Nancy Knudsen, Accidentally Istanbul
‘What a feast for the senses it was! All the common vegetables and fruits were there—but there was so much more. I read, once I knew of its existence, that there were over 800 foods that were exclusive to Kastamonu. Walking the alleyway where the farmers noisily displayed their wares, I could well believe it. There was home-made bread of various sizes and shapes; fresh rose-hip and celeriac; radishes the size of large tomatoes; and fungi of a dozen different varieties, the most interesting orange with green mould edges. There were vegetables so strange that I could not get their names translated. There were many smooth jams in great barrels made by the good citizens to be ladled out by the gram, and canvas bags of nuts, all hand-picked from their own trees. There were sweets made from tomatoes, egg-plant and walnuts.
Freshness was the key. In the poultry section, hens, ducks and geese were all still alive. The stallholder would slaughter them after you had made your purchase. I did not stay to watch.
Both Ted and I were entranced by these bazaar experiences. What was it that made us love them so? I started to think it was something deeper than merely the smells and tastes of fresher food. The experience left me with more questions. Was it the increasingly plasticised versions of foods eaten in the West, obtainable year-round because they are kept in cool-rooms and doled out on demand? Was mine a search for a new way of eating? Had I been missing the feel of the earth at some deeper level? We Westerners seem alienated from the planet that gave birth to us in a way that is quite disturbing.
Finally it was the tomatoes which were the most surprising and memorable. Dark and richly red right through to the core, their perfume was heady and their taste thrilling. I resolved never again to shop for supermarket tomatoes.
“They must have such rich soil in their farmlands,” observed Ted as we wandered one day.
“Yes, very good soil,” said a young, accented male voice. Surprised, we swung round to see. A young man sat behind a table of vegetables, cleanly dressed and with smart slicked hair, smiling in amusement at Ted’s comment.
I smiled back, keen to speak with someone who spoke English. “This is your stall?”
“This…” He paused, hands on hips, swaying from foot to foot, “…is my family’s stall. We have our own farm just 20 kilometres from Kastamonu.” There was warmth and pride in his words.
We looked at his array of shining fruit and vegetables, cleverly arranged into perfect mounds. When I looked up he was watching me with a slight, almost affectionate smile.
Though the crowds were dense, for the moment there were no customers.
“So how many of these vegetables do you grow?” I asked.
He looked slightly injured. “All of them. Everything here is direct from our farm, except for the pumpkin, which is grown by our neighbour. She’s too old to sell her own now.”
His English was, so far, very grammatical.
“And does all your family speak such good English?”
“No—I’m the only one. None of my family speaks English at all. I am very good at it, and I’m only helping my father out during the holidays to give him a rest. In September I’m going to attend Boğazici University.” It was the university near where we lived.
“Congratulations,” I said, intrigued. “You must be looking forward to it. What are you studying?”
“Engineering. Yes, I’m the first in my family who goes to university.”
Eyes shining with an almost electric pride, he looked nothing like my image of a university student. Hair immaculate, clothes neat, he stood tall as a good soldier. He would certainly be an oddball at an Australian university, with the students’ accent on grunge. Even the notion that he was looking after his father’s business to give him a rest instead of insisting on his holiday rights before going back to school interested me. I amused myself wondering what my kids would have thought when they were teenagers had I told them they were to look after my business during their school or university break while I “rested”.
We chatted for a while about his father’s farm and his young sisters, who were very bright at school and hoped to go to university too. As we wandered away, his image stayed with me, unusual, stimulating, inspiring even. He was obviously proud of his father’s stall, and of his family. If I had known then that Boğazici University was one of the most difficult in Turkey to get into, I would have been even more impressed. But as with many things, I didn’t know. I didn’t know.’
(Chapter 10, The fruit of the land)