Text by Rhiannon Davies
Photos by Elif Savari Kızıl
The fertile lands of Anatolia offer an abundance of fresh produce, and as the summer hits its peak, the weekly markets of Istanbul overflow with juicy peaches, tangy raspberries, sweet grapes and delicate figs turning deep purple. To maximize access to the nutrients and flavors of the colorful summer harvest, Turkish cuisine has developed a number of different methods to preserve nature’s bounty. Whilst drying and pickling vegetables and fruits and jam preparations are well-known practices around the world, reduction of fruits into what is known as pekmez; rich, dark, sticky molasses that is a 100% natural sweetener is a predominantly Eastern Mediterranean practice.
How It’s Made
Pekmez is most commonly made with grapes but can also be made with mulberries, carob, apples, plums, pears or any other juicy fruit of which you have a glut. In villages around the country, as the grapes are harvested, they are gathered in large sacks, which are thoroughly stomped on to squeeze out all the juice (although harder fruits like apples are pulped first), which is known as şıra. Once every last drop has been collected, it is poured into a giant wide saucepan and placed over wood fire. Some mix it with marl (a type of white soil made predominantly from clay and calcium carbonate), to neutralize the acidity and also to clarify the final product. The pekmez is then brought to the boil for sterilization, before being cooked down. After this first stage, it is left to rest to permit the sediment to sink to the bottom. Then, the syrupy liquid is poured into another saucepan and placed back on the fire, which continues to be stoked while the pekmez simmers on a low heat, concentrating the flavor and caramelizing the sugars, which darkens the color. It is then left to rest before being strained and jarred.
Pekmez is produced throughout Anatolia but most grape pekmez production is done in the cities of Malatya, Afyon, Kayseri, Amasya , Tokat (Zile), Kırşehir, Kahramanmaraş, Gaziantep, Balıkesir, and in the Hatay region. The most common varieties are thick, dark and syrupy but there are some other variations. In Zile, pekmez is made using the ‘çalma’ method, adding yoghurt, salt, egg whites, and starch to create a hard, white pekmez. In the Bitlis province in Eastern Turkey, Gezo pekmezi is produced by collecting the sweet substance that accumulates on oak leaves during foggy days in July and August. Runny pekmez is known as nardenk, solid pekmez as ravenda, and pekmez that thickens in direct sunlight as gün balı (day honey).
Known by some as the original ‘energy drink,’ pekmez is especially valued during long cold winter days because it contains several vitamins and minerals (calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium) that are claimed to be beneficial for everyone but especially growing children, pregnant women, workers, athletes, and nursing mothers. Pekmez contains simple sugar that is absorbed directly into the bloodstream without having to be digested, and as a result is good for boosting energy levels (however, for this same reason, it is not suitable for diabetics). It is also given to people feeling ill or weak, mixed with water to be drunk as a tonic. Different pekmez are prescribed for different ailments, and some are even said to work as an aphrodisiac.
Health factFood engineers have said that two tablespoons of pekmez contains 2 mg of iron, 80mg of calcium and 58kcal of energy.
Where to buy it
You can find jars of pekmez in even the tiniest of grocers in Turkey, however, better versions may be purchased at the city’s markets or in some aktars (spice shops) where it is dispensed from large vats. (It is advisable to always store your bought pekmez in a glass jar rather than a plastic container). To order it direct from small-scale organic farmers, visit www.toprakana.com.tr, where you find fig, apple, and even beet pekmez as well as the more usual varieties.
Kar helvasıFor those living in mountainous regions such as Erzurum or the Taurus, fresh snow can still be brought down from the mountains in the hot summer months, and mixed with pekmez for a refreshing sweet treat known as kar helvası (snow halva).
How to use it
Many locals keep a jar of pekmez in the store cupboard just for use at the breakfast table. Mixed with tahini (sesame paste), the two liquids are swirled together to create a temporary marbled effect before mixing completely to create a sweet, nutty spread, perfect for dipping hunks of crusty white bread into. It is also delicious drizzled over a bowl of tangy Turkish yoghurt and fresh fruit. You can experiment with using pekmez in place of sugar in baking recipes, for a natural sweetness and greater flavor complexity. It is also used to make a type of helva and for the jelly-like dessert, pekmez peltesi. For this it is first mixed with cornstarch and water, then left in a mold to set before being topped with chopped nuts.