In Kars, made from milk: kaymakli koymak on the left, çeçil peyniri up top
Since arriving in Kars we've been swimming in milk.
This province, sidled up to Armenia in northeastern Turkey, is a cow-raising, milk-producing behemoth. In this part of Turkey, where the deep snow of long, hard winters gives way to impossibly lush, electric green pasturelands, hayvanlar (which means "animals" in Turkish -- but here in the northeast is more likely to mean "cows) are a source of barest sustenance and vast wealth. They give the meat that is eaten by some and the milk that is consumed in all forms, by everyone.
Cruising the streets of the capital city, which is also called Kars, we pass peynirci (cheese shops) after peynirci, their windows displaying mammoth wheels of emmenthal-like gravyer and stubby rounds of creamy yellow kaşar, a softer cheese with a mild cheddar-like butteriness.
In villages, where most every household owns at least one cow and some own forty or fifty head, we never eat beef. Instead, there are slices of kaşar and loose piles of çeçil -- string cheese that's milky and springy when fresh and dry, salty and deliciously pungent when left to age and blue in an animal hide -- plus creamy-salty white village cheese. There is milk just hours from the cow, strained and warmed on wood fired stoves and, a milk a day from the cow, cultured into yogurt. There is fresh unsalted butter and kaymak, an impossibly unctuous, partially solidified cream whose taste often bears an intriguing bit of tang, to spread on bread. That kaymak in turn enriches many of the sweet and savory breads that accompany our cheeses. Sometimes there are wild greens plucked from spring meadows and brined in the whey left over from making cheese.
After a week swimming in milk, eating deep in a food culture dependent on the fat of the cow, we thought we'd reached the apex several times over. Then, in a village not far from the deserted Armenian city of Ani, we ate köymak.
The recipe for köymak is simple: take the richest product of the cow -- kaymak -- and make it richer by placing it over a hot fire, bringing it to a boil and reducing it by half. Add flour, stir continuously until the flour browns and then add some water, bit by bit. Stir and stir and stir until the kaymak releases all of its oil -- which, of course, is essentially butter.
Serve your reduced dairy fat in a pool of its own butter in a bowl. Sprinkle with sugar. Spoon onto bread.
Enter the gates of süt cenneti.