Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
November 27, 2022
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Mangia Bene

A vast network of trading routes converged on Mediterranean cities, themselves subject to the physical limitations of their geography and matrix of communications.

The pulse of a Mediterranean city was usually located in some central or obvious point. In Istanbul, the Great Bazaar was the heart of the city, surrounded by khans (warehouses) and courtyards where authorities strictly controlled the food supplies of the city and Seray (the palace of the sultan--that is, Topkapı palace, also called the Seraglio). If one thinks of Naples as huge, Istanbul, with 700,000 people, was, in the words of the historian Fernand Braudel, “not a town but an urban monster.”

Boatmen and ferrymen manned thousands of barques, caiques, perames, mahonnes, lighters, and “door ships” (for transporting animals from Scutari (Ushküdar) on the Asian side of Istanbul to the European side.) The provisioning of a huge city like Istanbul was a great problem for the Sublime Porte (the office of the Grand Vizier and the real seat of power) and etmek, bread, enormous amounts of it, was the solution.

In Istanbul, whose population was twice that of Naples, a bill of lading from March 1581 shows that eight ships from Egypt carrying only wheat provided food for just one day. One hundred years later, records showed that Istanbul’s inhabitants consumed about 500 tons of grain a day. In one year almost two hundred thousand cattle were consumed. Thirty-five thousand of these went into making pastirma, a dried meat. Also consumed were four million sheep and three million lambs, as well as many barrels of honey, sugar, and rice, sacks and skins of cheese, caviar, and 7,000 tons of melted butter.

Under the authoritarian planned economy of the Ottoman Empire, drawing riches from all corners, Istanbul could prosper. Prices were fixed, supply zones chosen to suit the methods of transport, and requisitioning was enforced. Istanbul traders were helped by laws that stipulated that merchandise could be unloaded only on the quays of the port of Istanbul. It was at Un Kapani, a few miles up the Golden Horn (an inlet of the Bosporus separating a portion of Istanbul) from the Topkapı palace, that grain from the Black Sea was unloaded. Everything flowed in, including many luxury goods, and very little flowed out, unlike the export centers of Alexandria, Tripoli, and Smyrna (Izmir).

(Photo: Egyptian market in Istanbul)

In Anatolia, Antalya and the one-time capital of Bursa also benefited from riches coming from afar. The merchants of Antalya and Bursa were active in the import and export trade with Arab countries, using both land and sea routes. Antalya was ruled by the Seljuk Turks until the Ottoman Turks took over in 1391. The rich merchants of Antalya built much of the charming old quarter known as Kaleiçi, although most of the traditional Turkish wooden buildings still standing are from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, delightfully renovated and housing many quaint hotels, inns, and restaurants. Antalya has long been famous for its mussels, as well as its agricultural products such as fresh vegetables and citrus fruits that go to all corners of Turkey. Mention Antalya today and most Turks will think of the Fluted Minaret that still stands from Seljuk times--and a local meze preparation utilizing the mussels that grow on the rocks surrounding the town’s harbor and coastline.