Autumn falls – and Ottomans cook!

Walking today in the woods, the first fallen leaves rustling underfoot, made me long for a fire – and a taste of this slightly smoky dip taken, of course, from Yashim’s new cook bookimg_4631Aubergine (or eggplant) puree

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A classic Ottoman meze, absolutely worth doing whenever you fire up a charcoal grill. Unlike the real thing, ‘poor man’s meat’ is very forgiving on the grill, so you can start the aubergines off as soon as the coals get hot. The flame gives the finished puree an irresistible smoky taste. Don’t forget the humble home fire, either. If you are burning wood in your fireplace, or maybe a woodburner, use it: an aubergine takes only a few minutes to cook.

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Ingredients:

aubergines (eggplant) 2

garlic 2 cloves, crushed and chopped

olive oil 2 tbsps

juice of 1 lemon

plain yoghurt 225g/8oz

salt 

pepper

lemon wedges

Method:

If you can rotate the aubergines over charcoal, so much the better: char the skins and pop the aubergines into a plastic bag when the flesh is pulpy. Otherwise, burn the skins on the gas or prick the aubergines with a fork, wrap them in foil and cook for at least half an hour in the hottest oven. 

Hold the aubergine by the stalk and peel away the skin. Scrape the flesh away with a spoon. Drop the flesh into a colander, and squeeze it gently to get rid of some of the water.

Put the aubergines on a board and chop them to a pulp, while they continue to drain. Sweep them into a bowl, and mix in the garlic, the oil and the lemon juice. When they are well mixed, add the yoghurt, a pinch of salt and a twist of pepper and beat again. Check for seasoning.

Serve the puree with a drizzle of olive oil and wedges of lemon, to eat on crusty bread.

Some simple pide

Some simple pide

Everything connects, of course, and given centuries of war and exchange between Russia and the Ottoman Empire it should come as no surprise that the Russians, substituting sauteed onion and tomato for the yoghurt, wisely adopted this as their ‘poor man’s caviar’. Versions of both are very popular across the Caucasus.

This is just one of dozens of the recipes from Yashim Cooks Istanbul, out in the UK on Thursday October 27th and in the USA on November 15th. Signed copies are available, postage free anywhere in the world. Just click on this link: http://bit.ly/2c7fkIU

Gliding down the Bosphorus

I’m often asked to name my favourite place in Istanbul.

A bollard on the quay

A bollard on the quay

 

It isn’t a place, at all: it’s a passage, or a vantage point, or an adventure, with deep dark waters under the keel, and spray at the prow, and a briny bench – and a glass of tea.

It’s a trip on the Bosphorus.

My favourite vantage point

My favourite vantage point

About  fourteen miles long, and sometimes no more than half a mile wide, this twisting strait divides Asia from Europe, and links the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. The name means the same as Oxford: where the cattle cross, from the legend of Io, transformed into a cow until she crossed the strait and regained her human form.

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feeding the birds at Eminonu

There are all sorts of Bosphorus trips on offer, but I think it best explored on the ferries which morning and evening crowd around the ferry station at Eminonu. The slow vapur have high prows for punching through the seas which run in from the Sea of Marmara, and low thwarts for easy embarkation.

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ferry at a stage

Their bright green hawsers are casually coiled on the planking.

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on board at night

One day they’ll no doubt be replaced by fibreglass catamarans and a sensory world will disappear, composed of wet planks, splintered pilings, the bubble of thick paint on rust, and the old ferryboat smell which is the same the world over, a tincture of diesel oil, damp wood and the sour reek of air trapped in the cabins.

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Rumeli Hisar

Meanwhile, buy a glass of tea at the counter and settle down on one of the outside benches that run along the bows; put your feet up on the rail, and watch the shores of the Bosphorus unscroll, like some Victorian panorama, their vistas of villas, palaces, restaurants and domes.

The galley of a Bosphorus ferry: I love the chopping boards!

The galley of a Bosphorus ferry: I love the chopping boards!

The last photo, above, shows where they make tea: a place I like so much I put it in Yashim’s new cookbook,  Yashim Cooks Istanbul. !

From Yashim Cooks Istanbul

From Yashim Cooks Istanbul

Yashim Steps Out

I’m told that tickets for my first Yashim Cooks Istanbul gig have sold out, which has to be good news. Although I remember being told the same thing by the nice people at Faber at the launch party for The Janissary Tree, and wondering if publishers lived on the same planet as the rest of us.

Picture the scene: I assemble a hundred or so of my closest friends and relations, along with the great and the good of Fleet Street, Grub Street and the BBC, hire splendid Georgian rooms in Fitzroy Square, lay on everlasting fizz, engage professional belly dancers, no less – and half an hour into the jamboree the publishers come up smiling and rubbing their hands to tell me ‘We’ve sold out of books! Congratulations!’

Sold out! Jolly well done!

Sold out! Jolly well done!

Anyway, no more tickets for November 12th at the Bridport Literary Festival: but we have other things planned for later, elsewhere.

If anyone wants to pre-order Yashim Cooks Istanbul, you can get signed copies here, free of postage. Also you can pre-order them on Amazon in the UK for £19.99, although they won’t be signed. I expect Amazon.com in the US will offer something similar very soon. Yashim Cooks Istanbul makes a really good present, with a whiff of Ottoman spice.

Many of you have asked when Yashim will emerge from his retirement and engage in a new adventure. Well, he has one rather short adventure chronicled in a collection of stories entitled SUNSHINE NOIR, all mystery stories by crime writers who eschew the frigid wastes of Scandinavia in favour of southerly heat and sweat (not but that it usually snows in Istanbul, but we will let that pass). My story is called Chronos and Kairos, about an occasion when Yashim borrowed a watch. Some of you may remember young Compston, of the British Embassy in Istanbul, bleating about his father’s Hunter in An Evil Eye: it’s that watch. Different occasion.

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Print editions are on their way, apparently, but if you use Kindle then it’s available there already.

Yashim’s cookbook available to pre-order!

“What is there not to like about a detective who enjoys cooking as much as he enjoys eating?” The Financial Times
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“Crammed with mouth-watering descriptions of creamy pilafs and delicate meze.” The Washington Post

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Readers of the Yashim mysteries, set in Istanbul, like the way Yashim cooks and they’ve been calling for these recipes. Yashim Cooks Istanbul is designed to work in the kitchen, but it’s also a feast of a hardback, crammed with glimpses into the gorgeous world of 19th century Istanbul – costume, street scenes, some really early photographs – and cooking scenes from the Yashim books.

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There are more than seventy five delicious and original recipes. They aren’t complex and they don’t need to you to go out and find wildly exotic ingredients. Turkish food isn’t like that – it’s more about simple spices, vegetable dishes, pilafs. There are recipes for lamb and fish, lots of salads, and little meze for snacks or starters. In Istanbul, it’s all about freshness and produce in season. Sometimes the simplest things are the most delicious.

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More than one hundred Yashim fans generously volunteered as testers, trying out the recipes from Albania to Pakistan. Their feedback was fantastic, meaning that while the recipes are firmly rooted in the soil of the eastern Mediterranean – with a brief foray to the Veneto, and another into the grasslands of Poland – they have been cooked and approved all around the world!

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Yashim Cooks Istanbul is divided into five chapters, each one built around a book in the Yashim series, and announced by a Yashim-era map of Istanbul, just to put you in the picture. We have soups, meat dishes, stuffed dishes, fish, vegetable (and vegetarian) dishes, and puddings, with measures in US style and metric. Everything the hungry cook needs to make a proper Ottoman feast…
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There are all sorts of easy, traditional recipes in the book – simple and delicious family dishes like Greek fisherman’s stew, pumpkin soup or aubergine chicken wraps, alongside more unusual recipes like stuffed mackerel, hazelnut and lemon pilaf, or fish poached in paper.

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I hope you’ll read the cookbook, enjoying the scents and tastes of old Istanbul conjured up by the short extracts from the novels, and use it to create Ottoman feasts, an everyday supper, or even a delicious picnic!

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 To pre-order a signed copy, visit www.argonautbooks.com/preorder. The price includes postage, and books will be dispatched in mid-October.

Istanbul: behind the headlines

Sometimes you can step behind the barrage of news, like stepping into that calm secret place behind a waterfall. Take stroll around Istanbul, as I’ve been doing these last few days. Have a glass of pickle juice at the pickle shop – very good for the stomach.

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Take a wander through the fish market, where we bought lufer, Yashim’s favourite fish, and red mullet the size of your thumb, which I dusted with flour and pepper and fried.

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Pick up a salad…

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to go with some good bread…

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pausing only to admire the portrait of the baker’s impressive grandfather…

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and remembering to collect my own, patient father…

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before taking a look at some of the 19th century architecture along the old Grande Rue de Pera, now Istiklal, Istanbul’s answer to Oxford St (and getting as tacky).

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Out again, to find more delights for Yashim’s next venture:

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Ottoman London

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We are almost ready to launch Yashim’s incidental meisterwerk, YASHIM COOKS ISTANBUL: Culinary Adventures in the Ottoman Kitchen, on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. As soon as it launches you will be able to order copies, watch the video – and even sign up for a guided tour of Ottoman London.

Leighton House

Everyone who has signed up for my newsletter will also hear about the new audio version of Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire, and get the first news about a forthcoming Yashim adventure.

Taking a tour of Ottoman London suggested itself last month after some of the high-end travel companies cancelled their trips to Istanbul. London has links with the Ottoman world dating to Elizabethan times, so the capital is riven with echoes and exemplars of Ottoman life and culture, from Wren’s St Paul’s cathedral to orientalist palaces like Leighton House. We will spend the day exploring some of these unexpected refractions of the Ottoman world, as well as art and artefacts in museums like the V&A, with lunch included, a lecture and a movie in London’s plushest private cinema.

Once again, I’ll be giving the details of all this via the newsletter.

 

 

Yashim Cooks Istanbul

A Yashim cookery book would be an appetising prospect.
The Guardian

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Here is the cover design for YASHIM COOKS ISTANBUL, featuring the recipes used by Yashim, my Ottoman investigator, over the course of his five published adventures. They range from light meze to serious dishes, pilafs, puddings, pastries and pickles, imbued with Ottoman flavours.

So many of you urged me to write this book. It has meant a lot of testing and experimentation. So nettle pilaf didn’t make the cut; nor did Priest’s Stew, a beef daube with vinegar backnotes. Good, but not that good – but wait till you try the sensational beetroot pilaf! And please let me know what you think of the cover.

One of the great things about the book is that it allows me to take control, seeing it through from conception to design to edit to print. I’ve had some brilliant professional assistance, especially on design and editing. I’m talking to several printers, in the UK, China and Italy and – whoever gets the job – the book is going to be a feast. It will be a hard case book of 224 pages, full colour throughout, on tactile, bulky, offset woodfree paper. Head and tail bands, gorgeous endpapers. Final details to be decided.

As well as illustrating the recipes we have studded the book with stunning visual references that put Yashim’s Istanbul on display – Ottoman costume, street scenes, some really early photographs. The recipes are interlaced with scenes from the Yashim books which deal with food. The recipes themselves aren’t complex and they don’t need to you to go out and find wildly exotic ingredients. Turkish food isn’t like that – it’s more about warm spices, nuts, vegetable dishes, pilafs. There are recipes for lamb and fish, lots of salads, and little meze for snacks or starters. If you know Istanbul, you’ll know it’s about freshness, things in season, and sometimes the simplest things being the most delicious.

The official launch date for publication is October 27th.

Meanwhile I’m going to keep in closer touch with Yashim’s readers by sending out the occasional email. Letters are, frankly, more my style. If you’d like to receive them, just subscribe here.

Saving Istanbul’s unique urban farms

Istanbul’s 1500-year old market gardens are on the brink of destruction – to make a park.

Istanbul’s massive city walls stretch seven miles across the Istanbul peninsula like a collar, from the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmara. They were built in the fifth century when Constantinople was still young, double walls of stone with bands of red brick, regularly punctuated by crenelated towers. For centuries they successfully defied the enemies of Byzantium, resisting over thirty sieges before succumbing in 1204 to a Crusader army, and to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. They are what city walls should be, vast and forbidding, the model for castles in far-off Wales, and a thousand episodes of Game of Thrones. Defenders have flocked to them, many have died upon them, scaling ladders have been hurled upon them, and they have been cursed and blessed in a hundred languages, in the name of half a dozen gods.

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But when the smoke clears and the rubble slithers to a stop, while empires fall and kingdoms are overthrown, you may hear the persistent scratching sound that marks the passage of those walls down the centuries. It is the sound of mattock and hoe on soil, the sound of untold generations of gardeners planting seed in the shadow of the city walls. Even today, peering down from the ruined towers of Yedikule, it is thrilling and sobering to see the little plots of lettuces and onion shoots, leeks and radishes, rolling away from you in a green ribbon as far as the eye can see. Like the walls, these little gardens have survived right down from the days of the Byzantines to our own, and Yashim, I imagine, strolled here, and bought an oka of fresh tomatoes from the gardeners of his day.

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Actually, the gardens have lasted better. The walls were kept up until the early 19th century, and then allowed to decline. For much of their length they are crumbling, and in places they have suffered the indignity of being bulldozed aside to accommodate more roads, in a city that has ballooned from 2 million to 16 million inhabitants in twenty years. The walls no longer enclose the city, as it marches away across the hills towards the airport, and Thrace, devouring and disembowelling the landscape with structures more massive – and unquestionably more repellent – than anything the fifth century could conceive.

The line of the walls, shaded with green, visibly encloses old - crowded - Istanbul

The line of the walls, shaded with green, visibly encloses old – crowded – Istanbul

The gardens have flourished, while the stone decays. If you are in a philosophical mood, you might see the counterpoint between the walls and the gardens, between these two currents of human activity, as positively Ozymandean. Up there, the ravages of war and conflict, and the gestures of pride; down here, quiet digging and planting, and basketloads of edible leaves. The lettuce of Yedikule is famous across Istanbul. The two, as ever, march side by side.

The Yedikule market gardens in the 1880s

The Yedikule market gardens in the 1880s

But not for very much longer, if Istanbul’s mayor has his way. For some years we’ve been hearing about a plan to turn the market gardens of Yedikule into a park. There would be lighting, and landscaping, and a pool. There would be paths, and swings. A scruffy and essentially unregulated zone that has scarcely changed in fifteen hundred years would be Cleaned Up. The plans have that air of slightly desperate sadness we have learned to expect from architectural visions: lonely trees, anonymous people, purposeless activity. And, one half-assumed, the whole thing would be put off indefinitely.

This January, contractors came to the Yedikule gardens and tore down the gardener’s sheds, where they keep their tools and seed.

That they haven’t yet – at time of writing this post – bulldozed the gardens themselves is a miracle, and may have something to do with a surge of protest led by the gardeners themselves and supported by Istanbul’s Slow Food movement.

http://www.slowfood.com/istanbuls-historical-yedikule-gardens-face-destruction/

If you can, do click on the link below and help Slow Food by signing the petition.

Save Yedikule Gardens

By the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Yashim walked slowly across the Hippodrome, towards the obelisk that the emperor Constantine had brought from Egypt 1500 years ago. He wondered what they meant, those perfect birds, those unwinking eyes, the hands and feet incised with unearthly precision on the gleaming stone.

He stopped for a moment in the pencil of the obelisk’s shade, and touched its base. Trajan’s column stood fifty yards beyond, a slender bole of rugged stone, weathered and clamped with great bronze staples, its base carved with a Roman emperor’s Balkan triumphs, helmeted legionaries crammed together with their short swords drawn; the stamp of horses, the abasement of chieftains and kings, the flinging of bridges across rivers, and the lament of women. The scenes were hard to decipher, too; the stone had been softer.

Beneath it, Arab traders had pitched a wide green tent on poles. A string of mules went by, and as Yashim lowered his gaze to watch them pass his eye was caught by the twining stalk of the Serpent Column, hollow and broken like a reed: a twist of ancient verdigris no bigger than a withered palm-tree, set in a triumphal axis between the obelisk and the column.

It had been made over two thousand years before, a miracle of craftsmanship to celebrate the miracle of Greek victory over the Persians at Plataia, with three fearsome snake’s heads supporting a great bronze cauldron. It had stood for centuries at the oracle of Delphi, until Constantine seized it and dragged it here to beautify his new capital. The centuries since had been unkind to it. The cauldron was long gone; the heads, more recently, had disappeared.

Yashim had known the Serpent Column for years before he first saw the bronze heads in Palewski’s wardrobe. He had imagined them to look like real snakes, with broad jaws and small, reptilian eyes, so he had been shocked by the monsters whose cruel masks he had explored by candlelight that evening. They were creatures of myth and nightmare, fanged, blank-eyed, seeking to terrorise and devour their prey. Malevolence seeped from them like blood.

Yashim leaned over the railing, to peer down into the pit from which the Serpent Column sprang. The other columns stood on level ground. Was it because the snakes emerged from somewhere deeper, some dark, submerged region in the mind? He shuddered, with an instinctive horror of everything cultish and pagan. From above, the coiling snakes looked like a drill, a screw digging deeper and deeper into the fabric of the city, penetrating its layers one by one.

If you turned it so that the coils bit deeper into the ground, if you traced the sinuous curves of the serpents’ bodies from the tail up, you would bring the fanged monsters closer. And eventually you would find yourself staring into those pitiless hollow eyes and the gaping mouth, into the dark side of myths and dreams: terrorised, and then devoured.

Yashim glanced back at the Egyptian obelisk. It seemed cold and reserved, careless of its fate. The Roman column was nothing but a platitude: empires decay.

But between them, the green-black coils of the brazen serpents referred to a dark enigma, like a blemish in the human soul.

From The Snake Stone

 

Jeremy Seal has made a useful assessment of the current travel situation here.

Mindfulness, Ottoman style?

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The Ottomans, being meritocrats who rewarded talent over accidents of birth, were naturally keen on self-improvement. If you entered palace service, you were educated formally at first, and then expected to carry on improving your skills and learning new ones. By the end, if you were good, you were in a position to handle the demands of high office. You might even make it to Grand Vizier.

I shall never make vizier, but I approve of the Ottoman attitude to self-improvement. We all try to get better at what we do, and perhaps we should try to get better at things we don’t do, too, or didn’t until now. This year I set aside my books and learned how to restore an ancient house, how to write a screenplay using Final Draft and how to take photographs, principally of food. As many of you will know from your own experience, the effort proved enjoyable, and worthwhile.

I needed beautiful pictures to illustrate Yashim’s Istanbul Cook Book, for which many of you have already kindly tested recipes. I do have beautiful pictures of Ottoman Istanbul, with old maps, illustrations and engravings, to accompany the text and help evoke the atmosphere of Yashim’s Istanbul. I have lovely photographs of the modern city, its markets, ferries, domes and shops, to forge the link between Yashim’s time and our own. That leaves only the dishes themselves to be portrayed, hinting at their excellence.

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Advised by a website called thewoksoflife I bought a new sort of lens, and took estimable advice and instruction available on the internet. Bearded professionals revealed some of the secrets of their craft on YouTube, camera buffs on chatrooms discussed the virtues of RAW and jpeg, and bloggers, in Manhattan lofts as in Cornish villages, showed off their cooking and photographic skills. Absorbing all this, I realised it came down to: the right lens, and the right sort of light. The right lens makes the background blur, which we photographers call bokeh, and the right light is daylight.

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After that, all you need is delicious food, charming surfaces, acceptable crockery, table cloths, clean spoons, salt cellars and small bowls, a scattering of fresh parsley from your garden and a tripod, for which sometimes a box will serve. You also need a reflector, to chase away shadows. I was told I needed tweezers, too, for arranging salad leaves, but I skipped that. I relied on opposable thumbs.

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Above all you need to get your food ready while it is still light, and you need to eat something yourself before you set it all out, otherwise you get hasty. And greedy.

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Patience is absolute. Remember Mustafa the Soup Master in The Janissary Tree?

“As for himself, he thought, patience was his second skin. How could he have lived his life, and not acquired patience in positively redemptive quantities?”