After 120 kilometers of arctic nothingness we found ourselves in Çorum [cho-ruhm], a surprisingly bustling little city set in the middle of northern-central Anatolian nowhere. If Çorum is known to foreign travelers at all it's probably as a place to bunk before or after a visit to nearby Hittite ruins. For Turks, it's home to the finest leblebi (roasted chickpeas) in the country,
One of the upsides of traveling central Turkey during this especially harsh winter was the many excuses it offered -- frozen toes and fingers, mind-numbing expanses of white that could prove detrimental to driver alertness -- to brake for tea. Not that we've ever needed an excuse for a tea break in Turkey; even the southeast's scorching summer temperatures couldn't dampen our enthusiasm for the cay evi / kahvehanesi experience.
Tea delivery in the dead of a Çorum winter
But while Turkey's winter's chill stokes welcome tea cravings it also presents a challenge to the mixed (male-female) couple, one exacerbated by the fact that on this trip we stuck to lesser touristed towns in a relatively conservative part of the country: It's too cold to sit outside, and in some instances I'm not welcome inside. (If you've not ventured far from Istanbul, know that the city is a world unto itself. And I mean that as neither compliment nor smear.)
A little over a year and a half ago I wrote about the traditional Turkish tea house as a Man's World, one which I could observe and even dip my toe into while physically staying outside. During that jaunt around the southeast Dave and I took most of our tea and Turk kahvesi al fresco. That was as much by choice as by necessity -- the weather was fine, most other teahouse patrons were also sipping outdoors, and sitting outside faciliated superior people-watching and photography opportunities. On that trip I never felt it a loss to not be inside. And on a few occasions I was.
But despite having by now a fair bit of experience exploring Turkey's back of beyond and a reasonable facility basic Turkish I do not walk into many tea houses uninvited. Some patrons simply aren't comfortable with -- dislike, even -- having a woman in their midst. I suppose that I could choose to get in a kerfluffle about that, but it is what it is. No matter how good the tea or how lovely the tea house, time spent where the overall vibe says "Go away" is time wasted.
Happily, this trip delivered a few accessible tea houses that also score high on atmosphere.
One of the best is in Çorum's old town, a two or three century-old grid of stone-paved lanes lined with barbershops, butchers, hardware and kitchenware shops and -- of course - tea and coffee houses that has somehow survived the city's ambitious redevelopment. After being accosted by a patron who first tapped on a window as we passed and then burst out the door saying "Tea! Tea! Won't you have some tea?" we were happy enter into the embrace of Tıkı Mehmet Kahvesi's wood-stove warmth.
Most everything in Tıkı Mehmet Kahvesi (also known as Tıkının Kahve) -- which translates to something like Lazy or Stupid Mehmet's Coffee -- looks original, including some of its customers. According to proprietor Bekir, who runs the show with a helper, the shop has been open for almost 110 years.
The tea/coffee "kitchen" features a now rare charcoal-fired copper çay ocağı or "tea stove" set into a stone hearth (see opening photo). The copper tank boils water which is delivered via a spout on its facing to each of two blue enameled metal kettles, one for brewing tea and the other to hold the hot water that dilutes it. (For those of you not familiar with Turkish tea: it's always brewed extra strong and then diluted to taste with hot water; thus the common double-potted Turkish tea kettle -- the lower pot holds and tea is brewed in the upper pot.)
We watched as Bekir Bey emptied spent ash from the stove and then shoveled in new charcoal to keep the supply of boiling water steady. It's a dusty, messy business but he so obviously cherishes the old stove.
A Tıkı regular
The charcoal doesn't really lend a special flavor to the tea. When I asked if tea brewed over charcoal tastes better Bekir nodded adamantly while the customer who invited us in, a native Çorumlu who spends half his time in Istanbul working as a women's hairdresser, shook his head. Other customers who cared to weigh in agreed, nodding their heads as he told me: "It looks nice. It makes us feel good. It's for nostalgia." Fair enough.
Another lovely nostalgic touch: sugar cubes served in old-fashioned brass pedestals.
From Çorum we hit the road for the relatively easy 200-kilometer drive to Sivas, only to be waylaid two hours later by big sloppy snowflakes and icy roads in Tokat. To tell the truth we weren't too terribly disappointed. We took a shine to Tokat in 2000 and our affection for the curious little city deepened when we revisited last October.
Our unplanned stop afforded the opportunity to revisit a spectacular old tea house on the edge of Tokat's old market district and on the same street as its lovely clock tower.
Yüksek Kahve ("stately" coffee house) is about the same age as Çorum's Tıkı Mehmet but, sadly, is in much worse repair. Its second story, which features a beautiful arched carved wood panel over one window, is all but unuseable. The tea/coffee house is still going though, and in fine weather the verandah makes a excellent perch from which to check out this storied street's comings and goings.
Yüksek's patrons are, on average, younger than Tıkı Mehmet's but no less appreciative of coffee house history. When our host, a former tobacco factory worker in his mid-fifties, grabbed a calendar of decades-old photographs of Tokat off the wall to show me younger guys gathered around. "Look at that," said one, pointing to a photograph taken from Yüksek's verandah, of crowds of shoppers passing by in front on their way to market. "That was this place right here, old Tokat," he sighed with more than a hint of melancholy.
Yüksek's tea cubby and its modern electric çay ocağı are manned by a couple of cool dudes, but neither the new kitchen nor the younger staff take away from the tea house's overall atmosphere.
On the few occasions we've visited the tea shop its tables, okey game-ready with their green cloths, have been well populated and the clink of spoons against tea glasses played in time with a steady hum of conversation. On warm autumn days Yüksek's many windows facilitate welcome breezes. On winter mornings sun warms its two rooms, inviting regulars and visitors to stay for a third or fourth glass.