October 10, 2018

The Capital of Baklava. Gaziantep

What do you get when you mix fresh newly picked green pistachio nuts, syrup and layers and layers gossamer- thin pastry? Baklava, the wonderful sticky sweet pastry that it is almost impossible to say no to, and Gaziantep, in far southern Turkey, is the world capital of this dessert.

So much so that the European Union listed Gaziantep Baklava as a protected geographical designation in 2014, in the same way that champagne is also protected. And with more than 180
bakeries producing their own Baklava you are spoilt for choice.

Gaziantep is very different from other Turkish cities such as Istanbul or Ankara. It is very hot and dry, perfect for pistachio growing, with the masses of orchards visible just a few km outside of the town. Very little English is spoken, and there are very few tourists. This is as more a result of its proximity to Syria, with Aleppo only 90 km away, as to as being undiscovered (check your government travel advice, and insurance coverage before departure).

As so few tourists visit, the locals are incredibly friendly. I walked into my first Baklava bakery, overwhelmed by the twenty or more types available, to be offered a few samples to try before selecting a plate of four pastries for 10 Lire (Approx US$3, depending on the current rapid changes in the Lire/US$ exchange rate).

The key ingredient is of the course the pistachio nut. Loved so much in ancient times by the Queen of Sheba that she demanded that all the harvest should be reserved for her. Luckily that is not a problem today, and Gaziantep has a huge number of shops just selling pistachio's. They are picked early here to lower the fat content and keep their very green colour. There is no need for artificial colouring, that is the real colour of the nuts.

The city takes pistachio's so seriously that there is an annual festival that occurs each year in October to celebrate the arrival of the new crop. The consumption and use of the nut is so great here that there are now plans to use the shells to power a city by renewable energy.

I wanted to learn more about Baklava so I headed to the only museum devoted to the sticky wonder food, Millethan Baklava, located on the Millet Inn, just above the castle. Every day at 2pm a full Baklava making demonstration takes place.

The pastry chefs begin by hand rolling the dough until it is filo sized, so thin that you should be able to read newspaper print through it. The dough is then layered and stuck together with sheep's milk butter.

Then the local pistachio nuts take centre stage as they are chopped and then added as a layer between the thin pastry. There can be up to 50 layers slowly made by hand, dependant on the type of Baklava being made.

The Baklava is then placed in a wood-fired oven for thirty five minutes before being taken out to be rested. This is when the boiling sugary syrup is poured on top. It is then only a few minutes before the chef cuts the pastry with a sharp knife into the recognisable diamond shapes, and it can then be eaten.

Not surprisingly the end-product was delicious, even more so for being so fresh. Baklava can last for 3 to 4 days, but nothing beats the taste of a piece fresh out of the oven. The locals regard the different bakeries akin to way that others support football teams, there is incredible loyalty.  

After having tried only five or six, given time I would have gone to many more, my favourite bakery would have to be Kocak Baklava. One of the more expensive that I tried, at around 50 Lire (US$12) for four, but the flavours and tastes of the pastry here were such that my mouth still begins to water just to think about it now. 

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