Gul receli, or rose petal jam, is one of Istanbul's distinctive pleasures, especially spooned over fresh fruit or stirred into yogurt. This jam was made by Nedret Butler, an architect and, with her huband Mark, owner of Sumahan on the Water, a boutique hotel on the Bosphorus.
Let's see. Where to start? So many pleasures, more than a few of them guilty....
Thick tangy Turkish yogurt, with plump sour cherries, drizzled with suzme bal, a.k.a. “runny” honey…
A wondrous start to the day, eaten, it must be said, in the pale dining room of the reincarnated Pera Palas Hotel, end of the line for the old Orient Express and former haunt of Kemal Ataturk, the man who set Turkey on its modern, secular course. Garbo slept here, as did Agatha Christie who, it’s said, wrote Murder on the Orient Express in Room 411, right next to our own…
This luscious compote is just one way of getting to known the gloriously acidic cherries that grow across Turkey and Eastern Europe. The tart fruit is also used to make visne suya, a refreshing sweet-and-sour juice. A dollop of visne receli, or cherry preserves, can make basic white toast almost irresistible.
So many other delicacies to taste so early in the morning: petek bal (natural honey comb), beyaz peynir (soft, salty white cheese), keci peyneri (tangy goat cheese), and simit, a crisp, sesame-encrusted “ring roll” bought from a street vendor a few steps from the door.
But gul receli or pink rose petal jam, soft and runny, with a blossom or two suspended in its translucent depths, was my downfall. A spoonful of the fragrant preserves, subtly perfumed with the scent of old roses, was all it took to transform simple watermelon slices into ambrosial fare.
Fergus Garrett, head gardener at Great Dixter House in England, wrote an evocative piece about the Turkish rose for Wayne Winterrowd's book, Roses: A Celebration. It was reprinted in Istanbul: The Collected Traveler, an astonishing city guide edited by Barrie Kerper. (If you’re going to Istanbul, this is the one book you must have.)
Among the 20 native species that grow in Turkey, the Isparta rose a.k.a rosa damascena, Garret writes, is “world renowned for the production of rose oil and rose water. “ He notes that in any “decent Turkish garden,” one will find “pink roses grown for the kitchen….highly scented and rich in essential oils.” He includes his mother’s recipe for this exquisite jam, made from rose petals from her own garden in Yalova, a resort town across the Sea of Marmara from Istanbul.
And then there is kaymak, the world’s most addictive, artery-clogging clotted cream. It’s made from water buffalo’s milk , which is boiled, then gently simmered for a few days until the cream can be scooped off, chilled and allowed to ferment, just a little. Kaymak doesn’t keep, so you must eat it up, all up, right away.
I first discovered kaymak at Abracadabra, an arty Arnavutkoy restaurant in a skinny wooden house perched on the edge of the Bosphorus, where chef Dilara Erbay spooned it over pistachio-rich baklava, oozing with honey. It was all downhill from there.
According to Wikipedia, a ban against “women’s presence in the kaymak shops” was enacted in 1573. There must have plenty of male patrons, however: In 500 Years of Ottoman Cooking, Mariana Yerasimos, who translates kaymak as “stiff cream,” says that in the 17th century, there were 40 kaymak shops in Istanbul alone. Then as now, the clotted cream was used to fill dried fruits such as apricots and figs which had been cooked in sherbet to soften them.
There are far fewer kaymak shops these days, but one of the best, cited by the blog Istanbul Eats, is the tiny Besiktas Kaymakci : “The marble counter is cracked and the paint on the walls is peeling. But the kaymak, served up by 84-year old Pando, a Turk of Bulgarian origin and a living institution in Istanbul’s untouristed Besiktas bazaar, is out of the is world….a plate of kaymak and honey, served with fresh bread and a glass of steaming hot milk , will set you back 4 lira.” (That’s about $2.80.)
Right now, I’m conjuring up a teletransporter. Anyone for breakfast in Istanbul?