This Culinary Heaven Is Just a Short Flight From Tel Aviv

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Figs in Ayvalik, Turkey.
Figs in Ayvalik, Turkey.Credit: Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

It’s late morning in Seytann Kahvesi (the Devil’s Coffeehouse) in the heart of the Old City of Ayvalik, a Turkish town from whose shore you can see the Greek island of Lesvos. On the veranda, in the shade of leafy foliage created by vines and other climbing plants, clients drink tea, coffee (cooked as in days of yore in a small pot over coals) and sherbet – a drink made with lemon juice or the juice of unripe white grapes – which is served only during the three months of summer.

In season, local species of unripe grapes (koruk in Turkish, husrum in Arabic) are squeezed every afternoon, sweetened with a little sugar (the sour taste is preserved, but is balanced and tempered), mixed with cold water and served cold and without preservatives.

With its golden color and unforgettable flavor, the drink evokes the legendary sorbets and fruit desserts of old, chilled in snow brought from mountain summits to sultans and kings. In the past, similar drinks were common for thousands of years in the Middle East, Asia Minor and the Balkans – wherever the cultivation of grapes existed. But today it’s hard to find places where they are still prepared by the traditional method. Here, too, in this small town on the Aegean Sea – which, not having become an international tourist attraction, has managed to retain sights and customs of old – Seytann Kahvesi is one of the few places where koruk suyu, juice made from unripe grapes, is available.

Suat and Mustafa Kacak, father and son, prepare the drinks and serve them to the customers, most of them locals who frequent the establishment daily. The members of the Kacak family don’t know when the old café first opened its doors. Suat’s parents, Muslims of Turkish origin, took over the place after arriving in Ayvalik from Lesvos at the end of the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22.

In Ayvalik – in contrast to Izmir, for example, where the Armenian and Greek quarters were burned and destroyed almost completely during the war – fine Greek-style stone houses remain almost intact, aside from the ravages of time and a major earthquake that struck the region in 1944. Some of the houses are abandoned to this day, while others have undergone splendid renovation and been repainted in blue, yellow, green and pink. The typical Greek basilicas mostly became mosques.

Zucchini blossoms at the market in Ayvalik, and a dish of stuffed blossoms at one of the city's lokantas. Credit: Ronit Vered

As one moves farther from the shore and the busy main street, ascending the steep, narrow lanes with their original stone paving, almost absolute silence prevails and indications of modern life disappear.

Ayvalik is one of those rare places where random wandering in the streets lifts the spirit. The present-absent Greek culture is felt in every corner. The Greek Christians are gone, but the architecture, the culinary culture and the way of life on the shores of the Aegean have changed little in the course of hundreds of years. The word “Greece” is also hardly ever mentioned (restaurant menus feature Aegean salad, not Greek salad).

Nearly 2,000 buildings in the town have been listed for preservation. Some of the most magnificent of them – those built in the late 19th century as large olive presses, soap factories and storage depots for olive oil – will probably gain this sleepy coastal town the status of a world heritage site. The town submitted a request to UNESCO in 2017, emphasizing the distinctive architecture of the industrial structures that were built in the local golden age.

The olive tree, its fruit and the range of products made from it, remain the region’s prime symbol. In Ayvalik a person’s wealth is still measured according to the olive trees in his possession, and people know exactly how many trees were given to their ancestors, who arrived at the beginning of the 20th century. Ayvalik olive oil is today a protected and supervised brand, and in the town’s many stores very fine samples can be tasted from different stages of the harvest season. The highest quality oil is from the initial stages.

Ayvalik, Turkey.Credit: Ronit Vered

The olive oil and soap industry, which is considered an environmental pollutant, was discontinued in the town back in the 1970s. In the past decade, the olive presses and the large storage depots along the docks of the small harbor have been converted into boutique hotels, restaurants and bars. Bathing on Ayvalik’s beaches has been impossible in recent years. Some municipal sewage continues to be channeled into the sea, and a wastewater treatment plant, whose construction was completed two years ago, is not yet operating. To enter the sea you need to sail for a quarter of an hour to Cunda, the largest of the tiny islands in the Ayvalik archipelago that lie between the coast and Lesvos. A gorgeous island, Cunda is abuzz with restaurants and bars and has become a magnet for domestic tourism in recent years. Many affluent families from Istanbul and Izmir own luxurious villas there.

Ayvalik, many of whose splendid but neglected houses have “For rent” or “For sale” signs on them, attracts people who want to live the whole year round at the slow and traditional pace of life dictated by the Aegean Sea. At one time this meant mainly pensioners; today it’s young artists and intellectuals who are leaving Turkey’s big cities because of the political situation and to give their children the prospect of a better future.

The culinary angle, as in other places around the world where attempts have been made to sharpen artificial boundaries and separation lines of nationality and religion, is fascinating precisely because of the failure to do so. Through the culture of the kitchen it’s easy to see how local customs and ways of life overcome the attempt to create a national cuisine and also how the borders between Turkey and Greece become blurred.

In August, the peak of the tourist season, a ticket for the short flight from Ben-Gurion Aiprort to Izmir costs about $350; the bus trip (of two and a half hours) from Izmir to Ayvalik is 60 lira (38 shekels, or $11). Costs in the town, especially at present, with the lira at an unprecedented low, are astonishingly cheap. It’s worth taking into account that Ayvalik has not yet adapted to English-speaking tourists: there’s no map in English and no tourism guidebooks or signs. But as of this summer, there’s a convenient, rapid ferry service to Lesvos. Israelis, in contrast to Turks, don’t need a visa to transit from Turkey to Greece (which is part of the EU), and time spent wandering both the Turkish and Greek shores of the Aegean makes for a riveting journey.

Ayvalik, Turkey.Credit: Ronit Vered

Food and drink

A perfect breakfast

The women of the Ozaca family prepare delicate pastry leaves filled with leeks and Lor cheese (the Turkish equivalent of ricotta); homemade concoctions of whole cherries, small strawberries and red plums; salads of local wild herbs with almonds, raisins and figs; and perfect menemen (omelets made with green peppers, tomatoes and eggs). Many of the ingredients can be found in the farmers market held every Thursday. The small family hotel, situated in a beautiful stone building dating from the beginning of the 20th century, was once a storage site for olive oil. There are six modest rooms and a common terrace with a small private dock, where breakfast is served. This is a perfect place to sit and watch the spectacular sunset over the islands while sipping a bottle of chilled raki (the local anise beverage) served with tulum cheese and slices of melon and watermelon.

Beyaz Yali Hotel,

Ayvalik, Turkey.Credit: Ronit Vered

Bosnian dumplings

The Ayvalik District is home not only to Greek Turks but to Bosnian Turks. Waves of immigration from the Balkans arrived here at the beginning of the last century and again at its end, in the wake of the population exchanges and wars that ravaged the borders. In this terrific lokanta (a workers restaurant serving a selection of hot dishes, mainly during the day) you’ll find Bosnian-style dumplings – fat-saturated, breadcrumb-laced cutlets with a mouth-watering texture, and a specialty known as stuffed lamb liver.

Saray Bosna Grill, Gumruk Cd

From the sea

The best fish and shellfish restaurant in town is located in another splendid stone building that was once a storage depot for olive oil. The first thing that strikes the visitor is a huge refrigerator filled with meze. About 40 varieties of meze, all wonderful, are prepared here every day. A complete, excessively plentiful meal for two costs about 400 liras (255 shekels, $72).

Deniz Yildizi, Karantina Sk. 5

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