Missed... Misled... Fed.
I had seen Istanbul – the cascading domes, the slender minarets, the mighty river that slices the city in two and the seagulls that arc above it and the ships that drift across it.
I had listened to Istanbul – the whine of the trams, the inexorable adhan, the raucous music of modish bars and the fervent chatter that rises above it.
I had smelt Istanbul – the pungent aroma of spicy kebabs, the rustic wafts from pastry stands, the sweet steam of salep billowing from brass samovars and the deliciously musty scent of times gone by in the Hagia Sophia.
And I had felt Istanbul – the ancient cobbles of Sultanahmet kneading the soles of my feet, the cool, granular columns of the Basilica Cistern on my palm and the crush of bodies in the seething markets.
Now it was time to taste Istanbul.
And I was late.
But only by nine minutes. Hoping I hadn’t caused too much offence, I thumbed the buzzer and caught my breath.
The voice that crackled through sounded most unimpressed: a mutter, a sigh and a lukewarm: “Well, you’d better come up.”
I stepped out the dazzling light of the cold winter sun and into the gloom of the apartment block where I was booked in for a cooking class with Selin Rozanes, a local gastronomic legend of the Istanbul restaurants scene. I had clearly offended her, which was obviously far from ideal, but I decided I would have plenty of time to make amends. The class was a whopping three hours long and, by all accounts, worth every second.
Selin’s company, Turkish Flavours, which also takes people on culinary tours of the city, holds that elusive five star rating on Trip Advisor and falls within the top ten for its category, and has been lauded time and again by professional critics from all manner of publications. She began the venture in 2006 following a long and successful career in the tourism industry, and it’s difficult to imagine someone more suited to the job. Not only is Selin a walking encyclopaedia on Turkish cuisine, but she was also born and raised in Istanbul and her knowledge of the city is exhaustive. Indeed, she holds the cooking classes in her own apartment, which she has lived in since she was a newborn.
As I knocked on her door, I thought to myself with, it must be said, a certain degree of smugness that things don’t get much more authentic than this. I would enter as a lowly culinary ignoramus; I would exit as an enlightened disciple of the wonders of Turkish cuisine, ready to spread the gospel to my salivating acquaintances back home.
The door opened and I grinned at my new master. She did not reciprocate, rather, scowled and scoffed, then gave an almighty shoulder shrug and stepped aside to let me in.
“Why are you late? What happened?”
I stuttered something about my journey (I had somehow made a hash of the simplest public transport system in the world) and then noticed a half-eaten banquet spread across the table. A lady who introduced herself as Susan from Canada rose and smiled nervously.
“We waited for half an hour, but we could not wait forever,” said Selin.
“Half an hour? But I’m only ten minutes...”
“You were due at midday.”
It was 3.10pm.
It quickly emerged that our wires had been crossed – by me, I should add – so there was nothing for it but to grovel my apologies and to cringe and then grovel some more. I’ve never known such an intense combination of guilt, awkwardness and disappointment at the same time.
To Selin’s eternal credit, she didn’t dropkick me from her third-floor window onto the street below, but instead invited me to sit down and eat some of the food I should have cooked. Needless to say it was stunning, if a little cold, but I didn’t dare ask if the temperature should have been any other. I’m not a total ass.
Selin began asking me about my trip so far in Istanbul, where I had been, what I had seen, and what were my plans for that night?
I told her I had a table booked at a Cretan restaurant called Giritli in Sultanahmet, the old town.
“Ah, yes...” She nodded approvingly. “That is my friend’s restaurant – Ayse Sensilay. She is head chef. We studied at university together. Very, very good food.”
It was not only a reminder of how well connected Selin is, but was also all the endorsement I needed. Forget Trip Advisor, forget gushing critics: if Selin Rozanes said it was good, then it was an open and shut case as far as I was concerned.
We chatted some more, but soon the time came to leave. Stepping back out onto the street, I asked a passerby which way I should walk if I wanted to reach Taksim Square. He told me to use the tram. I told him I had some time to kill. After some hesitation, he launched into a flurry of directions, which I duly followed, but half an hour later, with no square in sight, I felt compelled to ask someone else, who pointed me in the complete opposite direction.
It was a reminder of the first lesson I learnt in the city, after being sent on a wild goose chase when searching for my hotel: never ask locals for directions. Not because they will treat you with disdain or impatience, as is the case in so many other cities around the world, but because they will embrace the challenge wholeheartedly and speak with great conviction, regardless of whether they have any clue of where the thing in question is.
In Sultanahmet later that evening, after meeting Helen, my contact in Istanbul, I brought the subject up. We had just stopped for the third time to ask the way to Giritli (the previous two lots of instructions had ended with lots of confusion, but no restaurant).
“I think it’s a pride thing,” she said. “They are so keen to help but can’t stand the shame of admitting when they don’t know something, so manage to convince themselves – and you – otherwise.”
Still, I was perfectly content meandering about this place – dinner could wait. This is the oldest part of an ancient city, and although I’d had a good overview in the taxi ride, that was in the sobering reality of daylight. At night time it was a different place entirely. Sultanahmet is often berated for being a tourist trap, but this was low season, and we were in a residential area, away from the main attractions of the Blue Mosque, Hippodrome and Hagia Sofia. Although an illuminated minaret would pierce the black sky now and again, after a few steps it would be blocked out by a dilapidated home, its upper level sagging wearily over the potholed street, its dusty walls glaucous in the moody lamp light. It seemed as though every twist in every street offered the promise of excitement, discovery; this place had a way of saturating the imagination. Stray cats slunk like ghosts in the shadows; our footsteps echoed off the cobbles; other people were a rarity.
The third set of directions had proved fruitful, and after some more twists and turns we spied the restaurant – a restored Ottoman house – and were soon sat down in a cosy upstairs dining room.
In the two hours that followed, Giritli shattered my assumptions of what a human stomach could endure, and I’ve since been forced to reassess previous limitations I had imposed on myself at dinner tables. I’d always taken a perverse kind of pride in being able to nonchalantly guzzle down absurdly oversized portions, but this special, special restaurant exposed me as the amateur glutton I was.
Giritli’s menu is fixed: everyone eats the same thing for the same price, which is €45 per head. The wine is unlimited. I wasn’t aware of any of this at the time (I assumed Helen, who had booked the table, had pre-ordered) so when the waiters laid down no less than 20 individual dishes of Mediterranean-style food, I assumed that would be it, and dived in with gusto. The fact that it was all so delicious prompted me to move beyond seconds and into those lethargic realms of thirds and fourths, but even when we finally conceded defeat, there was still food left over.
When I finally mustered the energy to speak, I joked to Helen that what we had just eaten might have only been a starter.
“Um... I think it was, actually.”
My memory becomes slightly hazy at this point, but I do recall seriously considering the possibility that I was being filmed by some hidden camera show. The food just kept coming, and because it was so relentlessly exquisite – a piece of deep-fried calamari so large it could be used in a game of hula, a slab of pita-like bread stuffed with herbs and cheese, a squid tentacle with more meat than the side of a cow, a whole fish with salad on the side, and finally a sticky desert – I kept pushing it down. I do believe it was one of the best – and certainly most gluttonous – dining experiences of my life.
To my astonishment and enduring respect, as the evening drew to a close, Helen, who had received a tip-off that a Turkish rock band were playing somewhere, asked if I fancied going along.
“Aren’t you exhausted?”
“I don’t really sleep that much. Not in Istanbul anyway.”
I politely declined. I could barely stand up, let alone mosh. Anyway, it was late, and I needed some peace and quiet to digest some more of this extraordinary city.
one of the best – and certainly most gluttonous – dining experiences of my life
"Make voyages! Attempt them...there's nothing else" - Tennessee Williams