We left tawny, arid southeastern Turkey a week ago. And I'm missing the coffee.
Clearing the cobwebs at dawn in Gaziantep, Mardin, and Midyat was never a challenge because every tea house also serves coffee. Not the case, we found, in Van and Kars. And the local coffee in Istanbul just doesn't taste the same. (Another example of the flavor that context lends, perhaps.)
We were charmed by Mardin, an ancient town of grand amber limestone homes, mosques, churches, and medreses clinging to a hill overlooking the Syrian plain. It's in 'Mesopotamia', widely believed to be the 'Cradle of Civilization'. Awe-inspiring stuff, but the city feels as regular and comfortable as a worn-in flip-flop. Right before we quit town I tossed out a Mardin pitch. When my editor responded positively we backtracked from Midyat, happily.
Seven mornings we spent winding our way up and down Mardin's steep cut-stone lanes. We hugged courtyard walls for shade, Dave kept eyes open for the money shot, and we both lost ourselves many times over in the çarşılar (markets) that climb a slope beneath Mardin's main street, stacked one on top of the other like layers in a club sandwich,
Propelling ourselves up and down and up again with tiny cups of coffee and chasers of tea, we managed to hit most of Mardin's tea houses.
And identified our very favorite on our very last morning: Çamlı Köşk Kıraathane.
"I am Kurd!" Servet Bilbay says proudly, as all of the Kurds we have met on this trip do. Long ago Mardin was settled by a mix of ethnicities and religions: Christians and Muslims, Kurds and Turks, Assyrians/Syriac and Armenians.
Servet comes from a long line of Mardinli; his extended family counts more than 300 members still living in the town.
Çamlı Köşk has a history too: it was opened by Servet's grandfather, which makes him the third generation to prepare coffee behind its wooden kiosk. On one of the shop's walls hang black-and-white photographs of the shop's construction in the early 20th century, of customers and friends hanging out with its owners. Portraits of Servet's grandfather and father -- sprouting thick moustaches much like his -- are there too.
It was at Çamlı Köşk that we first sampled mırra (pronounced MUR-rah, with a good roll of the tongue at the double 'r'), a thick, syrupy brew with a pronounced bitter bite (it's also called acı kahve or 'bitter coffee').
Mırra is made by boiling coarsely ground, double-roasted beans several times over; Servet boils his for over an hour. Like many mırra makers he adds cardamom seeds to soften the beverage's bitterness -- but there's no getting around its almost metallic acidity. At first sip one's tongue instinctively curls up around the liquid as if to shield taste buds from the assault.
Mırra is to Turkish and Syrian coffee what espresso is to a cup of Starbuck's. Its delivers a whallop of a wake-up call.
Traditionally made for special occasions such as weddings, mırra is poured into a clean pot before serving and is drunk from a tiny cup (see top photo). Two doses, one after the other, are the norm. "Ooooh!" Servet utters with a nod and a big grin, when I throw back my second cup.
After we've finished our mırra, Servet circulates amongst the other customers (which is not many on a Sunday at 7am -- folks in Turkey are generally not early risers) with the coffee pot. As custom dictates they all drink mırra from the same cup.
Servet also brews an excellent Suriyani kahvesi (Syrian coffee), heady with cardamom and boasting a manageable coffee-to-grounds ratio (like Turkish coffee, Syrian coffee is served with its grounds, which settle at the bottom of the cup).
And upon request he will prepare menengiç, a hot beverage made with dried, roasted, and pounded wild pistachios. (Read more about menengiç in Gaziantep, in this write-up by Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine expert, chef, and author Anissa Helou.)
Servet made my menengiç as it is most often made these days in southeastern Turkey, with a jarred prepared paste. Some menengiç drinkers take theirs with water but he prepared mine with fresh milk. It was lovely, something like hot liquid sesame-and-almond butter with the barest hint of cacao.
'Menengiç ice cream' is what I couldn't stop thinking.
Çamlı Köşk Kıraathane, No. 207, 1 Caddesi (the main street), Mardin.