Istanbul is one of the world’s oldest surviving cities. It is wonderful with its mix of Europe and AsiaWhen I tell my friends that I am going to Istanbul, I am a little surprised to discover that nearly everyone I speak to has already been there. And they, in turn, are astonished that I’ve never visited Turkey. So they offer me tips on what to do, where to go, how to bargain etc. Encouraged by this flood of information, I change my bookings and extend my stay. If Istanbul is so wonderful, I decide, then I should enjoy it for longer.
I’m in Istanbul for a dinner to launch the Dom Pérignon Rosé 2002, so for my very first meal, my host, Gaurav Bhatia of Moët & Chandon, is kind enough to take me to lunch. He picks a chic and elegant place called Vogue, on the top floor of an office building, with stunning views of the Bosphorus.
This is my first experience of Turkey and while Vogue’s menu is international (lots of sushi, for instance), I ask for the Turkish-influenced dishes. These turn out to be normal European dishes with slightly sweet dry-fruit-enriched sauces. Turks, I am to discover, like fruit and they like a lot of sweetness in many of their dishes.
After lunch, an English-speaking guide takes me on a tour of the old city. Istanbul has a rich history. It is one of the world’s oldest surviving cities, starting out as Byzantium, becoming Constantinople and finally ending up as Istanbul. It was, at one stage, the world’s single most important city and has always been regarded as the dividing line between East and West.
This, I discover, is no idle boast. Geographers tell us that Asia and Europe are separated by the Strait of Bosphorus. And Istanbul sprawls across both sides of the Bosphorus. So there is a European part to the city and a quite distinct Asian part. There is an old city and there’s a new city, built around the 20th century. And there’s even an area that was once colonised by Venice and has quite distinctive Venetian architecture.
Few cities can change from area to area as completely as Istanbul does. The neighbourhood my hotel is situated in could be a part of Europe and as you go further down the road, past the Four Seasons, the boats, waterside cafés, hill villas and houses, remind you of nothing as much as southern Italy.
But in the old city, with its crowded lanes and narrow alleys, the atmosphere is distinctly Asian. There are beggars (“Gypsies!” spits my driver, angrily), street vendors and carpet sellers. It is the architecture that I find most arresting. Istanbul’s famous buildings, including the Blue Mosque, with its six minarets, and Hagia Sophia are Islamic in character yet entirely unlike the mosques we see in India or the Arab world. This is a distinctively non-Arab Islamic style, heavily influenced by European architecture and by Christian traditions. (Hagia Sophia actually started out as a church).
That evening Dom Pérignon hosts a casual buffet dinner for the wine writers who have flown in from all over the world. I meet up with Richard Geoffroy, the house’s legendary wine-maker (I wrote about him some months ago in this column) and he promises that the next day will be special.
And indeed it is. Dom has planned an all-day extravaganza. We are divided into small groups (I end up with the elegantly dressed Japanese – Japan is Dom’s second biggest market after America), and taken by boat across the Bosphorus to the old city. The first part of the day is devoted to the Spice Market. This should be – to those of us brought up on tales of Middle-Eastern bazaars – a vast open space full of little stalls where old men sit behind mounds of spices while eating pistas from vast vats.
Actually it is a covered market (like Bombay’s Crawford Market or Calcutta’s New Market – only much smaller) full of shops, all of which sell exactly the same things: saffron, Turkish Delight, caviar, sherbet, dry fruit and assorted knick-knacks.
Three things about the Spice Market are particularly striking. The first is that nearly half to two-thirds of all the goods on sale seem to come from Turkey’s neighbour Iran: saffron, caviar, pistas, etc. Ever since the tourists stopped coming to Iran, that country’s wares have been transported to Turkey and sold in Istanbul’s markets. The second is that the Turks obviously think that many tourists suffer from erectile dysfunction. Each shop sells “Turkish Viagra – Made For Sultans” and the shopkeepers keep telling the Japanese members of our party to try it: “Four times a night! Five times a night!” Then, after looking a fashionably-dressed Japanese person up and down: “For you, may be only two times a night!”
The third is that because every shop sells the same thing, the shopkeepers have to try harder. So they beseech us as we pass, shouting things they think will appeal: “You Hindi! Shah Rukh Khan! Shah Rukh Khan!” Or “Salaam Aleikum India or Pakistan!”
The market is surprisingly clean and our guide complains that Europeans are often put off by how modern Istanbul can look. The producers of Skyfall, the Bond movie shot in Istanbul, she says, were so disappointed by the real Spice Market that they built a set that looked more eastern-exotic for Daniel Craig to run through.
Richard Geoffroy’s intention is for us to discover the smells, spices and flavours of Istanbul, so we are served Turkish snacks at Pandeli, a historic restaurant on the first floor of the market.
Then it is back on the boat and off to an art gallery where Dom Pérignon has commandeered the in-house restaurant. It is here that Thierry Wasser, the master perfumer from the grand old fragrance house of Guerlain, meets us. Thierry is young, good looking, articulate and lived in the US for many years. Since taking over at Guerlain, he has introduced best-selling new fragrances and tried to restore some of the house’s tired old scents to their lost glory.
Today he wants us to understand the relationship between smell and taste, between fragrance and food. He has created three new fragrances which reflect the smells of such foods and spices as clove, turmeric, cardamom, jasmine tea, dried rose petals, etc. With each fragrance, he makes us concoct our own mix of the
ingredients whose smells most closely resemble it.
Our heads still reeling from the smells of spice and rose, we take our boat to the Ciragan Palace Hotel where we will finally be allowed to taste the wine.
Part of the mythology of champagne is that it was invented by Dom Pérignon, a real life monk who lived in France’s Champagne region. This is probably nonsense but the association between Dom Pérignon champagne and abbeys is a strong one. So Richard Geoffroy has had the idea of using the balconies of the Ciragan Palace like church cloisters. Each of us is given a glass of the champagne and told to sit alone in one of the balconies overlooking the Bosphorus. We can take as long as we like to enjoy the wine and stare at the sunlight glinting off the water.
And so, I finally taste the 2002. I know it will be good – after all, 2002 was a great year for champagne; the normal 2002 Dom White has been universally praised so the Rosé is bound to be special. But even I am surprised by the richness of the wine. It fills your mouth and then as you swirl it around gently, it begins to reveal layer after layer of complexity.
Finally there is the technical tasting where Richard explains the wine. He says that because Istanbul combines Eastern mystery with Western sophistication, he thought it would be the right place to launch the Rosé which combines spices and the scent of roses in its bouquet. Hence the day’s excursions and the collaboration with perfumer Thierry.
We head back to our hotel to change for the formal launch dinner. Dom Pérignon has taken over a medieval palace and transformed it. On the ground floor, in the cocktail area, waiters circulate with trays of canapés and bottles of champagne. I’m a little startled to discover that the pre-dinner champagne is the Oenothèque 1993. Every few years or so, Richard raids the reserve wine stocks of Dom Pérignon to issue a tiny quantity of an old vintage. These wines are called Oenothèque and usually cost nearly twice as much as the normal Dom Pérignon (which, in any case, is very expensive). The claim is that the Oenothèque range represents the best of the best champagne in the world so the massive price is worth it. And yet, here it is only the circulation wine before the dinner! Does it make sense to overshadow a new vintage with such a great wine from the Oenothèque range?
Dinner is on two long tables on the first floor of the palace. The light is blue and they project images of the Bosphorus onto our tables. The Rosé 2002 is finally served but before we can start, a shaven-headed man in a flowing cloak who is either a Japanese journalist (judging by the way in which members of our party dressed this morning) or a Turkish dancer appears between the two dinner tables.
Then the music starts and the mystery is solved: he is a whirling dervish, performing before dinner is served. While he whirls, I try the wine. After the stern and austere nature of the Oenothèque Rosé 1993, the Rosé 2002 comes as a pleasant change. Its round fullness colonises my mouth with its notes of citrus fruits and apricots. I turn to Richard, who is sitting next to me and ask why on earth he served the Oenothèque first. As it turns out, I prefer the Rosé 2002 but wasn’t it a huge risk to serve such a great wine before dinner? “Yes it was”, he laughs. “But you need to have balls, no?”Which is as good a description of Richard’s wine-making style as any of us will ever come up with.
The dinner has been created by Jean-François Piège, a two-star Michelin chef from France. Jean-François has tried to combine the flavours of France and Istanbul in a menu that matches the notes of the 2002 Rosé. Much of the food is very good: ceviche of scallop and scallops with black truffle (a natural pairing with Rosé champagne), a shrimp head (which I did not eat) shrimps in the Turkish style, rose petal jelly, etc.
Afterwards, the DJs take over in another area, more champagne is served and as the after-party begins, I slip out.
The next day, as the international wine press leaves, I set out to explore Istanbul. Despite having just finished a column which explains why chefs can never be trusted to recommend restaurants, I go to a waterside seafood place called Poseidon because it has been highly recommended by a Delhi chef who is a close friend. It turns out to be a nasty tourist trap where they take perfectly good fish and destroy it by removing all flavour and moisture.
Then I head for what I’m told is Istanbul’s New Bond Street/Sloane Street, Nisantasi. It is a lovely district full of international designer boutiques (Christian Louboutin, Tod’s etc.) and a very nice department store called Beymen which is Istanbul’s version of Barneys. The service and atmosphere are all so European that it is hard to reconcile this quiet sophisticated neighbourhood with the robustly raucous Spice Market and its salesmen chanting, “Like Sultan! Five times a night!” At dinner, I decide to stick with my chef friend’s recommendations, arguing that one bad experience is not enough to cause me to lose faith in her judgement. I go to Lokanta Maya, a casual modern European restaurant that is not unlike Diva in its feel. But the food at Diva is better. At Lokanta Maya, the schnitzel is poorly fried, the lentil salad is curiously flat and the duck confit consists of a sea of mash in which fragments of duck float like flotsam and jetsam.My final day in Istanbul is devoted to wandering around the old city. At the Spice Market, I had tried some of the caviar on sale and thought that it tasted odd. Now, I’ve secured the name of a reliable supplier and I seek his shop out. It is an old-style establishment where fresh caviar, newly brought in from Iran, is kept in refrigerated vats. You try various kinds, just as you would almonds or pistas, and decide which kind you like (between various batches of sevruga, beluga etc.) Then you order by the gram (50 grams, 100 grams, 200 grams or whatever) and they weigh it in front of you. They put it in tins while you watch and vacuum pack it for travel.
It is not cheap but it is much cheaper than caviar would be in the West. And you know what you are buying. When you buy pre-packaged caviar, you run the risk of ending up with rubbish or fish jam. But here you can select the kind with the biggest glistening gray grains and the nuttiest, freshest flavour. (And no, I’m not parting with the name or address of the shop, so don’t ask).
When at last it is time to go home, I fight the evening traffic to reach the international airport, where the crowded departures area is on par with Dhaka airport with chaotic, snaking check-in queues (that’s for Business Class; Economy is even worse). The Turkish Airlines lounge is nice but it is designed to accommodate 50 per cent fewer people than have turned up. And the flight to Delhi is so full that Turkish Airlines runs out of meal options.
When I finally arrive at Delhi Airport, it is a relief to be at a modern airport with no crowds. Yes, Istanbul is wonderful with its mix of Europe and Asia. But if my hotel was in Europe, then the airport was certainly in Bangladesh.
From HT Brunch, February 10
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