Although I regularly go to concerts at the Abbaye de Royaumont (20km north of Paris) during the musical season, it was the first time I had stayed for dinner afterwards.
The presentation was tempting: Turkish cuisine, a dinner prepared by the chef of the Armada Hotel in Istanbul. I already felt myself transported to the banks of the Bosporus, walking between St. Sophia’s and the Blue Mosque.
The concert entitled “Passions d’Istanbul” was held in the monks’ refectory. Daylight filtered discreetly through the high windows.
The Abbaye de Royaumont is well known for its efforts to promote medieval music throughout the world. During the year seminars, conferences and exhibitions are held there, and the concerts are often followed by gastronomical tastings. The musical season of 2001 was inaugurated on 17th June with the performance of compositions by Kudsi Ergüner. Inspired by the Ottoman musical tradition the composer formed an orchestra with a large number of instruments and the use of Armenian, Greek and Turkish voices, singing religious and secular arias. The beat of the drum evoked the march of the Janissary soldiers.
Kudsi Ergüner’s melodies perfectly reflect Istanbul’s heterogeneous culture and the composer, himself a ney player (oriental flute), also wrote “L’artiste est comme le miel, ce qu’il reçoit se retrouve dans le goût de ce qu’il fait”(the artist is like honey, what he receives he finds in the flavor of what he makes). An exquisite prelude for a late Empire dinner.
Like the music which was imported and developed in Istanbul, eclectic cooking traditions also became popular in the Sultans’ courts. This was luxurious, extraordinarily rich cuisine, in contrast to the culinary particularities of popular cuisine in the various communities, and the regional varieties imported with the immigration that took place over the centuries. Nowadays we find a globalization of flavors in tourist restaurants aiming to produce “international” cuisine.
Contrary to popular belief, the culinary arts in the large Islamic cities have never been unchanging in nature but instead have always been open to influences and trends. This is the type of cooking of the great chefs of the palaces of Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo in the Middle Ages. Starting in the reign of Sultan Mehmet II, conqueror of Constantinople, a multitude of chefs worked at the Topkapi Saray, experimenting and creating their dishes in the six kitchen buildings. A specific place was reserved here for each specialty developed. Recipes from Istanbul traveled all over the Ottoman empire, despite the comparatively small Turkish population. This is why in Albania and Algeria we can find almost identical preparations of eggplant or puff pastries (baklawa). Only a part of the whole culinary heritage is actually known. With a decree in 1925, the policy of modernization adopted by the founder of the Turkish republic, Kemal Ataturk, attempted to cancel out everything related to the Ottoman Empire, starting with the Arabic characters used to transcribe the language, the Sufi confraternities and their music. And cooking obviously also fell victim to this cultural massacre. Over the last 20 years or so, however, there has been an attempt to recreate the musical and culinary past. Stefanos Yerasimos has recently written a book about Ottoman cooking, which is the result of in-depth research carried out in the Turkish archives, and it is due to be published in October 2001.
The dinner I attended observed no serving protocol of any kind, as it was a buffet at which the diners served themselves freely. There were a dozen cold and hot starters, a dozen main dishes in large copper pots and to conclude, a dozen desserts. Just one wine. All this had to be tasted in record time, since the dinner lasted one and a half hours.
As I am no expert in the typical cuisine of Istanbul, I could only taste, without comparing. The Turkish and Greek music-lovers at my table seemed enraptured by the first mouthful of imam bayildi (“fainted imam”), eggplant stuffed with tomato and onion. This is just one of the forty ways to prepare eggplant that the Turks claim as their own. The dishes after this took me on a trip across the Orient: vine leaves stuffed with pine nuts and Corinthian sultanas, Syrian-style pureed chick-peas, Circassian chicken, which is very special (cold sliced of chicken with a walnut sauce), stuffed peppers (these American vegetables were only introduced here at the end of the 18th century), and then pastrami (Turkish ham) and Armenian spiced sausage, large dishes of pilaf rice reminiscent of Iran and puff pastry stuffed with cheese from Azerbaidjan.
At this point the two chefs from Istanbul, Mustafa Kayahan and Sefer Ozturk, were introduced to us: we applauded them as well-to-do Sicilian families would their Monsù.
By the time we got to the main dishes I was already almost full, and good sense warned me to only taste one dish in order to leave room for dessert. “Sultan’s lamb” is diced lamb cooked in tomato sauce and served with an unusual looking sauce, a light coloured cream whose ingredients I was unable to discover without the help of an expert. Once again it was eggplant, this time cooked in milk and cheese. The flavor was completely new to me and absolutely delicious.
The long-awaited sumptuous desserts recalled the banquets of the past, and crowned the evening. A sweet creamed rice abundantly sprinkled with rose water, succulent carrot pastry and semola with pinenuts were all equally good. Baklava with pistachios, red and green lukum (rahat halkoum), dried apricot and peach pastries in thin slices, sesame halwa and more, were a real treat for the eyes even for those who had no more room for tasting.
All these delicacies form a common heritage for the peoples of the east and Maghreb, and they were all developed in the kitchens of the palaces of Caliphs and Sultans, which became real taste laboratories. The authentic nature of eastern cuisine actually consists in its varied origins and influences. The cooking and the music by Kudsi Ergüner I had just heard that afternoon produced an expert blend of sophisticated flavors. Today urban cooking styles, following their path towards modernization, vacillate between defending their traditions and quick, easy solutions.
However, cynical as it may seem, the poverty of most of the population dictates the continuing use of cereals, fresh vegetables and pulses, while meat and fish take a secondary role. As for eastern fast-food, it has moved far away: in Paris, Berlin and London, sharmawa and felafel are loved by sandwich eaters.
Lilia Zaoualiis a lecturer in anthropology of the Islamic world at the University of Jussieu, Paris.
Photo: The Abbaye de Royaumont (http://tourisme.voila.fr/villes/stdenis/fra/sit/aroyaumo/aroyaumo/acc.htm)