Travelling at its best is about exploration and discovery, about getting to know an area and its culture, and finding things to enjoy, marvel at and share with others.
My first trips to Turkey were certainly of that nature, as they were undertaken in preparation for our escorted archaeological tours and cruises in this fascinating country. They gave me a great opportunity to seek out and visit many of Turkey's key archaeological and historical sites. For me, such discovery also includes the current local culture, and especially its culinary specialities. After all, the food and drink of an area are a tangible expression of the people and of the land that produce them.
One of the first things I noticed about Turkey was its wealth in pomegranate trees, which I found growing scattered around ancient sites like Didyma or Stratonikeia, or in large plantations along the Lycian Coast. Beyond the beauty of both tree and fruit, and their long-standing cultural meaning, the pomegranate really is to be appreciated for its deep and delicious flavour - and for being good for you!During the season (late summer into early winter), freshly squeezed pomegranate juice is widely available: perfect refreshment on a hot day. I was also fascinated to discover a whole range of pomegranate-based products: pomegranate tea, pomegranate-flavoured Turkish Delight, even pomegranate ice cream.
However, my favourite, then as now, is "Nar Ekşisi", pomegranate syrup (also sometimes translated as pomegranate molasses), produced by boiling down pomegranate juice with added sugar, resulting in a thick, rich, deeply red and fully-flavoured liquid. A long time ago, the cocktail ingredient we know as grenadine was essentially this, but unfortunately, it is now usually made of blackcurrants or of fully artificial ingredients. I first came across Nar Ekşisi at dinner in a little restaurant in the beautiful village of Şirince near Ephesus, served as dessert on fresh yoghurt. I bought a bottle there and then, and now rarely leave Turkey without carrying one or more, either as a replacement for my depleting stocks or as a gift for friends.
Turkish pomegranate syrup is a remarkably versatile product. It can be used simply as a sweet, e.g. with yoghurt or ice cream, or, even simpler, dribbled onto dark chocolate. But its complex flavour, mixing sweetness, sourness and a profound fruitiness in a way that is comparable to balsamic vinegar, offers other possibilities. It works wonderfully as part of the dressing on green salads and it goes extremely well with anything involving tomatoes or carrots. On our gulet cruises, it regularly makes an appearance as a condiment, along with oil and vinegar. In my own kitchen, it is a standard ingredient - in small quantities - for dark sauces accompanying red meat or poultry, adding a surprising twist of aroma as well as a dash of colour.
So, next time you are in Turkey, or at your local Turkish or Middle Eastern food market, why not look out for Turkish pomegranate syrup? Please note there are two very similar products sold under that name in English, their Turkish names differentiated only by a single letter. Nar Ekşisi is the purer and simpler version, somewhat harder to find and usually more sour in flavour. Nar Ekşili is the slightly more industrial version; its advantages are lower price and a texture that makes it easier to pour, as well as a sweeter flavour that makes it more palatable to use straight from the bottle. If you can't find either, pomegranate syrup is relatively easy to make at home (of course, you do need fresh pomegranates) - and you can always ask for it on one of our tours in Turkey!
For more information on the role and style of gastronomy on our tours, have a look at our food tours.