Photo: Istanbul, Turkey, as seen from across the Bosphorus,
a natural strait that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara
Caroline Eden is a journalist and food writer specializing in the former Soviet Union. Her latest book, Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes Through Darkness and Light, is an multi-award winning book that focuses on and finds connections in the many cuisines of the Black Sea region. She learned all about the Black Sea by traveling around it, traversing Europe and Asia to see what it means when you put many very old cultures along the same body of water. She talked with Francis Lam about the experience. Caroline also shared her recipe for Black Sea Börek, a crispy phyllo pie filled with swiss chard, raisins, and pine nuts.
Francis Lam: I really never thought to define a region through a body of water. I think it’s so interesting that that’s the conceit of your book. The Black Sea is huge, and you traveled along it all the way from Ukraine to Eastern Turkey. They are very different places. Is there something that connects the cuisines and the cultures of the Black Sea?
Caroline Eden: That was what I wanted to find and my reason for doing the book. I had several questions in mind when I started to do the research and the travel. I wanted to find out what was left of the historic trade routes and what lies hidden. How can history books tell us that it’s the birthplace of barbarism, yet it’s the sea that welcomes strangers? I knew it was a great place of migration, and with migration often comes very interesting food stories. As I traveled, this very interesting group portrait began to form.
FM: What did you see? At least from the perspective of your journey from Odessa all the way to Trabzon in Eastern Turkey, how did you see the food change? Could you sense it evolving in some particular way?
CE: It was an amazing couple of journeys. I did two long trips of six weeks each, and then I did some individual trips to Istanbul and Odessa. The food culture was much richer than I first imagined when I set out. Odessa has got Italian and Jewish cuisines there, which I hadn’t expected. Istanbul, a city I love and visit regularly, is the world’s greatest kitchen; I looked at that from a Black Sea perspective only. And then as we continued through to Trabzon, the Black Sea region of Turkey, which is quite unexplored in food writing; it’s completely different to the rest of Turkey. So buttery and smoky, different flavors, different ingredients, and interesting historical stories to do with food as well. Really an incredible region full of different cultures.
FM: What were some of the places that surprised you on this journey, and what did they taste like?
CE: To start in Odessa, one of the most interesting things is the Italian connection. I have a recipe in the book for Italian Street Polpette. That’s because Italians were the first restauranteurs in Odessa, one of the founders of the city.
CE: Yes. It was founded in 1794 by someone from Naples. He was appointed by Catherine the Great to seize the Tartar-run forts that were there. In 1794 it becomes a city, and some people followed him. Italians followed José de Ribas – he was one of the founders – and other people. This is a region that was run by Italian merchant colonizers, the Genovese, the Venetians. They were running the Black Sea trading ports, so it’s always been an Italian region. Italian used to be heard on the streets of Odessa when it was first founded. Signposts would be in Russian and in Italian. This was fascinating and I didn’t know this until I got there. Alexander Pushkin, when he was there in Odessa in the 1820s, heard Italian spoken on the streets and writes about that. So, quite rich and very interesting.
FM: Obviously when we talk about cuisines being the result of the migration and movement of people, often there’s also a certain level of conflict.
FM: Was there a sense that there was a comingling of what could be seen as Italian foods versus what could be seen as more traditional Ukrainian foods?
CE: Definitely. I think you can go to most cities in the world and there’s going to be an Italian restaurant. But, they really held on to this Italian culture, and people know about it. Italian used to be taught in schools back in the day when it was first founded and it was the lingua franca of the commercial harbor as it was in Constantinople, which is now obviously Istanbul across the Black Sea. That history is very much part of the Odessan history.
One of the most interesting things I have to tell you is all these tales of shipwrecks that started to be published in the newspapers here in the UK. A British and Bulgarian archeological team started to explore the Black Sea 2,000 meters below. Down there they uncovered 40 or more shipwrecks, some of them completely preserved because 90 percent of the Black Sea doesn’t have oxygen, it’s almost a dead sea – only the 10 percent on the top where you find the fish has the oxygen – which is perfect for preserving. They found ships 2,400 years old from the Venetian times, from Roman shipwrecks, they found Cossack assault vessels. The most amazing one, as far as we’re concerned with food, was a 2,400 year old ship which had clay jars still within it. They opened them and one still had diced up fish steaks intact. It’s amazing that it’s not just the countries around the Black Sea that’s interesting from a food and trade and cultural perspective, it’s what’s under the waves as well.
FM: What other places and dishes or elements of the cuisine surprised you on your journey?
CE: I was really fascinated by the Turkish tea culture. I visit Istanbul regularly and I always drink a lot of tea when I’m there because it’s fantastic and it comes in these lovely tulip-shaped glass cups. It’s delicious and refreshing. I didn’t know very much about the Turkish tea industry, but it was somewhere I stopped on my travels in the very far northeast of Turkey, close to a city called Rize – you’re almost in Georgia when you’re up there -and there’s an interesting climate there. It’s quite monsoonal and wet and humid. The heat sort of rises in Central Asia and then it cools on the Black Sea; this is ideal for tea growing.
What I saw when I arrived there are hills covered in 100 different shades of green, curving and rolling down to the Black Sea. There are tea plantations like something you visualize somewhere like Sri Lanka. I didn’t know that this existed there, and it’s now the fifth largest tea region in the world after India, China, Sri Lanka and Kenya. It began in the 1920s, and they’ve been harvesting tea since in that region. It’s supremely delicious. It’s very clean tasting. It’s sort of a dark red amber color. I’ve heard – I don't know if this is true – that the Turks will say when it’s ready it’s red as rabbit’s blood. That’s the color of the tea, that really dull red color.
FM: That’s an intense description.
CE: It’s lovely to drink it there among the tea plantations and to see it being picked. A lot of Georgians were working there when we were there, against the more modern trade. The ones we spoke to said it was very hard to make a living in Georgia, so they’d come there to work in the tea plantations of Turkey. That was really interesting and that surprised me.
FM: As you mentioned, in Istanbul tea is served not just at every meal but almost at any point in the day; you might drink ten glasses of tea through the course of the day. Is there a particular tea-drinking tradition there in Eastern Turkey too? Is it different? Is it served with food?
CE: I think there’s maybe just more of it because you’re there in tea country. Turks consume the most tea in the world per capita. I think the Irish are second. So, Turks really are big tea drinkers. Seven or eight glasses in a sitting is not unusual. It just constantly tops up. The small tulip shape glass keeps the tea warm in the bottom and cooler at the top, so it makes it easy to drink. The history of tea in Turkey is fascinating and relatively new. The first crop was in 1939.
FM: On this whole journey from Odessa all the way to Trabzon, do you have a memory of the most delicious thing you ate the entire time?
CE: I do, and it was in Istanbul. I was headed to Trabzon and had heard that there was a cultural center, a sort of Trabzon cultural center where people from Trabzon go to in Istanbul and dance and play cards, and there’s food served there. I went there with someone who was helping with translation because I don’t speak Turkish. We sat with a lady who served us Black Sea börek with lots of layers of filo and then inside, charred rice, which is very popular in the Black Sea region of Turkey, sultanas and pine nuts. Super simple, but so delicious. That I think is my favorite because I make it a lot at home now. That was really lovely.
FM: I doubt many people would have the adventure in them to trace your entire journey. Obviously, Istanbul is truly one of the great cosmopolitan global cities, so tourists go there all the time. But, if you were going to some of these other places, even like Odessa, would you have any advice for travelers?
CE: I know a couple of people who’ve actually done the journey based on the book, which I love.
CE: Yeah. It totally makes everything worthwhile.
FM: You have super fans!
CE: Yeah. I love to hear that. The only difficult part is getting from Odessa to Constanza in Romania. That is a very long overnight bus ride. There’s no easy flight, there’s no train. It’s a bus and it’s fine, but it’s long. The rest of it, I don’t think it’s a difficult journey. We took a taxi for part of the way. We took buses. I traveled with my husband for quite large sections of the trip. Turkey is very well set up with an excellent bus network along the Black Sea – very comfortable buses. I don't think it’s a difficult region to travel in.
You need to have a slight sense of adventure because the Turkish Black Sea region is not like the south. They don’t get many tourists, and it’s a little bit conservative, but that’s not to say it’s not friendly. It’s very friendly, almost more so because there’s not much tourism there. And Odessa’s fine. It’s a lot of young people that speak English, and Russians. You hear Russian spoken there more than Ukrainian. If you speak Russian, that comes in really useful. And Bulgaria has a lot of holiday resorts along the Black Sea where Brits go on holiday, but also very easy to get off the beaten track there. It’s a wonderful region to travel in.
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