While we absorb Isparta’s natural wonders such as its mountain forests, lakes, and canyons, it is also important to consider its cuisine and the Yoruk heritage behind it. For those who are curious, every trip to this city is perhaps a preparation for the next one.

The people of Isparta completed the harvest by picking the last rose from its branch, and moved on to harvest the lavender in August. Once the selfie enthusiasts have left the purple fields, those who want to benefit from the joy of harvest begin to arrive. My mind is on the katmer, trout, and pastry bread cooked on a sac (metal sheet); in brief it is on my hometown. We came here as a family, and while my wife and children are shopping for cosmetics such as rose-scented cologne, perfume, and shampoo at the shops along Mimar Sinan Street, I have already put rose jam, rose-flavored Turkish delight, and rose syrup for sherbet into my basket. 

Of course these are available in Istanbul, but as you know people always miss the traditional delights of their hometown. Now, let’s look closer at the term “traditional.” Because Isparta is a Yoruk (a Turkish ethnic subgroup some of whom are nomadic) basin, its cuisine also carries the traces of Yoruk life. In the past, cooking in the Yoruk kitchen consisted of sheep and goats, and plants from the highland, in other words, agricultural products and ingredients that had a long shelf-life. The nomad lifestyle had made the kitchen equipment portable, facilitated the development of preservation techniques, and introduced meals that were easily and quickly made. Although the cuisine with the transition to settled life synthesized with the new opportunities and other cultures, old methods still persist because it is also about taste. 

While eating the Isparta oven kebab prepared with lamb and goat at Kebapçı Kadir restaurant, which was established in 1851, the customer sitting opposite me explains it as follows: “This kebab can only be made with lamb and goat. It is very tasty if you cook it in the oven for three hours using shrubs and oak wood. If you are interested, keep in mind that when summer comes our associations organize summer festivals where you can find tarhana, ovmaç soup, kabune, tas kapama, sac börek, tuluk ayran… These are all made using the old methods. You should come next year if you can...” 

Up until now I have been to Eğridir, Yalvaç, and Sütçüler. On the Melikler Highland, I watched the stars at night and the Dedegöl Mountains during the day. I went around the trekking paths with campers. I’ve been several times to the Pınargözü Cave and the Zindan Cave, which has the Rome Bridge and the holy place of the river god Eurymedon in front of it. But listening to this advice it seems that I have only just begun. Indeed, I should plan a long Isparta trip during the cherry season and see Senirkent, Gelendost, Yenişarbademli, and Şarkikaraağaç. I should taste Yoruk food such as quail stew and Uluborlu’s banak, ribs cooked with bones. But not in the restaurants, on the highlands. Maybe I will come across a childhood memory, such as finding a big cauldron full of boiling mulberries in my grandmother’s garden for pekmez, and tasting it by dipping my finger into the froth. 

Concluding the night with these dreams, the next day we travel to Yalvaç. This is a town on the northern part of the city that borders the Eğridir Lake. As all the oldest known settlements and civilizations flourished on waterfronts, Yalvaç has traces of history dating back to the 6th millennium BC. Antioch of Pisidia, also known in Latin as Antiochia Colonia Caesarea meaning “Antioch Ceasar’ City,” has pagan ruins such as those of the ancient city of Antioch, the Augusteum, and the sanctuary of Men Askaenos, and witnessed the spread of Christianity with Saint Paul’s visit. It turned over a new page with the rule of the Oghuzs after the arrival of Turks in Anatolia. Keşkek, a dish of mutton or chicken and coarsely ground wheat, is a meal that the Yoruks introduced to the region. Two days before we came here we ordered Yalvaç keşkek. I received a phone call whilst touring the museum with my children -the food was ready. As we were eating, we listened to the story of the dish: “We use lamb and goat meat for this keşkek that was cut and dried with salt in the autumn. When we decide to cook it, we put the meat in water to remove the salt, and then put the meat in a pot with wheat, bulgur, and chickpeas and cook it for 8-10 hours.” Because it takes a long time to prepare, keşkek is not a daily meal but rather served on special occasions such as weddings -its taste certainly proves it’s a special meal. Yalvaç was awarded the Cittaslow title. As I leave, the women who run the stone oven bakery have had a busy day and are tidying up. I buy some rose bread from one of them and bid my farewells to Yalvaç. 

Once night falls on the road to Sütçüler, rabbits start appearing on our path and those facing the car are bewildered and freeze when they see the headlights. Rabbits are easy to hunt at such a moment, but they are safe here because the gendarmerie catches poachers and impounds their cars. Instead of rabbit hürmeli, hunters now eat chicken hürmeli, and adding plenty of butter and garlic, liven up the taste of this special bulgur pilaf as much as possible.  

In Sütçüler, a good night’s sleep and the fresh morning weather prepares us for a new day. Our breakfast is a typical Yoruk breakfast; I added cottage cheese and sliced cucumber to my pastry bread cooked on a metal sheet. I added walnuts to the second one and tomatoes to the third. We finished off the first day visiting relatives, and in the evening we went to Kavağın Altı. This tea garden is frequented by those who live in other cities and come here for a visit. Young waiters carry trays filled with dallı brewed with thyme and are finding it difficult to keep up with the orders. After one cup, I am no longer from Istanbul, but a local of Sütlüçer once again. 

The second day we get into our car, tour the Yazılı Canyon, and stop at Çandır to eat trout. The restaurant at the Baysallar trout breeding facility is beside the stream covered with trees; our table is near one of the camellias by the water. Our salad, made with tomatoes from neighboring gardens, smells delicious. And finally the trout arrives; four of the trout we ordered are with cheddar cheese, mine is plain. They cut the fish in half, put bay leaves inside, and cook it in a clay oven dish with tomatoes, peppers, and butter. Because these fish are bred in clean water that is constantly fed from the stream, the taste is unique. After the meal accompanied by the sound of water, chirping birds, butterflies, and dragonflies with wings that change from navy to black according to the light, we return to Sütçüler. 

In the following days, we will be going through the bendy, woodland roads by the Aksu Stream to reach the Kovada and Eğirdir Lakes. The children will swim in the lake and who knows, I might even get the chance to eat sazan dolması (stuffed carp).


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