Shell out for Turkish delights in Gaziantep
Jeremy Seal, The Australian
Pistachio trader Mehmet Aksar in Gaziantep, Turkey. Picture: Jeremy Seal Source: Supplied
IT'S harvest time and the baskets and boxes lining Gaziantep's old-town lanes and artisan alleys sag beneath the weight of fistik - or pistachios - the signature nut of this booming city in southeast Turkey.
Locals will tell you it's the best of its kind in the world and while rival growers from California to Iran may demur, what is beyond dispute is that ancient Antep (forget the "Gazi"; it's an add-on rarely heard beyond official circles) takes particular pride in its pistachios.
Not many places have quite so many culinary variations on the nut, which features in everything from kebabs and smoothies to the ubiquitous baklava-style pastries that are on display in hundreds of pudding shops throughout the city.
At the high-vaulted Almaci Pazari produce and spices bazaar, the piles of pinkish-purple nuts bear no resemblance to the processed pistachios I'm used to. Freshly harvested, they are still in their velvet-toned husks and vendor Mehmet Aksar urges me to try one, insisting there is nothing like a fresh pistachio. He's right; the raw nut I extract from its husk and shell is oily, soft and subtly flavoured, its taste and texture far more complex and alluring than its salted counterpart..
A steady stream of early customers arrives at Aksar's stall to get their fill of fresh pistachios before the brief window of availability -- September to October -- closes. Aksar supplies me with a glass of tea and a stool, from which I watch potential buyers quiz him on his stock.
In the seeking and giving of quality assurances, percentages are batted back and forth. I learn that at least 75 per cent of nuts in a good batch should have split shells, to indicate ripeness while also ensuring ease of access to the kernel.
It's also important that a good proportion of any batch has been collected from beneath the tree, rather than picked from the branches.
"I wouldn't go below 40 per cent in this regard," one aficionado tells me, though I guess these things are taken on trust. Ripeness is all, though the paradox is that the best baklavacis (baklava makers) favour nuts picked earlier, usually in August, because of the natural oils they contain. At the equivalent of about $3 a kilo, even taking into account the husks, the nuts are surprisingly cheap.
"It's been a bumper harvest," Aksar explains. "Though prices should double as availability tails off. Some of the trees produced 100kg of nuts this year. But these things tend to be cyclical, so the likelihood is that the crop will be much smaller and the prices higher next year..
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