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Published: August 10th 2014
KJ and Fatma
Prepping Karen for her Hazelnut picking chores.
The Hazelnut is something I normally only dwell on during the winter holidays. Usually as part of the one pound mixed bags I buy at the grocery store for Thanksgiving. I have one of those lacquered wooden 'Tree Bark' bowls that I park on the coffee table like my Mom used to. Hazelnuts are easy to open, compact little brown spheres that crack into perfect hemispheres between my molars. It is the poor-man's Macadamia. I'd never given them much thought until now.
It's Saturday morning and scurrying around me are a half-dozen, chattering women who look as if they've just stepped out of a 1910 Ellis Island 'new arrivals' photo. Loose fitting clothing, head scarves framing beautiful open faces. We're all tending to Ramazan cooking chores. Working together in the outdoor kitchen. Hacer ministers to an ancient, wood-burning cook stove, dropping oak twigs into the firebox. Hacile is washing an endless stream of dirtied pots and pans while her sister, Fatma, cleans the vegetables she has just harvested from the garden. I join two of the village women and together we clean the Hazelnuts that Karen and I had pulled off the backyard trees that morning. We toss the cleaned
Hacer Tending The Stove
Hacer is Engin's Mom. She worked in Germany for many years. We shared the language and developed a bond during my stay. She is the definition of 'Good People'
stones into a big aluminum bowl set on the ground before us. I work clumsily; uneducated fingers straining to pull the brown nuts free of their green husks while my coworkers laugh like the young, coltish girls they once were or perhaps still are. In that respect, women have always been a mystery to me. Their fingers blur as they shuck Hazelnuts with humiliating speed. They're hitting the pan so fast it sounds like hail on a barn roof. The neighbors hear the music and sprint over to assist. A Great-Grandmother takes the stool next to mine and starts in. Soon there are more workers than seats and I find myself struggling through the Turkish equivalent of a quilting bee sans basic sewing skills.
Karen and I had decided that the way we could best help the family was by replenishing the stores of Hazelnuts that were being voraciously consumed over the holiday. Our suggestion was well received. The ladies were as ecstatic as Shaker Quakers discovering unexpected converts on their doorstep. Fatma joyfully wrapped KJ's head in a village-style head scarf to protect her hair from the low-hanging branches. I was harnessed into a well-worn wicker basket and
off we stumbled down orchard hill. Tolga gives us the Hazelnut basics and leaves us to it. Hazelnuts grow in leafy, sticky clusters. We pull them off by the fist-full and press the wads down into the basket. It takes us only an hour to fill it up and when I lift the load onto my shoulders it feels like a good 50-pounds.
Later; Karen is sitting at a round table rolling out paper-thin disks of dough with a well-worn wooden spindle. She's being instructed by Serpil who is the supreme master of household baking chores. We had watched her at work earlier. Preparing the laminated dough and dividing it into small balls. She flours the work surface and begins creating perfect circles of thin phyllo. Each one exactly like the other. Her hands are faultless little machines that roll, turn, and flip the dough until it's the size and density she wants. She lays them in a big round pan. Stops every few layers to add crushed Hazelnuts and Ghee. Over and over and over until the pan is filled. She cross hatches the top into one inch diamonds and passes the pan to the woman running the
Lots to do after the vegetables are collected and brought into the prep area.
stove who places the pastry in the snug little oven. The red-hot metal box shimmers like an aching tooth. One Baklava done; Two more to go. Serpil downs a glass of spring water with a single pull and gets back to work. Inside the house, the men are still asleep having spent the entire night telling tales and sipping tea.
The village is called Lugana. The old Greek name that remains from those days when the land here was called Pontus. Remember those Amazons I wrote about before? The official Turkish name is Denizli Koyu. There is a single narrow road hammocked between two hilltops that overlook the Black Sea. A small Mosque with a single, gold-tipped Minaret, sits half-way down the lane. At night, after dinner, we all stroll together down this road. Diamond bright stars overhead. Tolga's Uncle Hayrettin leads the way. His right hand rides high on the shaft of his walking stick like Moses leading his people to the promised land. Families sit enjoying quiet time together on low benches outside their homes. Karen and I stick out in our foreign garb. They ask Tolga about us. Where we're from. Why we came. Tolga answers
Fastest Hazelnut huskers I've ever encountered. In fact; The only ones I've ever encountered.
each question and they smile and welcome us to Denizli. The youngsters try on their best school English. "How are you?", "We are well. Thank You for asking."
On our way back home we visit the birthday party of a 5-year old boy. It's 10 PM. A 'Smurf-Blue' birthday cake sits half-demolished on a table in the large room's center. The guest of honor is mesmerized by his new toy. A Radio-Shacky Coast Guard helicopter equipped with flashing lights, whirling rotors, sirens and a rescue-stretcher tethered by a winch. The boy lowers and raises the stretcher continuously, oblivious to the dozens of adults perched on chairs and sofas around him. A woman with a face as etched as the interior of a favored tea pot; sits with her nimble legs stretched across the floor. Her arms folded across her breast. She watches her Great-Grandson at play. The contented smile she wears takes twenty-years off. Eyes sparkling. Her back resting against the room's Walnut wall. Her family milled these very planks from the surrounding forests decades ago. Arrayed around the birthday cake are platters of salads, pastries and meats completely foreign to our eyes but intrinsic to this part of
KJ Gets Schooled
Serpil instructs Karen in proper pastry rolling technique.
Karen and I sit down on one of the many sofas that encircle the big room. Heaping plates of food and little glasses of hot Turkish tea are set before us. Yet another meal. Small bowls of toasted Hazelnuts are everywhere. People munch on them constantly. When we entered the home we were greeted by all of the occupants in turn. Half-moon smiles, kisses to both cheeks, hugs and double-fisted handshakes from the men. Tolga interprets. 'They say you are most welcome here'. And they mean it. Oh boy, do they ever. KJ and I are really 'Out There' this time.
When we first met Tolga in Istanbul he had told us about Denizli. His family, his childhood here. The summer days spent picking Hazelnuts from the orchard. The entire village working together to clean, dry and bag the nuts for sale to exporters. Exhausting labor that lasted from sun up to sun down. The Hazelnuts were trucked away in big, man-sized, burlap-bags to nearby Trabzon where they were loaded onto ships and sent off to international importers. Some of the freighters sailing as far west as North America via the Dardanelles and the Straits of
First Night's Dinner
Waiting for sunset prayers.
Gibraltar. Turkey produces so many Hazelnuts that I myself have probably eaten a few from this very village. We were so taken by Tolga's stories that we decided to visit the place on our swing around Turkey. What we never anticipated was the time we would arrive nor the welcome we would receive.
Canakkale was meant to be a three day stay. It turned into three weeks and then there was Izmir which was supposed to be a three day stay but turned into eight and then a week in Georgia so by the time we got to the village we were now deep into the Ramazan month. So deep in fact that when we arrived; Tolga's entire extended family was going to be there. Tolga picked us up at the Trabzon bus station, introduced us to his Mom and Dad at their apartment in Trabzon. They immediately served us a meal. (Any visit to a Turk's home will require that you devour a large quantity of food. We're not talking 'snacks'. We're talking 1,500 calorie repasts. Anything less just wouldn't be Turkish hospitality.) We drank tea and ate Hazelnut cookies that Mom had made for dessert. The cookies
Getting the low down on who was who and what was what way back when with Hacer and Serpil.
are a childhood favorite of Tolga's. We just got lucky.
From there we took a one-hour minibus ride to the big Lugana house arriving just in time for supper. During Ramazan, those who choose to do so, eat and drink nothing from sunrise to sunset. The first meal after dark is called 'Iftar'. The meal begins when the Muezzin (announcer) at the Mosque begins singing the 'Ezan' (call to the faithful) at sunset. It's like the starting bell at Churchill Downs. In Turkey, Iftar is the equivalent of our Thanksgiving with the exception being that they do this every night for a month. First there's soup and then the salads served with stuffed eggplant and veal stew and baskets of seasonal 'Pide' bread before they roll out plates piled high with flaky Hazelnut pastries shaped into squares and tubes and triangles, and the endless glasses of tea required to wash it all down with. We eat with the family. Seated around a large table on a glass enclosed balcony overlooking the village Mosque and behind it the Black Sea coastline. The view is a stunner. The family is the epitome of kindness. Muslims believe that guests are a gift
Taken from the dining room. Black Sea in the distance.
from Allah and should be treated accordingly. We are served first. We have learned to comply with this Turkish trait as our hosts refuse to take no for an answer and besides; hungry diners are waiting for you to get on with it.
Karen and I customarily rise early. We tip-toe into the now silent dining room where we open our e-mails. The star-strewn eastern horizon begins to shimmer in shades of lavender and rose. Fatma, the household manager, quietly rises, prepares a 4-course breakfast, serves us with a smile and heads back to bed. She will eat nothing for the next 13 hours. Her last meal was consumed at 2:30 that morning in accordance with Ramazan tradition.
This large, modern home replaced the small wooden original some twelve-years ago. Three stories high with 4 bathrooms, six bedrooms, two indoor kitchens and two balconies. Scrubbed from top to bottom. The house sits in the midst of the a six-generation, organic, family garden/ orchard. They grow Hazelnuts, Kiwi, Pomegranate, 2 kinds of Apples, Lemons, Pears growing in bunches like Grapes, huge Peaches, Peach-blushed Apricots, Cherries, Figs, Olives, Blackberries as big as your thumb, Raspberries, 5 kinds of Peppers, Corn,
Tolga Teaches KJ How It's Done
As a child Tolga spent 12 hour summer days harvesting and cleaning the nuts. Today he's a computer systems analyst in Istanbul.
Tomatoes, Green Beans, Eggplants, Onions, Garlic, arbors sagging under the weight of Green Grapes, Cucumbers and a plethora of fruits that I have never, in my life, seen before. All of the plants here are the progeny of those originally planted over a hundred years ago by the family Matriarchs. Seeds are carefully stored and replanted each year. The vines do what vines do. No insecticides. Naturally fertilized. KJ and I haven't eaten produce like this since we were kids. Rich flavors that send you back to that time before genetically modified hydroponic baseball-tomatoes ripened in Ethane-gas chambers became the norm. 'Thank you Mother, may I have some more?' The entire garden occupies no more than an acre and a half. The hills around the village are cloaked in Hazelnut trees and berry canes. Gleaners are more than welcome. Bring lots of pails. You'll need them.
In Tolga's household; that which isn't eaten immediately is either pickled or canned or dried. Honey bees pollinate the flowers and return to village hives to work their magic. The rich honey is distributed to all. A wonderfully self-contained food chain that is now dying out. Starting in the 1960's Turkish families drank
Fatma with Necmiye and Aysun
Aysun lives in Toronto with her husband Engin. This was her first visit home with her new baby. Necmiye is her Grandmother.
the 'higher education' Kool-Aid along with the rest of the world, sending their kids off to Universities where most were trained for jobs that did not exist nor would ever exist back home and so the children did not return to these familiar lives. They chose instead to reside in any place but the village. Money was sent home to compensate for the income lost by the demise of the labor intensive Hazelnut industry. Today the village is a summer town. Kids return to visit elderly family members during the Ramazan holiday. During the winter there are about a dozen families living here alone. Someday, relatively soon, these tenacious holdouts will join their forebears in the small, pine-shaded, cemetery at the base of the hill and the holiday visits will come to an end.
All of Tolga's Aunts and Uncles are alive and kicking so their Lugana home acts as a living museum. The harvesting and canning and baking which go on here are the last vestiges of what Lugana community life once was. Tolga's family members live to ridiculous ages; Often pushing or exceeding one hundred years old. The residents of this home that Karen and I have
Baklava With The Neighbors
If we weren't cooking then we were eating. Spent hours sitting around the table drinking tea and stuffing ourselves.
met are in their sixties and they all look 'Marvelous'. Steady physical work will do that for a body. Strong limbs and carefree faces. Happy in their familial roles. One the baker, one the gardener, one the cook and so on. Their clannish existence has shielded them from those poignant worries that life inevitably brings to individual doorsteps. Here, they sleep like babes knowing that comfort lays nearby. It is the weight of worry and not the passage of time that ages us most in the end.
One evening I discovered a bag of family photos tucked away in the sitting room. Pictures going back a hundred years. Stiff, dignified, 19th-Century sepia-portraits of high-collared parents holding impatient children to their laps. Scallop-edged black and whites taken during summer harvests. Thirty people, four generations lunching together. Spread behind them are circus-sized ground cloths piled with drying nuts. Weather-silvered rakes rest against the mounds. People frozen in mid-lunch for all time. Thermoses of hot tea and platters of fresh food lay before them in perpetuity. The adults look content and proud of themselves. Their arms draped around one another. The kids are mugging for the camera. Dragging time out before they
have to get back to work. They succeeded beyond their wildest expectations.
The next morning we're back in the baking shed. The stove is making unsettling, metallic, popping sounds as if the weld-points are about to give out. Its feet are skitter-hopping on the concrete pad like a short-legged man getting ready to make a run for it. The Hazelnuts have been cracked open and the meat is toasting on a flat iron griddle in the open oven. A cool Black Sea breeze combs through the orchard, tousling the branches. It sounds like falling rain. Tolga's Mom, Nereiman, gives the pan a shake from time to time and the orbiting nuts skip-roll over the coarse black metal like sweet smelling marbles. She pulls a few out and rubs them between her asbestos palms to cool them. They're still scorching when she hands them to us. We hot-potato them into our mouths. Crunchy pieces of ambrosia. The warm nut oils fill up our senses. Serpil looks on from her baking table and smiles. The scene familiar and comforting. I wonder who it is that she sees with her mind's eye.
We had but two wonderful nights here. For the
Ready For The Oven
Serpil puts the finishing touches on her creation. KJ memorizes every move Serpil makes.
next week, family members would be coming and going every few days. Babies to be kissed, fiancés to be introduced, relationships to be reaffirmed before everyone heads back to their daily lives. The bittersweet recognition that time moves on in spite of these reunions. Things change.
Tolga drove us down the hill to catch our bus back to Trabzon. A light rain had begun to fall. He pulled our bags from the trunk and added a heavy white sack to our load. In it were the Hazelnuts that Karen and I had picked. Cleaned and dried. He gave us one of those vexing all-knowing Turkish half-smiles, kissed our cheeks and went back to his family. We watched the car until it disappeared and we were left by the road, standing alone.
After we left Tolga we were met by his friend Yusuf in Trabzon on the Black Sea. Yusuf works in the computer science department at Trabzon University. A wonderful guy who made sure that we were kept entertained and comfortable during our days in Trabzon. Yusuf and his father asked me which city in the USA was most like Trabzon. I thought of all the
Yusuf's Dad Garnishes Karen's Soup
This guy was the Turkish middle-weight boxing champion from 1974 to 1976. Very gracious man with a gigantic sense of humor.
Mid-West cities that hug the Great Lakes and in my mind; Milwaukee was most like Trabzon. Both are important fresh water ports and both have populations of 1,300,000 down-to-earth folks. But there's not as much beer in Trabzon. And there aren't as many Hazelnuts in Milwaukee.
On our last morning in Trabzon, Yusuf called and invited us to breakfast with his father and himself before he drove us to the airport for our Istanbul flight. We joined them at a small neighborhood cafe. The morning after the end of Ramazan is a BIG deal in Turkey. Feels like Christmas for some reason. We dined on traditional soup for breakfast. Veal shank with potatoes immersed in one of the best broths I have ever tasted. Yusuf's Dad is the former Turkish middle-weight boxing champion. 1974 to 1976. He enthusiastically catered to Karen's every need. Salting her soup. Squeezing her lemons. He has a wicked sense of humor. I told him that I really liked him and was sorry that I had not met him earlier. He replied that he wasn't interested as he already had enough friends. Yusuf belly-laughed as he translated.
After the breakfast, which we weren't allowed
Mandatory boxing pose with Yusuf and his Dad. I think I'm dropping my right.
to pay for, again, they dropped us off at the airport. Hugged us. Wished us a safe journey onward. Some of the finest folks we have ever met. And in a place called 'Trabzon'.
We're back in our Canakkale 'Crib'. Doing 3 weeks here before some heavy traveling in Eastern Europe. Boy, are we glad we skipped Tanzania. What do you think the 'Ebola' travel restrictions will look like in 2 months? Meanwhile the southern border of Turkey is getting dodgier and the Ukrainians cannot seem to settle down and if I get one more question about Gaza...... The last one was from a Canadian NGO worker who could just not shut up. Other than that it's all good here. Hoping to see Noah when we reach Krakow. If not there then we'll be back in Germany before we head down to North Africa to see Claus and Ulf our Stuttgart friends. We sail out of Barcelona at the end of October before we begin the South American portion of our tour. Hard to believe that it has been nearly seven months since we left Florida until I look at the stamps in our passports.
to John Montgomery and Rick Stites. To Pick and Cowperthwaite. To Agramonte who does not answer her mail. To the Densons; We'll be seeing you. To Tommy; Congrats on the find. To Liz; Enjoying those nostalgic moments in San Antonio?
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