"Milky" almonds and walnuts for sale on a stretch of highway north of Aksaray, Turkey
Each time we come to Turkey I'm more and more convinced that most Americans (and probably many folks in the rest of the world too), have never tasted a proper nut or piece of dried fruit. A walnut straight from the shell, not more than a month off the tree, so fresh it almost oozes oil when crushed between the your teeth. An apricot dried whole in the sun, brown because it hasn't been treated with the sulfites that prevent the fruit's orange from leeching out with its moisture. Shriveled purple plums dried with their pits unremoved, so different from the sticky glyceride-plumped "prunes" we Americans buy in zip-top bags and cardboard canisters that it's hard to imagine the two are the same fruit.
Last autumn at a market in Gerze, on the Black Sea, we bought raisins -- big, almost black, half-shriveled, with their stems still attached. We ate them by the handful, marveling that something we used to eat out of a box, something that required "plumping" in water before adding to bread or cookie dough, could be leathery yet soft and chewy, with a depth of flavor approaching something like burnt sugar. Another surprise: they crunched. Those raisins had been grapes with seeds -- unheard of in the States (elsewhere? I don't know). Those seeds, tiny and no more consequential than a poppy seed after drying, added a wonderful texture.
Last month in a guest post for Istanbul Eats (read it here) I wrote about one of the pleasures of road-tripping in Turkey: stockpiling a backseat larder of market finds and then stopping between here and there, when the stomach calls, to cobble together a meal.
This is another: pulling to the side of the road when you spy a stall in front of a cherry orchard selling the fruit at 3 kilos for 5 Turkish lira (on the road to Van, 1 hour west of Bitlis). Or, in today's case, stopping at the stall pictured above on our way from Aksaray, on Cappadocia's northeastern edge to Cankiri, a town about an hour and a half east of Ankara. The vendor on the left and his son, on the right, were selling almonds, walnuts, raisins and dried apricots. The almonds were lightly salted and roasted in their shells, which were cracked just enough to enable easy liberation of the nut; we bought 250 grams. We skipped the walnuts (no nut cracker) but bought 250 grams of raisins and half a kilo of apricots. Total damage: 13 lira (about U$7).
The vendor's fruit is from his own orchards and vines. He dries them himself, in the bahce (garden). The almonds are indeed "milky", as advertised in his sign, moist in spite of their roasting and touched with the taste of wood smoke because of it, nothing like the packaged roasted almonds I grew up eating nor the expensive blanched almonds my mom hoarded for baking. The raisins are black and delightfully crunchy, not seedless, almost juicy.
The apricots, dried on their pits, are terra cotta brown and tough. But put one in your mouth, allow it to soften in the heat and moisture of your saliva for less than a minute, and the flesh slips from the pit with barely a nudge of the incisor. And the flavor! Honey and fruit and hot dry August days exploding all at once from nothingness. I wish that everyone could taste a dried apricot like this (or a roasted almond like that).
Given their imperviousness to casual nibbling I suspect that these particular dried apricots are meant to be cooked with meat in a stew or plumped in a compote. But we'll carry them home to Malaysia to eat out of hand there, a reminder of what real dried fruit (and nuts) tastes like to hold us till our next trip to Turkey.