Havva Duran took the aubergine and sliced into the skin, deftly swishing the blade upwards at her body as thin roads of rich purple skin fell away from the flesh. Having spent my entire life following kitchen safety rule number one – don’t point a knife towards you – she wasn’t having much luck convincing me that it’s easier to slice vegetables holding them in your hand rather than on a board. She clucked her tongue and chuckled as the five participants in this cooking lesson endeavoured, with painful slowness, to copycat the zebra stripe vegetable peeling method she had demonstrated.
While I was grappling with not trying to slice my wrists open, Havva moved onto preparing the onion. I winced as she held it in her palm, making quick, deep criss-cross gashes in the flesh. “This is the Turkish way of cutting vegetables,” Tolga Duran said as he stepped behind his mother.
If I even attempted that an ambulance would have to be called within minutes.
A garlicky aroma wafted through the kitchen as the vegetables fried on the stove-top. Tolga and his wife Tuba kept a steady eye on the stirring while Havva showed us how to make a barley soup. Just outside, a clutch of chickens kept up a staccato soundtrack of satisfied clucks.
In the Cappadocia village of Ayvalı the Duran family are opening the door into the culinary world of a Turkish mama. Often hailed as one of the world’s great cuisines, the complex meze (small plates) dishes, kebaps (kebabs) and rich Ottoman court dishes of Turkey have worked themselves onto restaurant menus across the world but the simple hearty dishes that provide the very backbone of this nation’s cooking have so far been ignored. Tolga and Havva are turning around that trend offering a chance to learn those elusive recipes, full of the harvest-fresh flavours of the Anatolian plains.
“We buy our flour and barley at the market but everything else we use here is all from just outside and it’s all organic,” Tolga told me as we walked through the sprawling back garden. The entire space behind the Duran household, where three generations of the family live together, is a giant vegetable plot sprouting rows of fat green cabbages, bulbous courgettes, trailing tomato vines and shady fruit trees.
With its surreal moonscape of twisted volcanic rock and Byzantine remnants of rock-cut churches, Cappadocia is one of Turkey’s most popular tourist destinations but Ayvalı feels a step apart from the region’s other villages. Tractors chug up the main road coming back from the fields. A squiggle of twisting cobblestone streets lined with honey hued stone houses lead down the hill to a narrow valley where the cliff face is pockmarked with abandoned pigeon cotes. Tolga used to work as a chef in a local hotel. “There weren’t any places for guests to eat out in the village so the hotel kept asking me if my mother would take groups at our house.” That was five years ago. “The first tour leader who came here convinced me that people wanted to experience proper local cooking.”
A complete family affair, Havva rules the kitchen roost, Tolga and Tuba lend a hand, and their two young boys peek around the door occasionally to check if the foreigners have managed not to cut themselves or catch the stove on fire. With the soup simmering away, we carefully split the glossy aubergines and spooned a tomato infused mixture of fried vegetables over the top to make the dish karnıyarık. After that was transferred to the oven to bake, it was time to make mantı (Turkish ravioli).
Using an oklava (Turkey’s skinny broomstick of a rolling pin) takes some getting used to. Havva made it look easy, using the weight of her flat palms to spread the mantı dough flat across the worktop, creating one even thin sheet. Our attempts afterwards were not quite so deft. Once rolled, the dough was cut into tiny squares and we gathered around to fold them into miniature parcels, stuffed full of spiced mince.
One of my fellow cookery class participants had got the hang of mantı making rather quicker than the rest of us. “I’m really glad we’re making something complicated. Most classes don’t have the patience to teach you something like this,” she said as a pile of pinched dough parcels mounted up on the worktop beside her. A self-confessed foodie, she’d been travelling for the past five months and taking cooking classes where ever she went. “This is the first one where it’s actually been in somebody’s home and felt authentic, as if we’re experiencing part of family life,” she told me.
With the soup, the vegetable starter and the mantı main out of the way it was onto dessert. Balı dolaz tatlısı is a local pudding, made from flour. When ready, this simple farmer’s dish was topped with huge golden hunks of honeycomb which oozed sticky goodness across the tops of the flour cakes. There was now nothing left to do but eat.
While we’d been busy a low table had been laid behind us. It was groaning under the weight of food. There was creamy white yoghurt drizzled with sticky dollops of pekmez (grape molasses), tangy spiced mecimek kofte (lentil balls) and slices of soft home-made cheese. We slurped up the soup, devoured the soft, smoky aubergine of the karnıyarık, cleaned our bowls of mantı, scraping up every lick of the garlicky tomato sauce it was served with, and crunched through the honeycomb sucking up the sweet honey centre.
As we left there was one last foodie surprise. As Havva hugged us goodbye, she presented us each with a bag of dried apricots. She’d made them herself of course. They tasted completely unlike shop bought apricots. These were crisp yet chewy, nearly candied in their flavour.
Food is so much more than mere sustenance in Turkey. It is the cord that binds family life together. Here in Turkey’s rural heartland the journey from farm to table is short, picked fresh out of the ground and put on the table that night. People still plan their meals on the seasonal produce on hand. Families still work the land and get together to make the preserves and pickles to store for the long, cold Anatolian winters. Learning to cook this way is a lesson not only in the hearty rustic dishes of a land long given plaudits for its food culture, but also a lesson in eschewing the fancy TV chef techniques and expensive kitchen gizmos to instead learn old fashioned, honest cooking that comes directly from the heart.
Cooking classes with Havva can be booked with Cappadocia Home Cooking.