More and more, this is becoming a blog about food. Ah, well, worse things have happened.
On the last day of our Far Horizons trip, we visited the Church of St. Saviour in Chora, which is one of the most exquisite of all Byzantine churches. It is decorated with mosaics and frescoes from the century before the fall of Constantinople, depicting the Life of the Virgin and the Life of Christ. Scholars tend to see Italian influences in these lovely images; they aren’t stiff and stylized like so much Byzantine art, but instead are moving and personal, almost sentimental. My favourite is, perhaps, the mosaic showing the first steps of the Virgin Mary: she’s a tiny little girl (only six months old, according to tradition) but already very dignified and confident, walking all by herself away from her mother’s hands. It’s perfectly familiar—I have three friends with toddler babies at the moment—and yet wonderfully strange, set against a backdrop of the Holy Land as imagined by a 14th century Byzantine artist, all strange perspectives and garden walls.
Ottoman food turns out to be wonderfully strange as well. The Ottoman empire, at its apogee, encompassed Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Balkans as well as present day Turkey. The master chefs who catered to the whims of the rulers of this empire could thus draw on a wide range of ingredients and techniques. They were famous for their inventiveness and skill, and also for keeping their recipes secret, so that no lesser person might eat what the Sultan ate. Almost next door to St Saviour, in a beautiful green garden with high walls and trellises, there is a restaurant that specializes in rediscovering the lost recipes of the Ottoman chefs. They have re-invented dishes based upon cookbooks from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries discovered in remote archives, all listed in the menu with the century next to the name of the dish.
There we ate lamb cooked in an earthenware pot with dried apricots and coriander; grape leaves stuffed with minced meat and rice and sour cherries; chicken cooked in honey; squid stuffed with a filling of couscous and cinnamon; and we had tiny glasses of tamarind sherbet to drink (an Ottoman favourite, not like ice-cream at all but rather like very cold sweet fruit juice), along with glasses of cold white wine from Cappadocia. Everything was exotic and subtle and delicious, nothing like any cuisine I’ve ever tasted. I thought about those later Ottoman sultans, prisoners of their own viziers in the great palace of Topkapi, with their stables of gorgeous Arab horses, their harem full of beautiful women, their painted walls and their stunning jewels, their pleasure gardens and their chefs… decadent, perhaps, but not such a bad life.