Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Travel Memoirs: Istanbul part3

Desserts in Turkey take on many aromatic guises in their war-like mission to ruin one's waistline and walking through the marketplace one faces its own portable amunition.
One of the most famous, referenced even in The Chronicles of Narnia, is Turkish Delight: lokum or loukoum. Contrary to what one might be led to believe from homonymous perfumes circulating, such as Rahat Loukoum by Lutens and Loukhoum by Keiko Mecheri, the traditional jelly-like delicasy, lightly dusted so as not to stick, isn't made with almond nor cherry. Instead lokoum is made from starch and sugar and aromatized with rose water and lemon, giving it a refreshing flavour, justifying the Arab name rahat al-hulkum (=contentment of the throat). Varieties might include little cubes with other nuts such as pistachios or walnuts and some types even have a touch of cinnamon or mint aroma.

Another olfactory delight is Salep, a traditional winter drink sold by street vendors in big copper caldrons. Salep is produced by grinding the dried tubers of Orchis mascula, Orchis militaris and related species of orchids, which contain a starch-like polysaccharide, bassorin, with nutritional and heartening properties. It has a reputation of being an aphrodisiac (which might be accounted by the etymology of its plant source, relating it to the Greek word for testicle!). It is milky, flavoured with rosewater or mastic and dusted with cinnamon or nutmeg, to be optionally sprinkled with crushed walnuts on top. Salep enters along with mastic into the traditional Turkish ice-cream, Dondurma, which is much stickier and resistant to melting than regular ice-cream or gelato.

A perfume that has being inspired by this drink is Ayala Moriel's Sahleb. A wonderful comforting fragrance with a starchy pudding quality about it, it gives you the cosy feeling of sipping a dessert rich in buttery creaminess with the aromatic tinge of mastic that recalls the Mediterranean. There is no floral clearly discernible, yet if one leans one's head and inhales deeply, there comes the subtle nuance of the traditional rosy loukoums of the Bazaar, down to the dusty, powdery feel of coconutty copra enrobing them. Vanillic goodness in restrained doses compliments the fluffy and nutty flavour of this softest of gourmands. It makes me nostalgize of the true salep on the streets of Istanbul. Sadly the true thing is forbidden to be exported. But how lucky are we that there is a fix in the form of a fragrance!

After all this indulgence, one needs to come to terms with one's body. When in Rome do as the Romans do. In this Nova Roma, who could deny a Turkish bath? Cagaloglu Hamami is one of the most famous hammams in the city, constructed in 1741 to bring revenue to the library of Sultan Mahmut I, situated inside the Haghia Sophia mosque. It receives both men (from the main street entrace, on Hilal-I Ahmer) and women (from the side street entrance).
Stepping into the various cubicles and rooms with terlik (a kind of slippers) on the feet and a pestemal (clothing wrap), one can see a raised platform of stone (goebektas) in the center, with bathing alcoves all around, in coloured quartz tiles which remove static and help unwind, by sweating and sustaining an internal dialogue. A sight to behold is the pool in the middle of the camegah with its waterjet.
The light is softly filtered through glass from the ceiling in the hot room (Hararet), with small star-like windows on the domes. The air is fragrant with the essences of various unguents and the mind is dizzied into a reverie. The exfoliation with kese is blissful, using lavender, tea, chamomile and olive oil soap. One can bring their own products and Harvey Nichols at 185 Kanyon Alýþveriþ Merkezi provides a rich selection, among which the organic Jo Wood line (by the wife of Ronnie of the Rolling Stones). Amka Bath Oil contains Persian rose Otto, feminine Egyptian jasmine, along with neroli and bergamot for their uplifting effect. Mmmmm...
Next one can require a relaxing massage to recuperate and energise the muscles, which is followed with hair washing and a cold shower, before drinking dark tea, aromatic and dense, at the old marble café-bar. One could get really spoiled in this place!

And yet in the strange, lucid melancholy of such an abode, I cannot help but wonder how many women or men with tragic love tales, unfulfilled desires and bittersweet memories have passed from here through the years, sighing and opening their souls to one another as mussels do when steamed.

Like this most touching tale: A Touch of Spice(Politiki Kouzina). A young Greek boy (Fanis) grows up in Istanbul, whose grandfather, a culinary philosopher and mentor,teaches him that both food and life require a little salt to give them flavor; they both require... a Touch of Spice. Fanis and his parents leave Istnabul during the 1963 deportation of Greeks. He grows up to become an astronomer and an excellent cook using his cooking skills to spice up the lives of those around him. 35 years later he leaves Athens and travels back to his birthplace of Istanbul to reunite with his grandfather and his childhood love, the Turkish girl Saïme, now married with a daughter; he travels back only to realize that he forgot to put a little bit of spice in his own life...

The song (Baharat, tarçın ve buse) translates as:

"That night you left me
you went with a pinch of spice
a shadow inside the marketplace
I laid salt on the streets of Beyoglu
to find you in the hideouts

A kiss of cinnamon and spice,
recipe hidden in the attic
Moonlight and the Bosphorus lonely
That lighthouse is our childhood love"

On that bittersweet note, we will leave the enchanting Istanbul behind...
But Travel Memoirs will take you to another fascinating destination soon.

Loukoums through Fotosearch. Painting In the Trepidarium by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema (c.1903), originally uploaded on Mary's blog. Clip from the film Politiki Kouzina/A touch of Spice from Youtube, uploaded by JasonSeaman1


  1. Wish I was going to a Hammam today but will have to settle with my awesome The du Hammam I got in France. I have always wanted to try Loukhoum especially the rose variety, someday I will. Can't wait for the next amazing destination.

  2. Anonymous16:45

    I loved Your Istanbul stories! Like mini trips to the city. One scent I unseparably associate with Istanbul is "Limon Colognasi", the turkish cologne that is used and sold everywhere. After my two bottles of it were used I was on a continuous search for something like it. So far Mugler Cologne has been the one closest to Limon Colognasi's scent. Wonder if someone knows an even better scent-alike?

  3. Dear Jen,

    your fragrance sounds delish! Please tell me more, I have never heard of it.

    Loukhoums (the sweets) are very common here as well and they keep with no refrigeration, so if you'd like I could send you some to try (and some of that shower gel I had talked about). Mail me! ;-)

  4. Anon,

    thank you and glad you enjoyed them!

    Lemon (and hesperides in general) fragrances are very common throughtout the Med, because they're so refreshing and help clear the head on a hot day. Also they're a good guard against germs, because we tend to use them all the time on our hands (most people keep a little splash bottle of cologne in their purse)
    Have you tried Cologne Sologne by Patricia di Nicolai or the Spanish scent Herbas de Ibiza?

  5. Anonymous18:08

    Have not tried those two scents, thanks for bringing them up, will try if I ever come by them!

  6. Please do! They're quite refreshing.

  7. What a wonderful excerpt. I loved the song.

  8. Thanks Karin: I adore it as well!

  9. this is a fantastic and sensual post! i really want to try salep now. i've wanted to see the Turkish rose fields for a good long time, but your description brings far more to my mind.

  10. Thanks a lot Risa for your most kind owrds.

    Salep is not only yummy, but also good for you.

    And the rose fields are reputedly a wonder. One day...

  11. hey helg,
    I'll mail u later on today. As for The du Hammam it is actually tea, but the fragrance is amazing, the only place that I know of that carries it here in the US is beautyhabit. The fragrance is incredible it is like candied flowers.

  12. A ha! Thanks for the info, Jen. Fragranced teas are something I enjoy as well. :-)

  13. What great, sensual travel posts, E. So glad I voted for 'em--but they make me hungry! :-)

    PS. And sad. That video clip is quite a tearjerker.

  14. Thanks a lot, dear M :-)
    They made me hungry too writing about all those wonderfully decadent little indulences. It's not a place to go on a diet, I can tell you.

    Yeah, the video is from a trully GREAT film. It has its comic moments as well (the childhood of the hero) and its political nuances* too, done with respect and objectivity

    *(the unfortunate events of 1963 that drove families and friends apart).

  15. Anonymous08:46

    A little late to comment here, but I have been away on Easter holiday out of reach of internet, but want to thank you very much for the interesting entries about Istanbul. All the tastes and smells associated with that region are so intense and nice :) The ayran and malep, fresh figs from smyrna/Izmir, the baclavas.. And the rest of your blog is also very (intellectually and sensationally)stimulating, with all the associations connected with the perfumes on which you write.
    Here it is 10 degr below cero today, wsun from a cloudless sky on sparkling white snow. almost sublime :) and the birds singing because it nevertheless is early spring! Lilies waiting to grow under the snow. In the meantime flowers through perfume

  16. Thank you Stella Polaris,

    for your *most* endearing and kind words on my work here on the Shrine. Since, as you say, you find it intellectually and sensationally stimulating, then I am overjoyed that the communication valves are open and there is a current coming and going.

    I bet that flowers should smell painfully pure springing out of snow :-)

  17. Anonymous14:54

    (the flowers) yes, they do, very concentrated and pure. and from now one they will be bathed in more and more light each day, untill the light summer nights come, and we have light all the time (northern nordic summers are very different from further south! all the light also gives more intense flavours to flowers and berries) :)


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