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Jennifer Hattam

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Jennifer Hattam is an independent journalist based in Istanbul, where she relocated in early 2008. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she worked at Mother Jones and Sierra magazines, as well as various Internet companies, as a writer and editor before beginning her expat adventure in Turkey.

In addition to writing about arts and culture, the environment, food and drink, politics and society, travel, and urban issues, Jennifer also leads culinary tours of her adopted city’s colorful neighborhoods.

Her work has appeared in The Atlantic Cities, BBC Wildlife, California, IPS, Istanbul Eats, The National, Salon.com, Time Out Istanbul, Wired and Women’s eNews, among other print and online publications. Jennifer also writes about her personal experiences and observations in Turkey on her blog, The Turkish Life  at www.theturkishlife.com.

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These Pop-Up Eateries Are Worth A Global Trip Image

Burgers grilled over an open flame in Moscow. A five-course meal cooked in a Williamsburg loft. Vietnamese spring rolls served in a Helsinki train station. A Belgian waffle bar set up in Berlin. These are just a few of the concepts behind hundreds of restaurants scheduled to pop up on Feb. 15, for one day only, as part of what organizers call the “world’s biggest food carnival.”

The now-global event sprouted in Helsinki, where a group of friends, frustrated with the red tape required to establish a restaurant, launched a social-media campaign to get people in Finland to join them in creating temporary eateries for a single day. That first Restaurant Day in May 2011 included 45 restaurants. The most recent, in November 2014, encompassed 1,698 in 35 countries (mostly in Western Europe).

“There was such huge media interest in the first event, we knew we were onto something big, and the international potential became apparent very fast,” says Restaurant Day co-founder Timo Santala, who leads a team of volunteers that promotes and supports local restaurant hosts through a “Restaurant Day Ambassadors” network, a mobile app, and a website in 17 languages.

Kathryn Sharaput, a pastry chef in Montreal, learned about Restaurant Day on Facebook, and first participated last summer, serving up homemade ceviche in a local park.

“I really enjoyed actually getting to talk to the people I was cooking for – trading stories about food, travel and recipes,” Sharaput says, adding that the event also helps bridge the “disconnect between people and their food — where it comes from, how it’s made and who’s making it.”

Restaurant Day, held four times a year, is part of a larger trend toward eating experiences that are more innovative, intimate, ephemeral — or all three. Food trucks ply the streets of many major cities, while small supper clubs hosted by chefs are an increasingly common phenomenon. Websites like EatWith and MealTango connect food-lovers with people who want to cook and host meals in their homes.

But Santala says Restaurant Day’s spontaneity, public nature and amateur spirit set it apart. To join in, all hosts need to do is add a short listing to the global map for the next event and prepare some kind of food or drink to sell or give away. Utilizing public spaces is encouraged, and unlike Sharaput, most participants are not culinary professionals.

“Restaurant Day puts the spotlight on ordinary people: Boy Scouts, school classes, grandmothers, anyone who wants to create new experiences around food for other people,” Santala says. “That’s what makes it exciting; it’s a way of democratizing the food business.”

For many hosts, it’s also a way of creating community, whether by supporting local businesses, raising money for charity, advocating for a cause or introducing their neighbors to the tastes of their home country.

One host in Prague who goes by the alias “Psychologie chuti” (Psychology of flavor) decided to sell her Parisian-style macarons – in 15 nontraditional flavors ranging from mulled wine to jasmine – inside a favorite local café. “I always notice almost no one else goes there, which makes me sad,” she says. “So I tried to let other people know about it by setting up shop there and it was awesome!”

For Marte Munkeli, the leader of the Norwegian Vegan Society, Restaurant Day is “a great opportunity to promote veganism in a fun, non-preachy way.” The group has served vegan sandwiches, soups and cakes at previous events and plans to cook meat-free “chili sin carne” in February.

Sasikala Anbarasan, a biotech researcher in Espoo, Finland, says Restaurant Day offers a way for her to show Finns that “Indian food doesn’t just mean chicken tikka masala and naan.” She donates a share of the profits she makes from cooking a “typical Tamil menu” — including South Indian specialties such as idli, a savory cake made from black beans and rice, or sambar, a tamarind-flavored vegetable stew — to an organization that helps orphaned children in that region.

Korea-born SuJin Jung says she finds a cultural element lacking in the Korean restaurants of her adopted home city of Montreal. So when she and her friends decided to make bibimbap for Restaurant Day last November, she says they “didn’t just serve the food, but tried our best to explain the culture behind this dish” – a rice bowl with various toppings, all of which have traditional symbolic meanings.

Living abroad for the past 13 years, Rashmi Ahuja has likewise been disappointed by most Indian food she’s found in other countries. “I was looking for something that reminded me of my mother’s food, something that satisfies your soul,” she says. Ahuja started teaching herself to cook some of the dishes she remembered from home, sharing them first with friends and family, and then hosting her first Restaurant Day in November 2012 in Helsinki, a year after moving there. She has now participated six times, making Mumbai street food, Indian-Finnish fusion and other recipes based on a specific region or ingredients.

Sharing a passion for food culture with the locals

“It’s a way for people like me who are passionate about their food culture to share it with local people,” she says. “The food that we eat gives an insight into our personalities and how we were brought up and tells a lot about us and our cultures.”

For the next Restaurant Day, Ahuja plans to make daal roti (lentils with flat bread), an Indian staple. Around the world, hundreds of other food lovers are also thinking about what culinary experiences they might like to share with their neighbors.

“Even though the basic concept stays the same, the individuals who participate decide what Restaurant Day looks like, so each time it’s completely different,” says Santala. “It’s all about just digging in and enjoying what comes along.”

Main photo: Setting up snack plates in Helsinki. Credit: Heidi Uutela/Restaurant Day

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‘Traditional’ Mediterranean Diet Isn’t What You Think Image

It’s not what most people think of when they envision the famously light, healthy “Mediterranean diet.” But hearty dishes like smoked game meats; the mélange of cabbage, fish, eggs, cheese, olive oil, pepper, garlic and sweet wine dubbed monokythron (literally, “one-pot”); and the fermented fish sauce garum were once common fare in the region whose traditional dietary patterns are now seen by many as a global model for better eating.

Evidence that the Mediterranean diet as we now know it was not predominant in the region during the long Byzantine era (roughly the years 330 to 1453) has been gathered by Dr. Ilias Anagnostakis from the National Hellenic Research Foundation in Athens. His findings have sparked controversy in his home country, he says.

Anagnostakis believes that previous assumptions about historical diets in the region are erroneous because they were largely based on what was eaten in monasteries, which kept meticulous records of the food produced on-site. The diet of Byzantine monks consisted largely of grains, pulses, vegetables and wine, with a high level of honey production — possibly as a source of beeswax for making candles, or of substitute calories to make up for a lack of meat and dairy. Either way, “it was not indicative of the Byzantine diet as a whole,” says Anagnostakis, noting that “religious calendars imposed some kind of dietary restriction [on monks] almost half of the days of the year.”

Olive oil, the cornerstone of today’s Mediterranean diet, was “something initially available mainly to the wealthy class, and it was used more for lighting, grooming and hygiene; large-scale production for food came later,” says Anagnostakis, whose research was presented recently at a lecture hosted by the Consulate General of Greece in Istanbul, Turkey. He says that archeological evidence from Byzantine sites shows that “game hunting and fish-eating were more common than previously believed — smoked and preserved meats were a very important part of the diet.”

While the Mediterranean diet as we now know it may be a bit newer than previously believed, a similar culinary philosophy emanating from the same region long predates the Byzantines, whose empire rose in the eastern Mediterranean in the 4th century.

The Greek physician Hippocrates, who lived some 700 years earlier, “put forth a holistic medical approach of nutrition, diet and exercise that was a forerunner of today’s ‘lifestyle medicine,’ ” Dr. Angelos Sikalidis, an assistant professor of nutrition at Yeni Yüzyıl University in Istanbul, said at the same lecture event.

Another classical figure, the ancient Greek poet and philosopher Archestratus, can be thought of as the “father of gastronomy,” according to Sikalidis, who has been researching past and present dietary habits and nutrition in the Aegean region along with his Yeni Yüzyıl colleague Dr. Aleksandra Kristo. Way back in 350 BCE or thereabouts, Archestratus wrote of the importance of “raw foods of good quality, combined harmoniously, with lighter sauces and moderate spices that don’t interfere with the foods’ natural flavors,” Sikalidis says. “He also praised fish and noted the importance of season and location in deciding what to eat.”

A diet born of necessity

Such principles, of course, didn’t necessarily reflect the actual diet of the general populace, which largely ate what was available to them — from the fermented fish and preserved meat of the Byzantine era to the legumes, grains, olive oil, vegetables and fruits deemed so heart-healthy by outside researchers in the 20th century.

“This diet came out of necessity rather than choice,” Sikalidis says, noting the irony that as people from other countries started “discovering” it, Greeks and Turks themselves started to rely on a less healthy and less plant-based diet, following global trends.

As a result, he says, “heart diseases and cancer are now major causes of death in the Aegean region.” Greece also has the highest percentage of overweight children among Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) countries, according to data released by that group last year.

One major driver of this change was Greece’s joining of the European Union in 1981. This brought the country under Europe’s common agriculture policy and led to the abandonment of healthy, but unsubsidized crops like legumes, nuts and citrus fruits, according to Pavlos Georgiadis, the Greece coordinator of the Slow Food Youth Network. But the country’s ongoing economic crisis has lately been planting the seeds for a reversal as a new generation once again tries to make a living from the land. In his video-blog series “Farming on Crisis,” Georgiadis profiled young farmers, many of them urban transplants, who are creating job opportunities for themselves while helping revive diverse, low-impact agriculture. His own family’s business, Calypso, grows an ancient olive variety unknown outside its northeastern Greece region.

Sikalidis is among those who see hope in such developments. “There have been good efforts recently to preserve or revive old agricultural practices; preserving food traditions is a way to protect our health, and vice versa,” he says. “Consumers can be a powerful force in choosing between these older and newer ways of eating.”

Main photo: Olive oil and vegetables are among the building blocks of what is thought of as the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. Credit: iStock

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Reinventing Turkish Traditions For A New Generation Image

Travel throughout southeastern Turkey in the height of summer and you’re likely to see rooftops, courtyards and gardens blanketed with color — row after row of peppers, eggplant and other vegetables drying in the sun.

Later rehydrated to be stuffed or stewed, dried vegetables are an essential ingredient in the traditional Turkish kitchen, but one that can be difficult to replicate for urban dwellers without a balcony or even a sunny window to call their own.

How to reconnect residents of Turkey’s large cities with the rich culinary culture of their rural roots is just one of the questions being posed by a new Istanbul-based group seeking to re-envision and rebrand Turkish cuisine, in much the same way as the New Nordic culinary movement has both celebrated and changed Scandinavian cooking.

“There are great raw materials in Anatolia and we’re eager to bring them to Istanbul and use them,” says Engin Önder, a cofounder of Gastronomika. (“Anatolia” refers to the westernmost part of Asia that comprises the majority of the land within Turkey’s borders.) This loose collective of young chefs, designers, historians and other interested parties has come together over the past year to operate an experimental kitchen and carry out various culinary research and design projects.

Gastronomika’s “Hacking the Modern Kitchen” exhibit at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Credit: İKSV/Ali Guler

Gastronomika’s “Hacking the Modern Kitchen” exhibit at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Credit: İKSV/Ali Guler

Önder describes one of these projects, “Hacking the Modern Kitchen,” as an effort to “find solutions for applying traditional techniques in small urban kitchens.” Its first “hack,” currently being exhibited as part of the 2nd Istanbul Design Biennial, is an ingeniously simple, space-saving system for drying herbs: paper cones hung with string from an ordinary household curtain or radiator. The cones shield the herbs from direct sunlight to best preserve their color and scent while they soak up the heat needed to dry them, explains a broadsheet printed with instructions and lines for folding the pamphlet itself into one of these paper “herbsacks.”

Confronting an urban revolution

The challenge of reacquainting young, urban people with skills like drying, canning, pickling and even growing their own food is not unique to Istanbul, of course. But it is perhaps particularly difficult, and important, in a country that has seen its urban population swell from 25% of the total in 1950 to 75% today. During that time, Istanbul alone has grown from 1 million residents to about 15 million, squeezing out urban gardens and other green space.

Gastronomika’s team faces the additional hurdle of getting people to rethink a food culture that, although rich with centuries of history and intermingled influences, has often been taken for granted by young Turks and misperceived internationally as amounting to little more than kebabs and baklava.

Istanbul is experiencing something of a renaissance of interest in Anatolian culinary heritage, with chefs like Musa Dağdeviren of the popular Çiya and Mehmet Gürs of the top-ranked Mikla scouring the countryside for local ingredients and traditional tastes to be incorporated into their menus. Though Gastronomika is in many ways part of this trend, it stands apart as a noncommercial, collaborative endeavor.

“Our kitchen is an experimental one and a community one,” Önder says. “It’s not about opening restaurants or creating menus, and no money changes hands.”

Members of the all-volunteer team keep busy with research trips around Anatolia (to “meet producers, learn techniques, talk to grandmothers,” Önder says). Talks and cooking events focus on the distinctive cuisines of Turkey’s Black Sea, southeast and other regions, and include in-depth, weeks-long explorations of single topics such as the vast array of ways to cook pilav (rice). They visit farmers markets in Istanbul and track what’s in season, and tend a gardening plot and organize mushroom-hunting expeditions on the edges of the city, where bits of open space can still be found amid the concrete.

Serving up a dish of stuffed vegetables over lamb ribs to an eager crowd at the Gastronomika kitchen.

Serving up a dish of stuffed vegetables over lamb ribs to an eager crowd at the Gastronomika kitchen hosted by SALT Beyoğlu. Credit: Gastronomika

Though the initiative is deeply rooted in Turkish terroir, its founders take a global approach to their mission. Turkish food needs ambassadors like those in Spain, says chef Semi Hakim, another Gastronomika cofounder, describing a program in which “Spanish chefs are sent abroad by their government to promote Spanish food, so tapas bars can become as ubiquitous as pizza places.”

Other international influences on the team members’ work include the investigative approach of the Nordic Food Lab, to which they’ve reached out for mentorship and advice; and star chef Ferran Adrià’s ambitious Bullipedia project, a Wikipedia-style culinary encyclopedia. Gastronomika’s own take on this concept is its online “karatahta” (blackboard), a digital archive of recipes gathered, techniques tried and ingredients sourced.

Like everything else Gastronomika does, the archive is participatory and open source, Önder explains.

“We share our notes, our presentations, our photos, our sources — all the knowledge we have,” he says. “The main thing is for everything to be public, even our failures. Experimentation always involves failures.”

The project’s members are “shamelessly energetic and fast learners,” says Vasıf Kortun, director of research and programs at SALT, a cultural institution in central Istanbul that hosts Gastronomika’s experimental kitchen in lieu of a traditional, profit-making museum cafe.

“The needs of Turkey’s research and food culture can’t be solved by one group, but if Gastronomika can tie into the bigger picture, they can be a big part of the conversation that’s beginning now,” Kortun says.

Main photo: Strings of dried peppers, eggplant, okra and other vegetables for sale in a market in Gaziantep, Turkey. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

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Istanbul Chefs Band Together To Save Their Favorite Fish Image

Back in the 1950s, it wasn’t unusual for fishermen plying the waters off Istanbul to land tuna weighing hundreds of pounds, or to have one of the massive fish leap out of the sea and over the prow of their boat. Dolphins cavorted alongside fishing vessels that hauled in lobster, oysters, razor clams, four kinds of crab and eight varieties of mussels.

“Fishermen in their 70s and 80s tell stories depicting Istanbul like an island in the middle of the ocean. It’s as if we’ve moved to a totally different place since then,” says Defne Koryürek, the founder of Slow Food Istanbul, which has organized an annual holiday to draw attention to the city’s rapidly depleting waterways and to try and reverse the tide.

Lüfer Bayramı celebrates the bluefish

Celebrated each October with fishing competitions, film screenings, children’s art activities, talks, and special meals, the holiday is named after one of Istanbul’s favorite fish, the fatty, flavorful — but now endangered — lüfer (bluefish). This Lüfer Bayramı grew out of a campaign the group launched in 2010 to get restaurants, fishmongers and consumers to stop buying, selling and eating juvenile lüfer that aren’t large enough to reproduce. (“Bayram” means “holiday” in Turkish.)

Many of the city’s best chefs have signed on, including Didem Şenol, the acclaimed founder of Lokanta Maya and Gram restaurants.

“I grew up in a fish-loving family. My father would grill lüfer on Saturdays, and we’d eat it with fish soup, pilaki [a bean dish], and vegetables cooked in olive oil,” Şenol says. “We weren’t rich, but fish was so cheap then that my father could buy lüfer in big batches at the early-morning fish auctions and give the extra to our neighbors.”

Prices of fish have gone up as stocks have diminished; data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations indicate that the amount of bluefish caught in Turkey has plummeted over the past decade, from 25,000 tons in 2002 to just over 3,000 tons in 2011. Other research suggests that dozens of species have already disappeared from the Bosphorus Strait and Marmara Sea, two of the bodies of water on which Istanbul lies.

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Fishermen on the Galata Bridge in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Both waterways are part of the lüfer’s annual migration route, a more than 1,000-mile-long journey that gives the fish its strong, distinctive taste, according to chef Şenol. “Bluefish in the United States, where I studied [at the French Culinary Institute in New York], is not the same,” she says. “Our lüfer travels from the Mediterranean up the Aegean to the Black Sea and back. It’s a route with different climates and salinities, and all that really affects its flavor.”

Lüfer season in Istanbul begins in the early fall, when the fish start their trip back down to more southern climes after spawning in the nutrient-rich waters of the Black Sea over the summer. Too many, though, are caught while still too small to breed and are sold, depending on their size, under the name çinekop or sarıkanat.

“People didn’t even realize these were all the same fish, but it’s really just like the difference between a sheep and a lamb,” says Koryürek. “Catching this fish so young eliminates the possibility of having more of them in the future.”

Campaign nets converts to the cause

A lobbying campaign led by Slow Food Istanbul along with Greenpeace Mediterranean has resulted in the raising of the minimum legal catch size for commercially fished lüfer from 14 centimeters to 20 centimeters (roughly 5.5 inches to almost 8 inches) — a good step, according to Koryürek, but an insufficient one. More than 100 restaurateurs like Şenol have agreed to not buy lüfer smaller than 24 centimeters (9 inches), the size activists say would be a more sustainable limit.

“We only have lüfer on the menu at Lokanta Maya for a very short period each year, when it is most plentiful,” says Şenol. She was one of a dozen top chefs in Istanbul who participated in this year’s Lüfer Bayramı by serving a special bluefish-based dish for a limited period of time.

“Since lüfer is a very fatty fish, it works best when grilled so it stays juicy inside as the skin gets crispy,” she explains. “It goes well with stronger flavors, so I paired small portions of the grilled fish with a salad of radishes, arugula, and red onions pickled with vinegar and just a little bit of sugar.”

Şenol and her staff also went out with fishermen to catch lüfer on the Bosphorus, an experience she says gave her a new appreciation for how hard the work is and how difficult it can be to keep from inadvertently landing some undersized fish even when using correctly sized nets.

Slow Food Istanbul has likewise been careful not to demonize local fishermen in its campaign, instead working to recruit them as allies.

“These waters have survived for hundreds of centuries with small-scale fishing,” says Koryürek. “But since the 1980s, the boats and nets have been getting bigger, the technology has changed, and the number of fishermen has gone up dramatically.” She estimates that large commercial boats are now catching 90% of Istanbul’s lüfer, and too often take advantage of lax enforcement of regulations by fishing too close to shore, in illegal amounts, or with methods that are environmentally damaging.

Istanbul’s soaring population over the past few decades — from less than 3 million in 1980 to more than 14 million today — poses a threefold threat to the city’s formerly robust fish stocks. The unchecked growth means increased competition among fishermen, greater consumer demand, and more heavily polluted water and highly urbanized coasts.

“Lüfer is a symbol of all we’ve lost and all we may lose,” says Koryürek. “These fish are a natural resource that is diminishing; protecting them needs to become a joint effort.”

Main photo: A fish market in Istanbul.  Credit: Jennifer Hattam

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Traditional Market Gardens Take Root Again in Istanbul Image

The purple skin of the Kavak fig is so thin that the fruit can be eaten whole, without peeling — and so fragile that it cannot be transported long distances. One of the few places this Istanbul delicacy is grown is a small market garden (known as a bostan in Turkish) in Rümeli Kavağı, a windswept waterfront settlement near where the Bosphorus Strait opens into the Black Sea.

“It’s probably the last historical bostan along the Bosphorus, just 100 meters from the water. It’s registered as green space, but threatened with development because of the third Bosphorus bridge being built nearby,” explains Aleksandar Sopov, a Harvard University Ph.D. candidate in history and Middle Eastern studies who is researching Istanbul’s Ottoman-era agriculture.

Fruits and vegetables were once widely grown within city limits, with many neighborhoods becoming well known for their specialty produce. Istanbul old-timers still wax poetic about the flavorful romaine lettuce of Yedikule, near the Byzantine city walls; the fragrant strawberries grown in the Bosphorus village of Arnavutköy; and the cucumbers from Çengelköy, along the Asian side of the strait, and from Langa, now part of the gritty central-city Aksaray neighborhood.

As recently as 1900, historical sources indicate, Istanbul was home to more than 1,200 market gardens covering as many as 12 square kilometers. Today, most have been plowed under and paved over — and most of those that remain face the threat of a similar fate. But the wheels of urbanization and development that began churning vigorously in the 1970s and 1980s have more recently also spurred a grass-roots resurgence in urban food growing.

Volunteers at the Tarlataban community garden. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Volunteers at the Tarlataban community garden. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

The Tarlataban garden in the Rümeli Hisarı neighborhood was among the first in this new wave.

“When a Starbucks was opened at Boğazici University, there was a protest against the increasing food prices and commercialization on campus and some of us said, ‘Let’s see if we can grow our own food instead,’ ” garden volunteer Pınar Ercan recalls as she sits on a tarp picking chard seeds from a stack of dried stalks and gathering them in a jar. “We didn’t know if we could do it or not.”

Three years later, the small plot of land on a woody, remote corner of the university campus supplies produce to a student-run collective kitchen and serves as a laboratory for seed saving, composting and other sustainability initiatives. From a distance, the growing area looks like a wild tangle of plants, but move in closer and bright purple eggplants, red tomatoes and green peppers emerge from their vines, while robust melon and squash flourish in the undergrowth. (Crop diversity and rotation are notable characteristics of traditional bostan, which typically yield 15 to 20 different types of produce a year.)

A small group of volunteers tends the Tarlataban garden each week using techniques derived from the environmentally friendly practice of permaculture. Learning as they go, they have recently been sharing the knowledge they have acquired with students from other local universities who want to start similar projects on their campuses.

Demonstrations spur urban gardening projects

Istanbul’s new urban-gardening movement got a dramatic boost last year, when mass protests broke out in response to the threatened destruction of a centrally located green space to make way for a shopping mall. During the week or so that demonstrators occupied Gezi Park, some of them planted a small vegetable garden along its northern edge. After the park was cleared by police, similar gardens began to pop up around the city.

“Many places were cultivated after Gezi — empty plots of land owned by city municipalities and often threatened by development,” Sopov says.

In the Cihangir neighborhood, a short walk from Gezi Park, the Roma Bostan sits on a vacant hillside with a million-dollar view of the city, next to a staircase often crowded with young beer drinkers and littered with the broken bottles they leave behind. A sign on the fence surrounding its cornstalks and cabbage heads reads: “In the summer of 2013, this area was cleared of garbage for the first time. The soil was treated, planting beds created, and vegetables and healing herbs planted from local seeds. … It is kept alive by the collective effort of neighborhood residents. We await your support to keep it clean and protected. …”

Across the water, on the Asian side of the city, residents of the Kadıköy district have rallied, so far successfully, to keep their postage-stamp-sized Moda Gezi Bostan from being covered with asphalt for a parking lot.

“It’s all totally free — people plant and take whatever they want,” says a local who ambles up to chat with a visitor.

Small in scale and tended by hobbyists, these community plots can’t make up for the destruction of the historical bostan whose gardeners passed down a lifetime of knowledge from one generation to the next and fed the city for so many years with the produce they grew to sell at local markets. But the Tarlataban garden’s Ercan and others hope they might just be able to point Istanbul in a new direction.

“We understood after Gezi that we can be an example,” she says. “We’re trying to make what we need for ourselves, and the garden is a way to show people a more sustainable model for living.”

Main photo: Piyale Paşa Bostan in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

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Cocktails Get Royal Treatment In Gin Garden Pop-Up Bar Image

With the world’s largest collection of living plants, and its scientists working around the globe to preserve biodiversity, the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London is internationally renowned for its conservation work. Less well known, perhaps, is the fact that its 300-acre grounds harbor the ingredients for some darn good cocktails.

“Sweet cicely, or garden myrrh, is very fragrant, but it also has a natural sweetness so it’s good to pair with rhubarb,” says Jo Farish, founder of the Gin Garden, as she hands over a Strawberry Cup. The beguiling early summer concoction of strawberry-infused gin, homemade rhubarb-and-sweet-cicely cordial, and lemon juice is garnished with fresh strawberries, cucumber and edible flowers.

Summertime gin garden

The Gin Garden’s summer residence at Kew Gardens, where Farish and her team have turned a small greenhouse into a jungle-like bar serving up gin cocktails and tonics on weekends (Friday through Sunday) and British bank holidays, offers plenty of inspiration for mixologists.

“We’re taste-testing new ingredients as they come into season —  we’ve been infusing cherry gin, with more fruits and berries coming up, and the lavender and Roman chamomile growing over there will be used in drinks when they’re ready,” Farish says.

The cocktail menu, which changes weekly, “uses bits and pieces from the Kew Gardens, but we can’t use too much,” she says. “The ingredients are all things that are grown here, but these plants have to be preserved.”

Serving drinks based on what’s growing nearby is the focus of the Gin Garden, which Farish started in fall 2012 after a successful trial run making apple martinis for an event at a historic house and garden run by the U.K.’s National Trust from the apples, lavender and honey on the property’s grounds.

Her company, which has taken its traveling botanical bar to museums, flower shows, design fairs and other locations in and around London, melds Farish’s background in event planning and garden design — and, she says, some very British sensibilities.

Do-it-yourself gin

“British people are real gardeners and lots of people make their own gin. The two go hand in hand,” Farish says. “People are used to preserving (food) and having something to get through the winter.” She assures urban dwellers with more limited space that plenty of cocktail ingredients are easy to cultivate in a window box.

In addition to its pop-up bars, the Gin Garden also offers workshops on growing botanical ingredients at home and making infusions and syrups.

To make the infused gin that forms the base of  its refreshing Kew-cumber cocktail, for example, Farish recommends slicing up cucumbers like you would for a sandwich, filling up a Mason jar halfway with the vegetables and topping it off with gin.

“Sip it the next morning and see how it tastes,” Farish says. “If the flavor isn’t strong enough, just close the jar up and try it again the next morning.”

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Cocktail ingredients at the ready in the Gin & Tonics Garden, including fresh strawberries and gooseberries and The Herball's aromatic waters. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

A Gooseberry & Fennel cocktail is made from gin infused with the fennel that grows wild along the coast of Norfolk, in the east of England. The drink has a subtly acidic bite — and plenty of health benefits. “Gooseberries have vitamins A, B, C and antioxidants; they were actually used to ward off scurvy before citrus fruit was available in the U.K.,” Farish says.

The temporary Gin & Tonics Garden at Kew is part of the botanic garden’s summertime “Plantasia” festival, which includes a variety of activities, from a healing plants tour to a barefoot walk. The activities are aimed at introducing visitors to plants’ benefits “for body, mind, and soul.”

Benefit of plants

The passiflora tincture in the Rose Garden cocktail, for example, is said to be good for anxiety, while the namesake ingredient in the Elderflower Fizz is said to improve resistance to allergens. Angelica root, one of the six botanicals in the No. 3 London Dry Gin used to make the Kew cocktails, has long been employed in traditional medicine as a treatment for digestive issues.

“Nearly all plants have some kind of health benefit,” says Farish, who prefers to use a masticating or cold-press juicer for serious cocktail-making because it preserves more of the nutrients in fruits, vegetables and herbs.

Some of the Gin Garden’s drinks get an extra boost from a spritz of aromatic water before serving. The water is applied over the top of the glass with an old-fashioned perfume atomizer. Made by the London-based company The Herball, these aromatic waters are distilled using the same method as gin itself, retaining the complete essence of herbs and flowers like the chamomile spritzed over the Strawberry Cup or the geranium, rose and lavender that add a floral twist to the otherwise classic G&T.

“There are so many botanicals you can use with gin. It’s pretty limitless,” Farish says, mentioning her recent discovery of a small distillery in Cornwall that makes a violet leaf gin. “You really have free reign with ingredients compared to other drinks.”

Though gin is often thought of as a summertime tipple, Farish is already thinking ahead to the chillier seasons to come after the Kew pop-up bar closes its doors Sept. 7. “I’d like to do a winter gin garden,” she says. “Gin makes a great hot toddy with warming winter herbs and spices like ginger, sage and thyme.”

The Kew-cumber

Ingredients

  • 7 parts (35 milliliters) cucumber-infused No. 3 London Dry Gin (infuse your gin with sliced cucumbers for 48 hours)
  • 1 part (5 milliliters) lime juice
  • 1 part (5 milliliters) basil and mint syrup (simmer water and sugar to form a simple syrup then add herbs, keep on heat for 5 minutes, strain and bottle)
  • Top with freshly pressed (juiced) cumber juice that has been diluted with sparkling water -- 1 part cucumber juice to 10 parts sparkling water

Directions

  1. Fill a highball glass with ice and add the ingredients above, stir, garnish with a slice of cucumber and a sprig of mint.

* Recipe courtesy Jo Farish. Find more recipes at The Gin Garden.

Main photo: The pop-up Gin & Tonics Garden at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

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