Treat your palate in Patara

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Being half Turkish Cypriot, I have a vested interest in learning as much as I can about the Turkish culture, that’s why the ‘Patara’ stand, at the recent ‘Destinations’ event held in London, caught my eye. I’d never heard of the town Patara before. Little did I know, that the birthplace of the real Santa Claus – St Nicholas, home to only nomads up until 25 years ago and the longest, most stunning white-sandy beach in the entire Mediterranean, would leave such an impression on me.

Eating at Hünkar

Eating at Hünkar

Having flown into Dalaman airport (about 1½ hr drive from Patara), en-route, Nadi Otlu; one of my hosts, owner of Golden Lighthouse Hotel and Golden Pension, and I, stopped for a leisurely Turkish tea. Traditional milk-free Turkish tea (çay), is an intrinsic part of the culture, a visit to Turkey without sipping it from a dainty tulip shaped glass (tulip being the national flower) is almost a crime. We walked along Çalış beach, waves lapping in the background, to a cute bar nestled among many. It is clear to see why this famed beach is so popular within the Fethiye region, the beachfront bars are almost touching the clear blue sea.

A believer that the optimum route to explore any new culture is via my taste buds – my mission was to taste as much as possible of the authentic Patara, and I had a week to do it. Hotel Dardanos, a quaint and convenient town-centre establishment, with rooms featuring traditional Turkish trappings, a gorgeous garden to dine in, laid-back Ottoman style seats to lounge in – whilst listening to melodic beats from the bar, was to be my residence. I arrived on the 16th of March a week or so before the official season started, so the place was pretty much my own. This meant Arif Kılıcan, the owner, was to be my breakfast Chef, as his usual lady, cooking home-made delicacies for guests, hadn’t started for the season yet. The first full day began with a locally sourced breakfast of eggs, toast, assorted jams, olives, cheese and tomatoes and cucumbers with a squeeze of lemon, which Arif casually picked from his prized lemon tree proudly standing outside the hotel entrance. Within minutes I had company, not unusual in a friendly village like Patara. Arif, Nadi and Nadi’s cousin Süha joined me for a Turkish coffee – the predictable sociable beverage to polish off any Turkish meal.

Nomadic walk

Nomadic walk

As we were chatting a man wielding a large bucket lined with kitchen paper full to the brim of pişi (fried doughnut-like rolls filled with white cheese and parsley) offered us a few. He was the grandson of an elderly man who had passed away, so traditionally he was sharing out the savoury treats from his late grandfather’s mevlit (remembrance service), though perhaps a little morbid, they sure tasted good. Talk turned to the history of Patara, to a time when Dardanos didn’t exist and one could only see vast land dotted with nomads and their cattle.

The government, due to wanting an end to roaming people and to establish permanent settlements, promised the nomads that if they stayed on the land and farmed it, after a number of years, they would own it, and so they did. Then, during the 1990’s the holiday provider – SunMed came to Patara and the locals saw an opportunity. They gradually left behind their nomadic ways and began to build for the expected holidaymakers. Not used to having to request planning permission, the property ventures almost got out of hand, and the government had to clamp down, hence why there are so many unfinished buildings to be seen.

Lycian beehive at Patara Viewpoint hotel

Lycian beehive at Patara Viewpoint hotel

However those who did get permission, such as Nadi’s Golden Pension (first hotel in Patara), and Lighthouse Hotel, continue to thrive. As an alternative to building new premises, many merely converted their homes into B&B’s and small eateries; to capture some of the tourists spending power. The most renowned restaurants in Patara serve only gözleme (Turkish pancakes), and mantı (minced lamb filled ravioli), which makes sense, as both require little financial investment – inexpensive ingredients, and can be frozen if not used, that said, both are remarkably delicious and worth a try. Greenhouses were also built, aiding all-year-round planting, where once cold weather and insects prevented it, now tomatoes are the biggest export of Patara. Generally, locals are agrarian in winter and focus on tourism in summer. Whilst living conditions modernised, eating habits have largely remained entrenched in nomadic customs. Still today, locals eat seasonally and use produce picked locally, which they dry (in keeping with the old need of preservation before acquiring fridges) or use fresh, in herb teas, and cooking. Most indigenous herbs serve medicinal purposes too, not least is sage, found growing wild in abundance – to calm the nervous system and alleviate coughs and sore throats among a host of other ailments.

After breakfast, I’m quickly invited to Süha’s bar ‘Simbar’ to try this sage tea for myself, mixed with fresh mint and a dollop of local mountain honey – it was refreshingly delish. As we sat in the sun perched on typical wooden chairs with reed woven seats, surrounded by orange trees interlaced with freely walking clucking chickens, Ali Pehlivan, the Patara Beach Cafe manager, popped in, and to my delight, he is the village foodie. Armed with recent purchases of cezerye (yummy shredded carrot sweets dipped in desiccated coconut) and a paper bag of in-season kuzu göbeği (morchella – edible wild mushroom). I was fascinated, as I had never seen morchella’s before. Locally, as abroad, they are rather expensive, around 1kg would cost £100, the smart ones try and locate them for free in nearby mountains, though Ali had bought his. Without hesitation, he emptied half the bag and gave them to me, prompted only by my shared interest in food. The ingrained ‘sharing’ philosophy of the Turkish people never ceases to amaze me. After a glass of insanely red and sickeningly sweet tarçın karanfil çayı (granulated clove & cinnamon tea), Nadi, Süha and I headed to Patara beach, a mere 20 minute walk from town, but as we were going to forage en-route we took the car. What could easily be mistaken for weeds, are God sends for locals, who incorporate the wild herbs into many tasty meals. We gathered gurseyk, the leaves of which are cooked up with onion, tomato and bulgur; broad beans; gelencik – leaves of the poppy flower, again cooked with bulgur or mixed with lentils or black-eyed peas; wild dill and lastly sari ot (yellow grass) which is cooked in a milky soup – Otlu çorbası.

We finally made it to the beach, 18km worth of clean sand and blue sea – arguably the most unspoilt beach in the Med, backed by sand dunes and the Taurus mountains. One more Turkish coffee and a few carobs (good for weight loss) picked from close by trees and eaten raw, before we left for a bite to eat. The common southern Turkey street food – Tantuni was to be lunch. One of my favourite ‘fast-food’ dishes in Turkey, thinly sliced beef with spices, fresh tomato and onion, squeeze of lemon and all wrapped up in a soft thin flatbread (dürüm), washed down with the acquired taste of a cold salty spicy drink – şalgam (juice of red pickled carrots), can’t say I’m a fan – but give it a shot!

Dinner was to be at Nadi’s house and made by his mother. She first starts to ‘prepare’ the bread by sprinkling drops of water over dried flatbreads (yufka) to rehydrate them, and then wrapped them in a tea towel. This was my first experience of nomadic traditions still in full flow, after all, now everyone has fridges, and a trip to a bakery in the nearby village Kınık for example, isn’t too difficult, yet they prefer it. I help her ‘top and tail’ and shell the fresh peas (bezelia) that we picked from their greenhouse earlier in the day and watched as she cooked a range of dishes. First up was a simple yet divine homemade pasta (allowed to dry so it keeps) mixed with a generous amount of butter. Next was a medley of onion, fresh dill picked today with the morchellas, wild asparagus and egg; another dish of onion and peeled tomato cooked down with olive oil and mixed with the peas and broad beans, pinch of salt, sweet red pepper flakes; and lastly, broad beans (bakla) fried in lots of butter and mixed with fresh dill and yogurt – wow!

As we finished up, Anne-Louise came for coffee, she originally hails from England but has now settled in Patara and runs the hotel Patara Viewpoint with her partner Muzaffer. She tells me of the famed nomadic walk, which takes place annually the third weekend in April. Originally each village had to organise a tourist friendly event, and Patara, due to having a nomadic heritage and being lucky enough to sit along the famed Lycian Way (best weather to hike being March to May) decided to host a walk from the well preserved Delikemer Roman aqueduct back to Patara. Hosts are dressed in national costume and serve lots and lots of traditional foods. Around 700 hundred people join the excursion, both locals and tourists alike, unsurprising, as according to the Sunday Times the Lycian Way is one of the ten most beautiful long distance hikes in the world. Just as I was going to bid them goodnight, their neighbour Fatima who owns Neptune Hotel, came round, and started to cook un helvasi (flour helva), which is a hot sweet buttery paste dotted with pine-nuts, dense but delicious, freshly squeezed juice from oranges growing in their garden mixed with home-made nar suyu (pomegranate molasses), made a perfect pairing. The secret to their pomegranate molasses tasting so good is sticking to the old technique – they are cut in half and beaten with a stick to release the seeds and then pressed with their feet, whereas a machine would include the bitter white seeds altering the taste. Along with the helva, I received a breakfast invitation from Fatima. Molasses is common in Patara, again, a good way to use and preserve fruits when they are in season, they come in all forms, from grape, mulberry, pomegranate to carob. Before sugar was readily available (very pricey for the nomads and hard to obtain), grape molasses was used as an alternative sweetener in tea and cooking, as even honey was scarce. Molasses is often mixed with yogurt, tops fruit salad and is also mixed with lemon water for a refreshing drink.

Tucked away, with fantastic views is the petite Neptune Hotel, all of the food is cooked on order by owner Fatima. The most impressive part of my breakfast had to be the vast array of home-made jams, all using fruits (mulberry, quince, orange) from her garden. Often the jams are far more liquid in Turkey than the usual jam consistency, this is because traditionally people would dip their bread into it, as opposed to spreading. After a breakfast fit for a king, out comes the keşkek for me to try, literally – wheat germs soaked in water overnight, boiled in water/milk, and topped with a lot of melted butter. Keşkek is something normally eaten at religious ceremonies, funerals or weddings – eaten with salad and meat on top, or alone. To complete our breakfast, Fatima offered to do a ‘fal’, these are quite common and an enjoyed pastime of Turkish people. After one finishes their cup of coffee, they turn the cup upside down, facing the saucer, when cooled, the ‘fortune reader’ will analyse the shapes that the coffee has left behind in the cup, and sometimes the saucer too, as Turkish coffee leaves thick gloopy granules behind, the shapes it produces are vast and can be interpreted in many a way. As it was a Thursday, that meant market day in Kalkan, a short drive away, where I found myself in the midst of a bustling market, full of clothes, lace tablecloths, bed linen, shoes, tobacco and of course, a multitude of local foods; dried fruits, nuts, cheese, meats, olives, molasses, eggs, spices, fresh herbs, with a gözleme (Turkish pancake) stand, in the centre.

I meandered down to the seaside town centre, an 8 minute stroll and sat by the sea on a wooden bench to relax. Kalkan attracts a different tourist to Patara which is more of the off-the-beaten-track visitor who wants to assimilate with the locals, whereas Kalkan promises great beaches but also a soya cappuccino to hand. The only noise was the nearby hammering and drilling of yet more flats going up where olive groves used to be, drowning out the breeze rustling through the tree branches and two motorbikes mounted by 4 youths, tooting to draw attention to themselves as they passed their time on a lazy Thursday afternoon – out of season. Far quieter and beautifully peaceful is nearby Kaputaş beach, so stunning it donned the Lonely Planet Turkish Guide’s front cover. When the nomads roamed they used to retreat to a ‘yayla’, a high plateau of land, in the summer to escape the unbearable heat and give new pastures for their cattle. Even now, most people have a residence in a yayla for summer. Bezirgan is one of the closest to Patara, there is a noticeable change in air as you drive up – clean, crisp, cool, ear-popping, but you can see why it was a haven for the nomads. Only a man wielding a stick with his goats could be seen. Farmers used to keep their wheat in ‘ambers’ up in their yayla, although ambers can still be spotted in villages, they are not used so much now, because turnover is quicker; less need for storage. Patara Viewpoint hotel is a good place to see artifacts such as ambers, molasses makers and Lycian beehives. Anne-Louise of Patara Viewpoint has made a book of local traditions which is displayed in her hotel. If you are interested in seeing historic objets d’art then head to Elmali, where there is a museum full of them.

After market day, I returned to Patara for a tour around the best garden in Patara, tended to by Nadi, found in Golden Lighthouse Hotel. His tranquil garden is full of delicious fruits, all featured on his menu when in season, including kumquats, oranges, quince, pears, lemons, dates, almonds, plums and mandarins. I was tempted to lay in one of the hammocks and munch on the green almonds I picked, sharp and traditionally eaten dipped in salt. All I could hear were birds tweeting. Dinner was to be had in Kalkan, in a restaurant called Hünkar (Sultan). The starter was deri peyniri (goat cheese) with piping hot-out-the-stone oven flatbread. Even in the restaurant nomadic traditions lingered, the cheese is matured in the cleaned and salted skin casing of a whole young goat, tied tightly at the top and can be kept up to a year, often eaten in a dürüm (flatbread) with walnuts (found in the wild). After tender lamb kebabs – so stereotypically Turkish, I went home satiated.

Friday means market day in Kinik, never one to miss a market abroad, knowing new foods are likely to be discovered, I went along and was glad I did, for I discovered and bought a bag of what the locals call – çitlembik, which is indeed the name of the tree they come from, but the bright blue unique tasting berries are called terebinth berries, dried and eaten as a snack, they are known to ease kidney and urethra ailments. I also picked up some leblebi (roasted chickpeas) another popular snack. Upon return to the village, I noticed huge crowds congregating and eating together, men and women separated (usual for large events), they were gathered to celebrate the sünnet (circumcision) of a little boy. Traditionally, the parents provide a grand feast for the entire village, the female counterparts do the cooking, just imagine how much work that is – literally everyone is welcome to celebrate their son’s big day! Still full from lunch, dinner was to be had at Nadi’s house, courtesy of his mum. Tonight began with soup – Tarhana soup, again a reflection of nomadic days. To make this soup – finely, finely diced fresh peppers, tomatoes, and onions are mixed with thyme, yogurt, flour, and mint and kneaded to form a dough, this dough is made into small pieces by rubbing it between your palms, and left out to dry in the sun for one week. The mixture lasts up to a year and when you are ready to eat it, you simply boil it with some chicken stock to form a soup. More dishes came, including a very simple tasty cauliflower fritter – par-boiled cauliflower, dipped in egg and fried in olive oil, and mince stuffed aubergine called Karnıyarık. We didn’t need to consider pudding, as a call from a neighbour came just in time, their grandparents carer’s birthday was today, so we were invited to share the chocolate cake.

The next day breakfast included one of my favourite Turkish breads – simit, Turkey’s answer to a pretzel, rounds of sesame-coated almost bagel-textured beautiful bread, eaten alone or stuffed with cheese. So popular, that Simit Sarayi, a franchise specialising in the breads opened in Oxford St, London. Today was the day to make the glorious gözleme (Turkish pancakes) with the local ladies. Gözleme is essentially the same as yufka (flatbread) but then filled with various fillings. The ladies gather and make hundreds of them, some become yufka to be left to dry, as explained earlier, and others into gözleme to eat whilst making the stock-pile of yufka. Normally gözleme are filled with potato and spinach or cheese and herbs, but more recently and probably bending towards tourist expectations, banana and Nutella has become a winning formula.

The ladies, all mature, and on the whole with excellent English (they have to, to serve tourism), recount the nomadic days and how they survived them. They tell me they used to fry the meat of animals in its fat so as to preserve it to last up to three months, whilst on the move. If they didn’t have yeast they would soak raw chickpeas in water for two days and the water was a yeast substitute. Yet, having few ingredients didn’t stop them indulging; höşmerim was a special pudding served when guests came, it involved kaymak (Turkish clotted cream) fried for five minutes, flour is added and heated again, sugar is added in another pan with hot water, when the flour and kaymak mixture browns, the water and sugar mix are added and cooked together; when the fat rises to the top, it’s ready. To make butter, they would boil the kaymak until it separates and produces butter, the remaining liquid would be boiled until thick and left to dry in the sun, this dried cheese substance would last a year and be used, just as cheese would be. Nomads didn’t normally have money, so they took wheat to the Greek mills to be turned into flour and as payment the Greeks kept some of the wheat. They did the same with olives in the olive oil factories. Most vegetables were dried for preservation, including aubergine, okra, bell peppers, tomatoes and even broad beans. I tried most of these reconstituted in various stews and actually the flavour is rather intense and tasty, different to fresh but just as good. One of my favourite nomadic tales was how they used to make ‘ice-cream’. In the caves high up in the mountains, you could find snow, even in July, as the caves were totally untouched by sunlight, July – perfect ice-cream weather, so they simply mixed the snow with molasses and made kar şerbeti (snow sherbet), still today in ode to it, an artificial alternative is made and called karlarmar, flavoured with cinnamon.

It was a perfect afternoon for a drive, so I visited Islamlar, this mountainous village full of old Greek mills and entrenched by pine trees is famous for its fresh mountain-spring-water trout farms, which can be seen interspersed in the village. I stopped off at a restaurant to eat some tasty fried local cheese and then some trout overlooking the crystal blue sea. Although not a yayla as such, due to the altitude, the air is crisper and feels a lot cooler, so it is a popular place in the summer months. To walk off an early dinner, I decided to hike some of the Lycian Way. I started from the Delikemer Roman aqueduct. Red crosses on stones tell you you’re on the right path. Along the way, I saw wild sage growing which not only makes tea but also elma yağı (translated as apple oil) which nomads would boil to extract the oil and use to treat colds. Wild thyme would be used for tea, and scattered everywhere is sevket-i bostan, a wild thistle, dipped in egg made into a fritter, or added to a lamb stew. There were crocus plants, the tubers of which are made into powder and used to make a fantastic indulgent drink called salep, enjoyed in the winter. To scare away snakes, I would suggest you take a stick, or indeed rent a horse from Patara Horse Riding and go for a leisurely ride to take in the views instead. A ride to the sand dunes at sunset was truly magical and the perfect way to end the day.

The last day was to be a day spent in the biggest Ottoman town in southwest Turkey; Elmali, meaning ‘apple town’, due to its abundance of apples. The artificial lake collects water in winter which is kept and distributed to feed the apple trees in summer. A visit here is not complete without testing and buying a batch of susamlı çörek helva, little disks of sesame sweets, if you are lucky you can find the village men making them and try a hot dollop of it before it hardens into a crispy disk, as sold. Don’t forget to get some of the local handmade rose Turkish delight too. On the way home I passed through Gömbe and stopped off for some dinner, here, where the goats eat fresh thyme in the mountains, the meatballs are famous, as is the tasty white bean dish with a tahini dressing, called Piyaz. Though I was sad to say goodbye, I knew I could re-live my foodie ventures at home, armed with the likes of dried beans, aubergine and okra, coffee, sumac and terebinth berries. You can join in the experience and make this easy peasy pudding too:

Kabak Tatlısı (Pumpkin Pudding)
Cut a deseeded peeled pumpkin into chunks, place in an oven tray, cover with sugar and cook in a hot oven for 15 minutes. Allow to cool, serve, making sure you dollop over a bit of the syrup that has formed around the pumpkin, over each pumpkin piece, spoon over some tahini and crushed walnuts. Done.

(published in Fifth Chukker magazine, May 2016)

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