Just five months ago, I was in Urla, on the Aegean Coast of Turkey. It was my second trip to the region in a year, so impressed was I with the local food, wine and olive oil. Read all about it in my feature published in the March issue of delicious. magazine (out now – grab a copy!).
I’ve enjoyed travelling to Turkey numerous times over the years, so I was saddened to wake up to the news of the devastating earthquake on 6 February which, to date, has claimed the lives of some 53,000 and displaced 2.4 million people. Cities such as Antakya, ancient Antioch, have been reduced to rubble – thousands of years of history, now lying in dust. No one can possibly predict when, or if, the region will ever recover from this disaster.
One of the reasons that I love travelling in Turkey is the generosity, resilience and good humour of the people, who, despite economic hardship and political turmoil, resolutely keep on keeping on. So, in this post, I’m paying tribute to some of the chefs and food producers that I met on my recent visit and who made me feel like much more than just another visitor…
Chef and restaurateur Handan Kaygusuzer (top left) has run local Urla institution Beğendi Abi (which translates roughly as “Hey, bro’, we liked it”) since 1999. We were blown away by the quality of the cooking – and the cosy interior of the place makes it feel like you’re dining in a friend’s home.
Seasonal and local are far more than trendy bywords here. Handan is the daughter of a greengrocer, and her love of vegetables seems to run in the blood. No matter what time of year, whatever’s freshest and best will be on the menu, served in countless creative ways. Handan was a delegate at Terra Madre in 2010 and she’s been a huge influence on Urla’s local restaurant scene.
Duygu Özerson Elakdar (top right) and her husband are the custodians of 240ha of olive grove, with some 60,000 trees, from which she produces award-winning olive oil. Urla has been a centre of olive oil production for a rather long time – since about 3000 BC – and the quality stuff, like hers, is world-class.
Making olive oil may sound like a nice hobby, but it’s hard work – lots of hard work, involving the building of two reservoirs and the laying of miles of irrigation pipes, in this particular case. Duygu does it because she believes this ancient ecosystem needs to be protected and nurtured. Duygu also runs the excellent restaurant @hicurla in Urla, is an international olive oil judge and she teaches about olive oil tasting, too. A one-woman dynamo.
Chef Osman Serdaroğlu (bottom left) runs Teruar, a chic restaurant with rooms, slap-bang in the middle of Urla’s blooming wine-growing area. Wake up in one of the plush bedrooms surrounded by a sea of vines, and you could be fooled into thinking you were in California’s Sonoma Valley.
Osman, an İzmir native, was training for a career in IT but realised that his passion lay, not in coding, but in cooking. “It was when I was due to take my C++ exam that I had the realisation”, he says. “None of my books were about programming – they were all about food.” So, he chucked the coding, learned Italian and trained in Italy, then brought it all back home and set this place up with the help of his family. His cooking superb and the place is so hospitable you won't want to leave.
Chef Osman Sezener (bottom right) runs OD Urla, near Turkey’s Aegean Coast, a farm-to-table restaurant that’s one of the best and most exciting restaurants I’ve eaten in. Ever. (I’ve been twice.) He’s an incredibly talented chef, and someone you will be hearing a lot more about, I suspect. Chef Sezener, who trained in New York, cooks updated Turkish food, much of it grown on the surrounding farm, over live fire. It’s ambitious and honest and incredibly good. There’s a big emphasis here on Turkish wines, too, which are getting better and more interesting every year.
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