When greengages, loquats, and cherries appear on tables around Istanbul, they are a delicious sign of the shifting seasons.
By Aylin Öney Tan
In Turkey, there is an unmistakable telltale of spring and early summer, at least on the tables. It is the iconic trio of three fruits: crisp and tart greengages; luscious, juicy loquats; and cheerful cherries.
This inseparable trio sometimes appears on your table “on-the-house” from the restaurant, especially at a fish restaurant or meyhane, usually arriving at the end of the meal, with a few ice cubes scattered on top to emphasize their cool refreshing properties.
Passion for unripe plums
Greengages appear in the markets first; they are like the green light for spring. The Turkish word erik is a generic name for “plum”, but in spring it only refers to greengages, or unripe plums. The crispy tartness of the greengages is especially a delight for children; no wonder greengage street vendors make their first appearance in front of school gates. They are sold in small paper cones with a miniscule salt cone tucked on top.
Every single child knows how to master eating the greengage: you lick the fruit and dip it in the salt, take a bite, and dip the bitten bit into the salt again. When you’ve eaten the whole lot, you suck and scrape every bit of flesh off the pit, then spit it out as far as you can. What joy!
With the advance of age, nothing changes—even an adult can behave very childishly when it comes to greengages. Most Turkish people, when living abroad, crave their favorite spring ritual of nibbling greengages when the season comes. I remember when one friend, the wife of an ambassador, bought a kilo of greengages on the way to the airport. When she was not allowed to take them through US customs, she ate the whole lot on the spot, refusing to waste a single greengage.
This love of greengages often amazes foreigners, but there is such a passion in the Turkish palate; it could be the tartness, the slightly puckering tannic feel in the mouth, or the firmness of the fruit’s flesh resistance to the bite.
When greengages start to take color, bearing a shy pinky blush on one side or turning into a mellow yellow feeling slightly soft to the touch, their reign is over and they lose their sharp, crispy appeal at once. It also indicates that summer has arrived.
The loquats are soon to follow. Loquats are short-lived; they only show up in the markets for a brief period. Full of freshness, they are juicy, tangy, and sweet—with the perfect combination of acidity and sweetness.
The loquat tree is not native to this part of the world, but it has ultimately become very Mediterranean. Although likely Japanese in origin, it is now like a true local, yet was once believed to have come from Malta or even from the New World, reflected in still being called either yeni dünya (new world), or sometimes the Malta eriği (Maltese plum).
Either way, it is no longer a novelty but an old taste, nostalgic for many who used to nibble it directly from the trees in their gardens. In the Mediterranean coastal cities the fragrant flower of the loquat tree adds a mystical whiff to the air, adding a captive charm to the breeze of the sea.
They are usually enjoyed as fresh fruit but they also match perfectly with savory tastes. The loquat is also the telltale sign of the kebab calendar in southeast Turkey. In Gaziantep, kebabs have their own agenda with ingredients changing according to the advance of the seasons.
Loquat kebab is a much-loved local specialty, a spring delicacy preferred for its tangy bite, giving the kebab a nice kick of acidity. Slightly under-ripe fruit is used in order to give the right balance of tartness to cut across the fat of the kebab—mature loquats are good to eat as fruit, but ate too sweet for kebabs. This again shows how unripe fruits are favored for their lively tang.
Turkey is a lucky country when it comes to cherries, the delight of June. Almost every region of the country has a cherry festival, many of them featuring outstanding varieties.
Cherries are considered native to Anatolia, particularly the city of Giresun, known in ancient times as Cerasus and Greek Kerasous, hence the Greek name for cherries: kerasós. There is much debate on whether the word “cherry” originated from the city, or the other way round, but many scholars conclude that the prominent horn-shaped silhouette of the city must have been influential in naming the place after Keras, the horn.
The rumor is that the Roman general Lucullus was responsible for introducing the cherry to the world. According to Pliny, Lucullus found the cherry in the Black Sea mountains during his campaign against Mithridates, and brought this new delight to Italy. When he tasted the cherry overlooking the horn-shaped silhouette of Giresun, he probably did not hesitate to name it after the town where he encountered it for the first time. The Turkish name for cherry, kiraz, is also derived from the word Kerasous.
The Turkish preference tends to be for the juicy, deep red cherry. The flesh must be as firm as possible, attached to the pit; the taste has to be sweet, but not cloying, with an acidity to balance the sweetness. The market constantly demands bright, attractive varieties; perhaps this has led Turkish agriculturists to develop the Ziraat 900—a plump, dark red variety that is one of the most cherished cherries in the world today and now dominates exports of Turkish cherries.
Cherries herald the end of spring and the start of the full bounty of summer fruits.
How to make Turkish greengage pickle
Pickles in Turkey are never sweet, but salty and sharp. This greengage pickle is made using a simple salt brine, with no vinegar at all, resulting in a sharp, steely taste perfect for a dry martini.
- 1 kg greengages
- 2½ tablespoons salt (preferably coarse sea salt or rock salt)
- 1 liter boiled and cooled down water
- 1 teaspoon citric acid crystals (lemon salt)
- 7–8 (or a handful) of raw chickpeas
- Choose the tartest, firmest, and greenest possible greengages. Be sure that no fruit showing the sign of the slightest ripening goes in. Wash and pat dry with a clean kitchen towel. Arrange tightly in a big, clean pickling jar with a wide neck.
- Add the chickpeas, they will aid the fermentation process. According to your taste you may tuck in a few peeled garlic cloves, a handful of coriander seeds, celery seeds, or a few sprigs of dill.
- Dissolve the salt and citric acid crystals in the water. Pour over the greengages, making sure that the liquid covers all of the fruit. Place a small saucer or similar on top of the pickles and place a heavy stone or weight to keep them in place. Keep the jar open for a day to start the fermentation.
- On the next day, close the jar and put it in a dark corner. The pickles should be ready in about 45 days. If you do not have the patience to wait, you could even start to nibble them after a few weeks. They taste best on the side of a dry cocktail.