The Ay family collects chestnuts under the snow-covered mountain Uludag in Turkey. They throw handfuls into wicker baskets, each of them nut-bellied and shiny like lacquer. Their pace is brisk because the collection season is short from mid-October to mid-November and gets colder every day until the skiers hit the mountain.
I follow Mesut Ay past quince and loquat trees, the air cool and clean, the garden wet and glittering. The family has lived here for generations. They are small traders who sell only 250 kilos a year, a tiny fraction of the 60,000 tons that Turkey produces as one of the largest chestnut-growing countries in the world. The mountain nuts of the Ays are so valued that traders drive to them from Istanbul in three hours.
As we talk, thick ridges fall around us and delight a couple of hideous mountain pups. In Turkish, chestnuts have the nickname kirpiwhat hedgehog means. Mesut’s father Mustafa insists that the ridges, prickly like sea urchins and green like AstroTurf, fall naturally from trees rather than smashed by sticks. So there is less damage. Whacking is only for tougher walnuts.
Nazire, Mesut’s mother, comes up with a basket full to the brim and tells me that chestnuts have always been a part of her life. When she was little, she signed letters to school friends with a happy little song, “Kestane kebap, yemesi sevap, acele cevap”which rhymes nicely in Turkish and in English means something like “roasted chestnuts, good to eat, write back quickly”.
In Great Britain, chestnuts are more reserved for festive tables, for example with sprouts or for stuffing. They can be used in many ways: deliciously fried in butter with marjoram, for example, stirred into risottos or mixed into soups and stews as in France, Spain and Portugal.
They have been part of Turkish culture for thousands of years. Chestnut trees bloomed in ancient Sardis, the Lydian capital in western Anatolia. In ancient Greece, the thinker Diphilus called them “Sardis acorns” and considered them nutritious and tasty; the doctor Mnesitheus of Athens warned that digesting too much wind promotes it. The Romans renamed the nuts Castanea, which gives both the modern Turkish name and Kestan, and the English botanical name Castanea sativa. Today, Turkish cooks await their arrival just as British cooks look forward to the asparagus season. They are put in cabbage leaves, spread through lamb pilaf, mixed in helva and crumbled into ice cream.
In the industrial city of Bursa, below the Uludag mountain, screams come from “Kestan, Kestan!” (“Kastanien, Kastanien!”) From competing suppliers. Chestnut smoke wafts between the worshipers from Ulu Camii, the Great Mosque with its 20 domes, and passes shops selling chestnut boxes candied with ribbons. None of these shops can compete with Ulus. It’s like stepping on the set of a Wes Anderson movie.
Founded in 1928, some customers may come lokum (Turkish delight), but most are waiting for candied chestnuts, especially in winter when their sweet, rich caramel scent fills the air from the workshop to the rear. All around are portraits of the late founder Rasim Oztat, dressed in a heavy black wool coat and polished shoes. Behind the counter, next to the original till, Akile Oztat remembers her father-in-law with awe. “As a little boy he came from Yugoslavia and started selling sweets in the bazaar from a tray that he carried on his head,” she tells me. “At first people teased him and his chestnuts, but his business grew until Ulus’ reputation was so great that Ataturk got chestnuts from us.” I bite into my first candied chestnut. Fudgy, syrupy, filling, and indulgent, just right for winter.
When skiers return from Mount Uludag, it is a tradition to take home a souvenir box of candied chestnuts. Then the Kardelen (“snowdrop”) factory, which specializes in decorated cans and fancy boxes of candied chestnuts, is booming. In the factory garden full of persimmons I meet the co-owners Deniz Utku Özdemir and Moomin Akgun. There is little the couple doesn’t know about chestnuts.
“Marrons glaces are considered French goods all over the world except Turkey, ”says Özdemir, who originally comes from Ankara. “It is a mistake to believe that we took the idea from the French. Think of it this way, when you have strawberries in your country you will eventually make jam. If you have meat, you will cure it. First, it’s a method of preservation. We don’t need a debate or an attempt to prove it. “
Kardelen has been booming since 1991 and exports to Italy, the Gulf States and even to Parisian supermarkets. “We polarized France a little,” continues Özdemir. “Young people love our fresh-tasting candied chestnuts, with less sugar and a stronger chestnut flavor. But some seniors are against the idea of changing an iconic candy just a little bit. “
In wintry Istanbul, fog swirls between the ferries and the minarets boza Sellers are out, a sure sign of the season. Boza, a thick, pudding-colored fermented millet drink, topped with dried chickpeas and a pinch of cinnamon, strengthens and I carry a plastic cup of it, under a liver-like, rainy sky, towards the scent of chestnuts.
At the port of Kadiköy I find Fikret Gunar and his uncle Sabri Akkaya from the Black Sea town of Kastamonu, who get smaller, wild chestnuts from the forests around their hometown. They have been roasting chestnuts with a mangal and some charcoal here for 75 years. “Come with me to tea,” says Gunar and pushes a warm chestnut into my hand. While I nibble at it, they release Bursa’s famous nuts, as proud Black Mermen could do. “The chestnuts from Bursa don’t open so nicely, they are only suitable for candying,” says Gunar. Not all would agree. In the 17th century, the great scholar and traveler Evliya Celebi stated that Bursa chestnuts were unrivaled anywhere in the world.
One chef eagerly awaiting the chestnut season is Musa Dagdeviren, best known for Çiya, his chain of restaurants in Kadikoy, and more recently for his appearance on the Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table. Dagdeviren is a hunter-gatherer of lost Turkish recipes. He does field work in a similar way to an archaeologist doing an excavation – no village is too remote, no weeds, no spices or no seeds are discarded. At Çiya you might find blessed thistle, hemp seeds or turkey testicles on your plate. At lunchtime, Dagdeviren comes with wire glasses, a thick plaid shirt, and a tweed vest. Like the nearby roasting plants, Çiya’s chestnuts also come from the Black Sea region. “Small Black Sea chestnuts that grow wild between old oaks are the very best. No preservatives, no pesticides, straight from the tree to the table, ”he begins. “When they go to warehouses, worms can be a problem. . . Since the season only lasts 30 days, people are very disappointed when they are not available. “
As we chat, good things come up, including lamb meatballs with chestnuts and peppers, which are first roasted together over a coal fire and then boiled again in pomegranate juice. Last week there was a dish with quince, apricots, chestnuts and lamb. In the past, there was a sublime salad of chestnuts with basil, parsley, and green onions in olive oil, as well as a dessert where the nuts were first wrapped in a cloth bag, then boiled in lemon syrup and served with cinnamon sprinkled on top.
Dagdeviren sighs as he remembers a Kurdish recipe that was found on the border with Iraq, a fortifying barley soup made from lamb and chestnuts that has now almost been forgotten. “The problem is that food is not protected like other areas of culture. It takes centuries for a kitchen to develop, but it can all too easily disappear, ”he says.
At the end of the conversation, we agree a little philosophically that a nut is never just a nut. Rather, it is a resource and an opportunity, even a promise. I push the plate of meatballs over to me. The sweet and tart pomegranate with smoky lamb is beautifully harmonious, and the hot chestnuts that are sprinkled over it are beneficial. It is a simple but extraordinary dish that warms you up like a whiskey by the fireplace on a winter night.
Caroline Eden’s latest book is Red Sands: Reportage and Recipes Through Central Asia, from Hinterland to Heartland (Quadrille, £ 26)
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