A cinematic landscape of monasteries, mountains and lakes offers a delicious slice of Anatolian life and makes for a superb culinary road trip
It was the talk of a traditional sweetshop that did it. In the Black Sea port city of Sinop, where boats have names like Masallah and Seref Kaptan, I had just finished a plate of mantı, large, soft dumplings topped with melted butter, chopped walnuts and thick, silky yoghurt. As I floated happily on a carb cloud, the waiter handed me a marzipan-style sweet (“a gift, you are our guest”) crowned with half a walnut. It was the handiwork of master confectioner Mehmet Gürbüz, whose shop, Sekerci Mehmet Gürbüz, run by his son, stands opposite the dumpling purveyor, Ornek Mantı. Mehmet himself, I was told, looks after his original wood-panelled shop in a small town called Boyabat, an hour inland.
I wanted to meet Mehmet and I wanted to try his sweets in situ. What I didn’t want, having already travelled 430 miles by coach from Istanbul, was to be held ransom to more bus timetables, or to miss any enticing roadside cafes.
So the following day, my husband and I rented a car for a few days, to explore Turkey’s vast Black Sea region. We would stop at the ancient inland cities of Amasya and Tokat, home to unusual culinary specialities, before travelling on to the eastern Black Sea city of Trabzon, covering roughly 450 miles. Along the way we’d sample all the Black Sea larder has to offer, from specialist kebabs to hazelnuts and rich highland dairy products.
Before leaving Sinop, we visited the Fortress Prison, or “Anatolian Alcatraz”, once a grim-looking jail but today a museum. Writer Sabahattin Ali, whose 1940s novella, Madonna in a Fur Coat, remains one of Turkey’s bestselling books, was incarcerated here. It was also here, 150 years ago, that two Russian convicts taught their Turkish cellmates how to make model ships: little figures of freedom, to occupy the hands and mind. Today, craftsmen make them for tourists.
The road to Boyabat was a breeze, and the sweetshop easy to find. Inside, above wooden, apothecary-style chests, stood rows of glass jars full of shiny boiled sweets. Unscrewing one, Mehmet motioned for me to dip my hand in. As I sucked the sweet (“Don’t chew!”) it slowly released tiny honeycomb nuggets.
As a boy in the 1940s, Mehmet rejected a job in the family tailoring business to create what he craved most, “the candies in the local sweetshop window”. I bought 12 walnut sweets, like the one I’d sampled in Sinop, and put the box, decorated with a ribbon, on the back seat of the car.