Thursday, April 5, 2012

Fresh Baked Baklava in Turkey

Gaziantep, gateway to southeastern Anatolia, claims to be the historic homeland of Turkey’s most famous pastry. Among the evocative ruins of past powers, bazaars, and museums, nearly 200 pastry shops compete to bake the best version of baklava – and with excellent restaurants and coffee and tea houses, too, Gaziantep has become something of a culinary capital.

Capital of Turkey’s Gaziantep province and the country’s sixthlargest city, Gaziantep is also one of the oldest continuously inhabited towns in the world. Lying on a valuable caravan route connecting Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Anatolia, the town saw many powers, including the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans pass through its portals. The ghosts of these transient rulers can sometimes be felt in the evocative and melancholy old ruins that dot the modern city.

Above The ancient Kale, or walled citadel, was in use as a defensive structure until the end of the Ottoman empire in the early 20th century.

Gaziantep is an important center of traditional and modern industry. Around the town, coppersmiths can be seen, smelled, and above all heard as they hammer away at glinting pots and pans. But this is also one of Turkey’s most productive agricultural regions, and Gaziantep is the epicenter of the region’s famous fıstık (pistachio) cultivation, the fundamental ingredient for the town’s famous pastry, baklava. A local saying has it that you are never more than five minutes’ walk from one of the town’s innumerable pastry shops, and both Turkish and foreign tourists alike flock to the town to satisfy a sweet tooth and a growling stomach.

The baklava, with its countless layers of crisp filo pastry filled with chopped nuts that ooze syrup or honey, is found all over Turkey. The word “baklava” may stem from a Mongolian-Turkic word meaning “to pile up,” and local tradition has it that the pastry was developed in the imperial kitchens of the Topkapı Palace in Istanbul as a way of pleasing and placating the Sultan. The dessert later became fashionable throughout the Ottoman empire. Gaziantep’s acclaimed version is always made with pistachios and is judged to be the best not just in Turkey, but in the world.
 The city’s top baklava chefs claim the secret lies in selecting the finest and freshest local ingredients: carefully sourced and organically grown pistachio nuts, olive oil, and honey. Gaziantep’s soil is believed to infuse the ingredients with a special flavor and aroma, and its top chefs use pastry skills and recipes often closely guarded within a family for generations. According to local connoisseurs, the perfect pastry should be light in the hand, sweet (but not overly syrupy) in the mouth, and, above all, crisp to the bite.
 A Gaziantep baklava fresh out of the oven, served with a cup of thick, dark Turkish coffee, is an eating experience never forgotten. It’s no wonder that so many visitors to Gaziantep come away with a copper Turkish coffee pot tucked under one arm and a box of baklava under the other.

A Day in Gaziantep 
 Most of the sights, pastry shops, cafés, and restaurants can be found within strolling distance of the square still popularly known as Hükümet Konağı (Government House).
 Climb up to the Roman-built, Seljuk-restored Kale (citadel) for a great view of the city. Then visit the bazaar, where you can wander the stands, alleyways, and workshops and shop for pistachios. Stop for coffee and baklava at Tahmis kahvehane (coffeehouse) or Tütün Hanı teahouse, set in an atmospheric former caravanserai – a fortified inn built to protect and house travelers on the Silk Road.
Head for the Gaziantep Museum and the Zeugma Kültür ve Müze Merkezi on İstasyon Caddesi, with its stunning collection of Roman mosaics. Picnic in the lovely 100 Yıl Atatürk Kültür Parkı, then explore the Hasan Süzer Ethnography Museum just off Atatürk Caddesi, in a 200-year-old traditional Gaziantep house. EVENING
 Take in the 19th-century Kurtuluş Camii mosque and the Alaüddevle Camii, near the coppersmith market, where you can pick up that copper coffee pot.
 Domestic flights from Istanbul serve Oguzeli Airport, a short taxi or bus ride from downtown.
 Has Hotel (inexpensive) is centrally located, with plain but well-furnished, spotless rooms. email: Anadolu Evleri (moderate) is a traditional stone house near the bazaar. Dayı Ahmet Ağa Konağı (moderate–expensive) offers central, boutique-style rooms in a konak (mansion).
 100 Yıl Atatürk Kültür Parkı; +90 342 230 5969
The Best Places to Eat Baklava
 İmam Çağdaş 
 Family-run İmam Çağdaş is arguably Gaziantep’s best baklavacı (baklava shop). The eponymous owner, Burhan Çağdaş, grandson of İmam Dede who founded the pastry shop in 1887, exports his little boxes of baklava daily all across the country and abroad too, including, it is rumored, to Turkey’s premier himself, President Abdullah Gül. Burhan sustains his success and high standards by using only high-quality, organic ingredients hand-selected from carefully sourced local producers.
 Though the recently relocated pastry shop itself is unremarkable, decorated in a plain, contemporary style, it is on the excellence of his pastries that Burhan has continued the Çağdaş family reputation. According to Burhan, his baklava should be eaten not with the knife and fork supplied but with the thumb and index finger, placing the baklava in the top of the mouth and then biting down. The baklavacı is open all day, serving pastries with coffee and preparing parcels of baklava for its customers to take away.
 Eski Hal Civarı, Uzun Çarşı 47, Şahinbey, Gaziantep; +90 342 231 2678
Also in Gaziantep 
 Çavuşoğlu (+90 342 231 3069; moderate) has a good reputation as both a baklavacı and a kebapçı (kebab house) and is a good choice for a complete Turkish meal. Food is fresh, well-prepared, and well-priced and the baklava are legendary. Other famous Gaziantep baklavacıs well worth visiting include Baclava Ünlüler (+90 342 232 2043; inexpensive–moderate), and Fıstıkzade (+90 342 336 0020; inexpensive–moderate), both in the center of town.
 Also in Turkey
 Karaköy Güllüoğlu (+90 212 293 0910; moderate–expensive) opened in Istanbul in 1949, the first in a series of famous baklavacıs owned by the Güllü family. From the tantalizing pastry counter, customers can choose a porsiyon (portion) of whatever baklava takes their fancy, including cevizli (the walnut variety), fıstıklı (pistachio), or sade (plain).
 Around the World
 Güllüoğlu (718 645 1822; expensive) in Brooklyn, New York, is the first American branch of the famous Turkish chain founded by the Güllü family (see above). The bakers are trained in Istanbul and ingredients are flown in daily from Turkey.
 Other Sweet Treats 
 An old and oft-quoted Turkish saying goes “Eat sweet; talk sweet,” and tatlılar (candy and desserts) play a vital role in Turkish cultural life, accompanying many of life’s major events. At engagements and weddings, baklava is the traditional gift; lokma (fried dough balls in syrup) and helva (halva) are associated with funerals, as well as New Year, and a piece of Turkish delight wrapped in muslin is traditionally placed between the lips of a newborn child. Modern Turkish cookbooks list up to 300 sweet recipes, many bearing evocative names including hoşmerim (meaning “Something nice for my brave man”).

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