We stopped in Çorum en route from Ankara to further east, planning to stay just one night.
But as we perambulated Çorum's tiny but wonderful eski şehir (old city) -- a grid of grape leaf-shaded lanes lined with teahouses, shoe stores (Çorum is Turkey's chickpea capital, but it's also known for its shoemakers), barbers, knife makers, tailors, and leather craftsmen -- we remembered how much we'd liked Çorum the last time we visited, in the dead of one of Turkey's coldest winters. On that trip we felt we'd left too soon. So this time we decided to stay.
A random encounter with a retired teacher led to a daytrip to Iskilip, a small and as-yet untouristy town with a sizeable collection of old houses about 40 miles northwest of the city. The drive up was beautiful. Çorum province is all rolling plains patchworked with wheat and legume and sunflower fields (corn and alfalfa too, in lesser numbers). Now, after harvest, striations of stubble and ridged dirt blanketing the shorn fields catch the weakening sun's rays just so.
In Iskilip we wandered a bit, admiring the old (and, it must be said, rapidly decaying) houses and chatting with residents. We idled for an hour or so at a tea garden with tables set beneath tall beech and elm trees, in the town's lovely central park. We'd arrived too late in the day to try the town specialty Iskilip dolmasi, meat cooked with rice for five to six hours in a giant pot lidded with wheat dough (we'll return for this), but we did down a number of ivaz, a medlar-like fruit in season all over central Anatolia just about now.
Iskilipliler Atif and his wife Ayse farm about 100 acres of wheat on their land four kilometers from town. On this day they sat at a low round wooden table sorting grains that had already been threshed, boiled, sun-dried, and de-hulled. Now they were putting the grains to a final inspection, pulling them from the center of the table and pressing them with their fingertips, feeling for minute stones.
When they finished the wheat would be carried to a mill across the street and ground into three degrees of coarseness: pilavlik (large pieces for pilafs, soups and dolma), kisirlik (medium coarseness, for making bulgur salad known as kisir) and koftelik (finely ground, for making kofte or bulgur dumplings).
As Atif and Ayse worked they and their son Mehmet, who'd recently returned home to Iskilip after 15 months of military service in Istanbul, explained why their naturally made bulgur is superior to that produced in factories: drying the grains in the sun leaves them with a special scent that can't be attained in a factory oven.
As his parents continued to inspect their wheat Mehmet took Dave and I across the street for a peek into the mill (set by a river, it was powered by water until just 10 years ago) and then next door to a small shop that they operate jointly with neighbors. In front of a row of huge kazan (metal cauldrons) filled with Atif and Ayse's keskek (wheat berries to be made into congee-like wheat and meat porridge, a local specialty), yarma (whole wheat) and kirik yarma (cracked wheat) sat hip high sacks full of neighbors' nohut (chickpeas) and fasulye (white beans). More sacks held the family's bulgur, as well as a cheaper, factory-produced product.
Mehmet scooped up a handful of his family's bulgur and another of the factory bulgur and held the two side-by-side. "Look at the difference," he said. The factory version was pale yellow, uniform in size, and polished almost smooth. Looking at the two, I could imagine the difference in flavor: blandness versus full-on nutty wheatiness -- the taste of anywhere in the wheat-growing world versus the taste of Çorum.