I met Güler Bener at a book-signing/lecture that my buddy Byron Ayanoglu recently gave in Bodrum for the translation of his book Crete on the Half Shell (Istiridye Üstü Girit in Turkish). The lovely lady, a long-time resident of Bitez's Aktur section, a conservationist, a naturist and, luckily for me, fluent English-speaker, proposed a lunch for us in the home of her friends in a village where she owns an olive orchard.
Güler Bener in a pensive moment
The village, Bozalan, is located some two hours of driving from Bitez —albeit only forty-five kilometers away, over winter-softened roads— on the south coast of the peninsula, beyond Mazi, uphill from the resort of Çökertme. We descend seven strong, very hungry, onto a phantasy-land, a hamlet set into a mountain ledge overlooking rolling hills that gracefully end up on golden sands and the sapphire sea. The hilly peninsula of Datça in ghostly outline salutes us from across the fjord.
The scene couldn't be more Turkish-rustic if it tried. Early-blossoming almond trees, donkeys on dirt paths, kerchiefed women sweeping their stoops, cows on their way to pasture, stone houses with smoking chimneys promising indoor warmth on this sunny-cool day with lingering-winter breezes that can chill you to the bone.
Freshly picked wild asparagus on sale in the village
Our host Birgül puts finishing touches to the meal
We're welcomed to the home of Mehmet and Birgül, parents of five daughters and owners of a piece of land from where they derive all their food, from goats —one of whose off-spring is the day's piéce de resistance— to milk for the home-made yoghurt and butter, to enough wheat for the daily bread and of course to all the vegetables. They shyly admit that they do buy their rice, without which the stuffed suckling-goat would be incomplete. Birgül, whose name translates as "one rose" is the chef, with only one assistant left to her, young Sila who still lives at home, while her two oldest daughters have married and live in nearby Milas and Mumcular respectively, and the next two down the line have moved to Bodrum where they work.
Güler and the platter of gözleme
We settle down on rugs on the floor around the wood-burning heater. The first course is gözleme, the large, thin pancake that is baked on a special convex griddle, and folded with wild greens and white cheese. Gözleme is a popular road-side snack in Turkey and I've eaten many of them, but never one that was homemade and as wholesome as this one. It is passed around among the guests on a loaded plate which visits me several times. "All-you-can-eat gözleme" is my idea of heaven.
A decorated tray is set on the centre of the rug and the next course is presented by Sila in individual bowls. This is keshkek, wheat berries slow cooked in butter, enhanced with additional melted cream and crisped onions. It is soft, insanely calorific and oh-so soothing. While we slurp it down, the table is being loaded with sauteed wild morels —the hills around the village have a wealth of prized tubers, including white truffles!— wild asparagus with scrambled eggs, fried peppers with yoghurt as a salad, and freshly home-baked bread.
The main course arrives in the arms of Sila with unheard trumpets blaring. The goat meat is melted, almost evanescent, from its many hours of slow-baking in the wood-burning stove, its rice stuffing alive with onions and bits of carrot, is wet yet grained, and so aromatic and rich from cooking inside the meat that I dare not tamper it even with salt.
The eating occurs in reverential silence not only because we are all ravenous —from anticipation as well as empty bellies—but also because every bite is precious, far too irreplaceable to spoil with conversation.
After dinner we are offered coffee in the little cups with the typically Turkish-style undissolved grounds that dry into hieroglyphs if the cup is reversed onto the saucer after one has finished sipping. Telling fortunes from the grounds is a recurring indoor sport in Turkey, and much to my surprise, the foreign educated, highly cultured Güler —her favorite author is James Joyce— knows how to read cups.
As Birgül listens to her fortune, a continuing saga of too much work and premature aging, Sila entertains us with her paintings. Two of her older sisters arrive to meet us, both of them dressed in thoroughly modern denim pants and tight-fitting tops, totting cell-phones that keep wanting to ring even though they are on "silent". The phones are only the tip of the technology in this country home. They also have a plasma TV with cable, and of course computers. The family might be living in a forgotten village, eating off their land, but they are decidedly of the 21st Century.
Sila shows off one of her paintings
It is regrettably time to go. It's gone past five, with darkness around the corner, and it's best to negotiate the trickier parts of the road, from the village to the highway, in daylight. We bid this priceless experience goodbye and drive off as a dog looks on.
Algis Kemezys © 2012