Clad in a red vest with gold embroidery and matching fez, the ice cream vendor rings a bell hanging above his booth on Istanbul’s busiest pedestrian thoroughfare, then grabs a long stick and plunges it into a vat in front of him, churning its contents with great effort. Triumphantly, he raises what looks like a football-sized mass of taffy into the air, spins it around, and then drops the ice cream back into its container as the first customer of the day steps up.
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What gives Turkish ice cream (maraş dondurması in Turkish, after the Kahramanmaraş region in the southeast of the country where it is believed to have originated) the unique firm, chewy consistency that allows it to be slung around or cut with a knife has traditionally been salep — a powder made from tuberous orchids.
Around the time that the ice cream-selling business begins heating up each year, Turkish villagers in the Aegean, Mediterranean and Black Sea regions head to local meadows and fields to search for orchids. Their tubers are washed; boiled with water, milk or the local yogurt drink ayran; dried in the open air; and then ground into powder for sale. Salep is also used to produce a hot, milky drink of the same name that has been consumed since Ottoman times and is believed to have medicinal properties. But the popularity of these traditional products may be threatening their key ingredient.
“Some 80 tons of orchids are harvested each year, but demand is still growing,” says Zafer Kızılkaya, a researcher with the Turkish Orchid Conservation Project. “Many species are already on the edge. The current level of demand doesn’t allow for sustainable harvesting.”
Unlike most tropical orchid species, which grow in trees and forest canopies and thus do not have roots, orchids in temperate places such as Turkey grow in the soil, producing the tubers used for culinary purposes. More than 100 species of orchids are found in Turkey, dozens of them endemic to the country.
“The aromatic quality of each species is different,” says Kızılkaya. “The best is the ‘Roma’ or Gypsy orchid, which only grows in black pine forests. It’s impossible to grow agriculturally.”
The difficulty of cultivating orchids may limit attempts to bolster their population, but also ensures that food and drink produced from them has a distinctive taste.
“The really interesting molecules made by these plants — which we experience as taste or other culinary or medicinal properties — are often produced when the plants grow wild to help them cope with environmental factors,” says Susanne Masters, a U.K.-based ethnobotanist studying Turkey’s orchids. “Cultivating these plants, where they are cosseted with watering and protection from pests, means they often don’t produce these molecules — so wild plants can taste very different from cultivated ones.”
Seeking a sustainable alternative
According to Kızılkaya, a Turkish institute in the Aegean city of İzmir has succeeded in cultivating a species of orchid that has retained good salep-making properties, but there is a lack of government incentives to further such work. His organization is lobbying to create the country’s first orchid conservation area, where collecting would be totally restricted, and to generate new sources of income for villagers that require less intensive harvesting.
“It takes 2,000 to 4,000 plants to make a kilogram [2.2 pounds] of salep powder,” he says. “Selling orchids as garden plants [to customers] in the city would be more profitable [for villagers] and require less collecting.”
But Kızılkaya and Masters agree that collecting orchids for culinary purposes is not the only danger facing the plants in Turkey. Urbanization, tourism development and mining are among the threats to the orchids’ habitat — and to an even more important element of Turkish cuisine.
Olives and orchids have a symbiotic relationship, according to Kızılkaya, who explains that the orchid plants thrive in the semi-shade provided by olive groves, which kills off competing plants that need more sun. Turkey is one of the world’s largest producers of olives and olive oil, generating 400,000 tons of olives and 195,000 tons of olive oil a year. But with small-scale olive-growing operations threatened by development and large-scale ones employing methods less friendly to the flowering plants, the historic relationship between the two local products is at risk as well.
“As much as intensification of agriculture can cause decline in orchid populations, abandonment of [traditional] agriculture can also cause decline, because both change the habitat,” Masters says. “I think we need to take a more holistic view, not only for conservation of orchids but also for conservation of the human culture connected to salep — from the landscape the orchids grow in, through the supply chain, up to the point of consumption.”
Top photo: An ice cream vendor in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam