Thinking of Turkish food, the first images that come to mind are probably meze, the thousand different small plates for sharing, or the great variety of börek (pastries made with yufka, phyllo dough) or the omnipresent kebabs. Rarely do we think of cheese, and at most we might think only of something white and brined, similar to feta. But we would be doing a great disservice to Turkish gastronomy.
Turkey actually draws on many cheesemaking traditions—Middle Eastern, Asian, Persian, European—which are rendered unique by the country’s many native livestock breeds, and the fact that a third of the plant species are endemic. Hugely varied climate and environmental conditions add to the diversity. Indeed, the waters of the Anatolian peninsula flow into five different seas: the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Sea of Marmara, the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf.
Different techniques, native breeds, terroir, tradition: Larger than France, this country can easily rival what the world commonly thinks of as the home of cheese. The splendid tasting recently organized by the Slow Food Fikir Sahibi Damaklar Convivium in Istanbul offered ample confirmation.
Led by Nilhan Aras, a great connoisseur of Turkish cheesemaking traditions, and Defne Koryurek, a Slow Food international councilor, we were lucky enough to be introduced to this little-known sphere of Turkish gastronomy. Just the discussion about yogurt, which can be dried, salted or even smoked, was enough to drop our jaws. Smoked yogurt is made by cooking cow’s milk with oak wood until it caramelizes. The final product has a unique fragrance of burnt grass and quite a bitter flavor.
Then came the infinite world of tulum, cheeses preserved in sheepskin, like Pergamo cheese or the incredible Konya Karaman küflü peynir, which involves an initial aging in sheepskin followed by further aging in caves, where the cheese develops the distinctive blue veining that makes it one of a kind. But it is with the extraordinary diversity of stretched-curd cheeses that Turkey really comes into its own: from the braided cheese of Diyarbakır to Antioch’s örgü, as coiled, long and narrow as a rope, to kerti from Erzurum, which has an unusual shredded texture and notes of fennel and fresh grass.
Slow Food in Turkey allowed us to take a virtual journey through the country, reaching as far as the Caucasus Mountains and the slopes of Mount Ararat, during a tasting that we would like to bring to the next edition of Cheese! The tasting confirmed the rich potential of gastronomy in Turkey, which hopes to be one of the pillars of Slow Food’s renewed efforts to map gastronomic traditions at risk of extinction through the Ark of Taste project.
Find out more about the world of artisan cheese and Slow Food’s campaign to protect it at www.slowfood.com/slowcheese