Etli ekmek, fresh from the community oven
Last night in Mardin, a hilltop town not far from the Syrian border in Turkey's southeast, we dined at Cercis Murat Konağı, a restaurant occupying a lovely old stone house. The mezze platter was, in Dave's (accurate) words, 'mind-blowing' -- a selection of perhaps a dozen dips, spreads, and nibbles based on ingredients like bulgur, garbanzo beans, tahini, walnuts, and pomegranate molasses with flavors that bounced from full, round, and nutty to bitingly spicy (from crushed dried red peppers) or sharply sour.
Yet it's not the meal we'll remember most from our time here. Service varied from patronizing ('No reservation?' we were asked, disbelievingly, upon our arrival; the dining room remained 2/3 empty throughout our meal) to AWOL. The dishes that followed our mezze were unremarkable. And the bill was outrageous -- almost twice the price of a raki-fueled mezze-based dinner at one of the restaurants on Nevizade Sokak in Istanbul.
While we're very much about food, for us it's the context that makes the meal. Bad vibes -- whether from annoying fellow diners or snooty wait staff -- cancel out deliciousness. And the right company and setting can raise a humble meal to heavenly.
A table with a view: Mardin's market
Late this afternoon we had that sort of meal.
We met Yusuf on our first morning in town, at a cay evi (tea house) in Mardin's lively market. Tables were few and he took a seat at ours. We began talking about this and that, and the conversation meandered for a couple of hours.
What can we say about Yusuf? This 60-year-old gentleman is so easy to be around. He's smart and thoughtful, knowledgeable about his hometown, and has a wonderful sense of humor. He speaks slowly and clearly (a dream for someone like me, struggling to unearth Turkish buried for more than a decade) -- not as if he's speaking to a slow learner, but as if most everything he says carries some import. And it does.
This morning we met again at the tea house. He offered to show us an often overlooked local site and we took him up ib it. Afterwards he invited us to meet him at his shop in the market later for etli ekmek.
Yusuf, like most everyone in town, has his etli ekmek baked at a community fırın or oven -- usually the wood-fired contraption anchoring the local pide shop. Few homes have their own ovens and even if they do summer temperatures (above 90F these days) discourage their use.
It works like this:
Yusuf purchases 1/2 a kilo of lamb. He takes it home, minces it with pul biber (dried red pepper), salt, and a mystery spice (kamun -- translations welcome), then drops it off at the pide shop. There, they knead the meat into an equal weight of pide dough, form the result into 4 thin dough ovals, and pop them into the oven for 10 minutes.
Yusuf pays the pide shop 1 US dollar for the dough and the oven time. (If he were having something like güveç -- a sort of meat stew -- baked in the fırın it would cost perhaps U$ 1.30, to cover the 3 to 4-hour baking time.)
We arrived at Yusuf's shop at 4:30. The etli ekmek came out of the oven at 5 and were delivered to us within 5 minutes. The ekmek was fantastically delicious, meaty but not overwhelmingly so, a bit spicy, and with a texture reminiscent of a freshly baked cookie: crispy on the outside, soft and chewy within.
With the bread we ate cacik (chopped cucumbers mixed with yogurt), and then finished the meal with glasses of tea (delivered from the tea house) and juicy fres cherries.
While we ate, perched on stools at the entrance to Yusuf's shop, we talked about Islam and Christianity, the quality of lamb in Turkey and the preponderance of rice in Asia, pork ('Do you eat it? What does it taste like?' Yusuf asked), languages and America, marriage and children, kismet (fate), the evil eye, shoes (Yusuf sells them), and Ataturk.
'This is just everyday food,' Yusuf told us. Yet from our time in Mardin, this is the meal we'll most remember.