recipes for three dishes cooked with apricots and confirmed their cooling effects. The almond-tasting stone kernels were not wasted, either, having a range of culinary and medical uses. The 17th-century doctor-king Subhan Quli Khan of Balkh wrote a treatise in Chagatay in which he recommends pounded apricot kernels as an ingredient for a calming pomade. Today they are used to make the liqueur amaretto.Apricot kernels contain amygdalin, sometimes known, controversially, as vitamin B17. Whether or not this is a true vitamin and cures cancer is a matter of heated debate. And do the apricots of the Hunza Valley really make you live to 150? Whatever the medical truth, this luscious golden fruit offers not just health and well-being, but a flavour of summer in the long winter months, a ray of sunshine to light up dark winter days.
Kayısi Reçeli Apricot Preserve
1kg fresh apricots 1kg sugar Juice of 1 lemon
This is my mother’s recipe. She used to wait for a variety known as tokaloğlu to come to market, late in the season. A single mouthful, these apricots (pictured left) are smaller than a walnut, and their firm texture means that the halves remain intact when cooked.
1.After rinsing, halve the apricots and remove the stones. Place in a deep pan, add the sugar and leave overnight to allow the fruit to release its juices under the sugar’s weight. 2.The next day, the apricots should have released sufficient juice and there will be no need to add water. Cook over a very gentle heat, uncovered, for 30–45 minutes, until the jam thickens and the fruit is translucent. 3.Add the lemon juice to the pan. Bring briefly to the boil and remove from the heat. 4 While still hot, transfer to sterilised jars, seal and store in a cool, dark place
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