Last January, en route from hamsi (anchovy) node Sinop to Ankara we made an 18-hour pitstop in Kastamonu, capital of the Turkish province of the same name. The sky was dull gray and the sub-zero wind unrelenting; by necessity our explorations were punctuated with stops in tea houses where we could thaw our frozen feet. Coal smoke hung in the air and soot coated buildings. Early Sunday morning, when we ventured out in search of caffeine, the streets were all but empty.
Still, there was something about Kastamonu that made us know we'd be back. Maybe it was the city's trove of crumbling old konak, or mansions, or its romantic situation on the slopes of two hills separated by a river, one hill crowned by the ruins of an 11th-century castle and the other by a late 1800s tower with a still chiming clock.
Perhaps it was the chorus of calls to prayer that we heard at dusk fas we watched a nearly full moon rise from the the courtyard of Ismail Bey mosque, high up one of Kastamonu's slopes. Or the thousands of starlings that appeared in the sky over the crest of the opposite hill right after, swooping and diving in wildly shifting formations.
It could have been dinner: superb kebabs that in their charred glory tasted all the better for being our first bites of meat after more than a week of eating primarily fish.
At any rate, we did return to Kastamonu last month, driving straight from Ankara's airport after a flight from Istanbul. We returned to the same Sunday market that we briefly lighted on in January -- and were treated to our first taste of this fall's hamsi catch -- and feasted on spit-roasted lamb in the nearby town of Taskopru, known for its garlic. We poked around the brick-paved streets in Kastamonu's market neighborhood, and found a good restaurant serving local dishes, including a version of etli ekmek ("meat bread") very different from the etli ekmek we ate last year in Mardin, in southeastern Turkey (a town which, coincidentally, is also built on a hill).
And we ate enough meat to fortify us for the self-imposed nothing-but-seafood diet we had planned for the next two weeks, which we would spend on the coast.
When one thinks of Turkish food it's lamb that most readily comes to mind. But in many parts of the country (like Kars) beef is the preferred red animal protein. Most of Kastamonu's kasab, or butchers, display not sheep but cow carcasses. And pastirma -- cured, air-dried beef -- is a local specialty.
Pastirma is usually associated with the eastern Anatolian city of Kayseri, where it is heavily flavored with garlic. Kastamonu's pastirma is also garlicky but less so. We know this because we carried some in our car for most of a day with minimal stink. A decade ago we bought some pastirma in Kayseri and attempted to do the same, but after two hours the interior of our car was so heavy with garlicky-ness that we were forced to pull over and eat the culprit.
In Kastamonu pastirma is preserved with and without an orange coating of ground seasonings -- garlic, fenugreek and paprika -- called cemen. The former is eaten as is while the latter is cooked into etli ekmek (which is then known as pastirmali ekmek), stewed with vegetables, or pan-fried with eggs.
Monday is beef delivery day in Kastamonu's pastirma/butcher area. Early in the morning we spotted men dressed in blood red uniforms unloading huge sides of beef from a truck. We followed them through a maze of passageways to a butcher shop, where we drank tea (of course) and chatted a bit with the shop's owner..
Kastamonu native Bayram Sari has owned his butcher shop, where he sells beef and his own pastirma and sucuk (sausage), for a little over 15 years. The enormous sides of beef hanging in his window are from Simmental, a breed of dairy and beef cow that can weigh up to 400+ kilos.
Bayram Bey makes his pastirma in a "secret" location about 45 minutes from downtown, he says. Curing is done from September to November, after summer has well and truly finished but before the worst of Kastamonu's bitter winter begins. To make the pastirma, beef loin and flank are rubbed with salt and air dried it for one to two months; the cemen coating is added after the meat is dried. Kastamonulu love their pastirma -- Bayram Bey figures he sells about 1.5 to 2 tons of the cured meat every year.
"That's no good," he said, pointing to a bag in my lap bearing the name of a pastirma shop next to the truck from which Bayram Bey's carcasses were being unloaded. "You have to try my pastirma!"
He had his shop assistant shave us a couple hundreds grams off a hunk in the display case. It was indeed delicious: not quite as dry as bresaola, supple and rich in flavor, tasting of beef first and then of garlic and spices. He also gifted us a few links of delicious sucuk which, with their hit of cumin, had me wishing for a soft corn tortilla. Go figure.
It's fair to say that when it comes to curing meat Bayram Bey is a maestro. After bidding him "Gorusuruz" (See you again -- and we will) we headed back to our hotel and packed our car for the drive to the coast.
We tucked the pastirma and sucuk into a bag with other edible souvenirs of Kastamonu -- sour plum fruit leather, "black" bulgur (coarse bulgur made from emmer, aka farro -- one of the province's specialty crops) and freshly harvested walnuts. Halfway to Inebolu the sun came out and we made an impromptu pitstop at cafe perched on a hilltop, where we refueled with tea, bread and Bayram Bey's pastirma (opening photo).