Imagine, if you will, the waters of the Bosphorus at your back. Inhale the fresh breeze from the sea and follow the fragrances wafting from a nearby flower market. Now close your eyes. In a minute you’re enveloped in the aroma of freshly roasted Turkish coffee. Open your eyes and find yourself standing at the gates of the Spice Bazaar. Get ready to immerse yourself in fragrances both familiar and unfamiliar, awakening memories through your senses. Some of the scents and tastes you already know, others you have yet to experience. You are here! You are there! We are here together, somewhere between past and future.
Perhaps it’s time to introduce myself to those who don’t yet know me. I’m an Istanbul-based food-culture researcher, a Trustee of the Oxford Symposium and a member of the organizational committee working to deliver the atmosphere as well as the practicality of this year’s virtual Symposium. The subject, happily for me, is Herbs and Spices.
As a specialist in the culinary traditions of Anatolia, the western region of Turkey that includes Istanbul, the opportunity to offer a virtual tour of my beloved city’s Spice Bazaar seemed the perfect way of integrating into our v-programme the human energy as well as the scents, colours and sounds of this magical place. And as a member of the project team of the Turkish Food Guide, ‘İncili Gastronomi Rehberi’, I have already had the opportunity to include my favourite spice-shops.
The building itself – Mısır Çarşısı as it’s known to my fellow citizens who thronged the aisles before the lock-down – was completed in 1664 under the direction of a woman, Queen Mother Haseki Sultan, Regent of the Ottoman Empire during the minority of her young son. I think you will agree its colonnades and over-arching roof-spaces are a magnificent tribute to what has always been a trading-post between East and West since the beginning of recorded time.
Our virtual tour of the Bazaar will be delivered virtually by anthropologist and cookbook author Dr. Ümit Hamlacıbaşı, drawing on her experience of conducting sensory tours of the Bazaar in less constricted times and her extensive knowledge of the uses of spices and herbs in Turkish kitchens.
We will explore the secret corners of one of the Bazaar’s most popular spice-emporiums, Hayfene, whose trading history can be traced to the 16th century, when the Ottoman Empire ruled over the southern shores of the Mediterranean as far as Egypt. The current owner, 33-year-old Ahmet Kadioglu, explains the origin of the shop’s name: “If our business is a gift from our grandfathers, the name is a gift from our grandmothers. Hayfene is a kid’s game from Malatya region of eastern Anatolia when children collect certain foodstuffs from their neighbours to provide them with a delicious picnic. At Hayfene, the aim is to gather people around good food, just as happens in the game, so as to recreate the spirit of unity and joy our name represents.”
All this will be made possible with the collaboration of Istanbul-based production company NNACO, who have taken the decision to work on films, video-art, commercials and other undertakings with people and projects that take a positive view of life. Just what’s needed, under the circumstances.
Meanwhile my main interest – I’ll come clean! – is in connecting today’s young chefs working in professional kitchens to the realities of food-production – soil, seed, harvest – through an understanding of agricultural traditions and their anthropological background. As a restaurateur in an earlier career, I consult and curate international food projects and symposiums around the globe.
Which accounts for the strength of my enthusiasm for this year’s theme, Herbs and Spices, as the perfect opportunity to show Istanbul’s beloved Spice Bazaar as a feast for all the senses. At this time – more than ever – we need to awaken the memories we share. And by so doing, remind ourselves that this time of physical deprivation – hard to think of it in any other way – will not last for ever.