Georgian wine and produce may again be appearing in Russian stores after Moscow lifted its seven-year long embargo, but the products remain the potential victims of regional politics. Case in point the recent news that a top Russian official has warned that the presence of a United States-funded bio research lab in Georgia could have a "limiting effect" on the import of Georgian wine.
The $150-million lab, the Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research, was opened several years ago and is designed to help Georgia do research on infectious diseases. But Russia's "chief sanitary doctor" sees it differently, suggesting that cases of Georgian wine might also come with cases of African Swine Fever and other illnesses. Reports the Civil.ge website:
Just few months after Russia dropped embargo on Georgian wines and mineral waters, its chief sanitary doctor warned that presence of the U.S.-funded bio lab in Tbilisi would have “sharply limiting effect” on bilateral trade ties.
Gennady Onishchenko, head of Russia’s state consumer protection agency RosPotrebNadzor, which ordered ban on import of Georgian products to Russia in 2006, told Interfax news agency on July 20 that the laboratory represents “a powerful offensive potential.”
“Russia deems it to be a direct violation of BWC [Biological Weapons Convention],” Onishchenko was quoted by Interfax.
The other day I wrote about the latest disturbing urban development in Istanbul, the bulldozing of centuries-old vegetable gardens alongside the city's historic Byzantine-era walls. Writing for the Atlantic Cities website, Istanbul-based journalist Jennifer Hattam adds more color to the story:
In the shadows of the 1,500-year-old fortifications ringing Istanbul’s historic core, farmers push wheelbarrows of freshly harvested greens through small vegetable gardens, continuing a centuries-long tradition in the area. This past week, however, the farmers watched in dismay as bulldozers moved into the Yedikule neighborhood, dumping trash-strewn dirt and rubble onto the fertile soil of two of those gardens.
"I don’t know what we’ll do, where we’ll go if our land gets destroyed as well. We don’t have anything else," says one woman who works a nearby plot along with her husband, scraping out a living selling their chard, corn, radishes, purslane, and herbs at Istanbul’s wholesale fruit and vegetable market.
Like many of the people currently farming along the old city walls, the couple are migrants from Turkey’s Black Sea coast, who have followed in the footsteps of the Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians, and Albanians who tended the land before them. The specific gardens currently being razed have been identified on a map dating back to 1786, but historical sources indicate that small-scale agriculture was present in the area not long after the UNESCO-designated city walls were built in the 400s.
For the third year, Yerevan played host to an annual festival celebrating dolma -- the dish made by stuffing grape leaves and other vegetables with an assortment of ingredients. Reports the Asbarez website:
Taste-Testers flocked through the flanked winged oxen of the Sardarabad memorial for the third annual Dolma Festival on Wednesday, July 10. Traditional music, singing, and dancing set the mood for the festival as 24 groups locked in a battle of vine leaves and stuffing for prizes in a number of categories including the longest Dolma.
The festival was organized by the Armenian Cookery Traditions Development and Protection Organization (ACTDP) and exposed visitors to a number of variations of the traditional Armenian dish. Qajik Levonyan, a representative of the Araratian Restaurant , said that the name of the three thousand-year-old dish stems from the Armenian word Dol, which means vine leaves, and that the recipe’s secret lies in the freshness of the ingredients.
As previously reported on this blog, though, the dolma festival is more than just about dolma. This being the Caucasus, the event also has a political subtext to it, with ACTDP head Sedrak Mamulyan telling Armenian reporters two years ago that one of the motivating factors behind the festival was to keep dolma (or "tolma" as he called it) from being "appropriated" by neighboring countries. "We have done nothing to patent our national dishes," he said at the time.
Turkey's recently passed alcohol law, which limits advertising on booze and the time between which it can be sold, was promoted by the government as being about protecting the nation's youth from the evils of drinking. But it appears one of the law's unintended consequences is that it might pull the legs from under Turkey's up-and-coming wine industry. Reports Businessweek:
The most sweeping -- and vague -- part of the law is its prohibition on advertising and promotion.
“Everybody in the wine business has a problem now,” said Ali Basman, owner of Kavaklidere, the country’s largest winery, and president of the Turkish Wine Producers Association, when I reached him by phone.
“It’s not easy to sell wine without having ads or ways to explain about the winery or show reviews telling how good a new wine is,” he said. “But that’s seen as encouraging people to drink. We will have to do more export.”
Basman doesn’t think he will be able to continue using the winery logo on his business cards or hold special tastings, and will probably have to close down part of his website.
His family founded the winery in 1929. It now owns 550 hectares of vineyards, produces 49 wines, and buys grapes from thousands of growers. If Basman has to cut back on production, who will pay them?
After giving a nice fake pass and suggesting he may veto the controversial new alcohol law recently signed by parliament, Turkish President Abdullah Gul today went ahead and signed the new bill, a move that will likely only increase tensions in Turkey.
The Hurriyet Daily News gives a rundown of the new law's restrictions, here. Among its main features are a complete ban on retail alcohol sales between 10pm and 6am, an almost complete ban on the advertising of alcoholic beverages, a restriction that requires establishments selling alcohol to be 100 meters away from "religious and educational" facilities and a ban on screening images in films and on television that show (or even "glorify") the consumption of alcohol. (A similar provision in an anti-smoking law passed in Turkey several years ago forced broadcasters to blur out the screen any time someone lit up.)
A protest movement must be fed, and that’s exactly what the backbone of Turkish society – its exceedingly quick thinking and entrepreneurial merchant class – is doing.
In "occupied" Taksim Square, it wasn't long after the tear gas cleared that food started being supplied to the protestors, either by generous local businesses or more bottom-line oriented food cart operators. Reports Today's Zaman:
Food vendors probably made the most profits out of all of the vendors as endless customers swarmed around the sellers of meatball subs, watermelon, orange juice, corn and çiğköfte, a traditional dish made with bulgur wheat and spices. As many food places closed due to clashes between riot police and some protestors in the early days of the protest, the few buffets left made record high sales. In addition, many people flocked to street vendors to feed their hunger. A slice of watermelon was priced at TL 5 and the price of meatball subs rose by 50 percent from TL 5 to TL 7.5.
Sellers of tavuk pilav -- a mix of rice and chicken -- are also present among the vendors in Taksim. However, as their numbers increased, the price of a tavuk pilav plate went down from TL 5 to TL 3.5.
(Check out this Istanbul Eats Facebook page for more shots of food vendors in Taksim.)
The increasingly indispensable Roads & Kingdoms blog has a wonderful new piece that takes a look at the Azeri tradition of cooking up khash, a hearty though labor-intensive stew made using a sheep's head, hooves and stomach that have gone through various processes in order to render the final product. What I found particularly interesting about the piece, written by Mark Hay, was its suggestion that for Azeris, cooking khash was as much a political act as a culinary one. From the article:
Staking out a claim on khash, naming it as something uniquely Azerbaijani, is a far weightier thing to do in the Caucasus than it is for Florida or Massachusetts to claim key lime or Boston cream pies, respectively, as their own though. Naming a food here is a political act, filled with fire and vigorm, as the contest over foods has been imbued with the long-simmering tensions of regional border disputes.
There are many serious issues facing Turkey, from the crisis in Syria to worsening relations with the central government in Iraq, but lately the country has been caught up in a debate over which beverage can be called the national drink: the anise-flavored spirit raki or the decidedly non-alcoholic yogurt-based ayran?
The debate was first launched by none other than the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who made waves when he declared in a recent speech that Turkey's true national drink is ayran and not raki -- a favorite of Turkish imbibers and of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's secularizing founder. The debate started heating up when, soon after Erdogan's speech, his Islamic-rooted governing party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), announced it would be introducing in parliament new legislation that would limit where alcohol can be sold and consumed and how it could be advertised.
A parliamentary sub-commission today approved a slightly watered-down version of the legislation, but not before the debate over it went from joking to hostile. Reports the Hurriyet Daily News:
As the debates on a draft bill restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol kicked off at a parliamentary commission, opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) members offered to serve ayran to their counterparts, mocking the prime minister's promotion of the salty yogurt-based refreshment as Turkey's original "national drink."
A cup of the real Turkish coffee, at Mandabatmaz in Istanbul
When water, finely-ground, dark roasted coffee and sugar are put together in a long-handled coffee put and brought to a near boil, is the result "Turkish coffee" or "Greek coffee"? That question, of course, is one that has been vexing the Middle East, Balkans and the Mediterranean for decades.
Inspired by a recent visit to Mandabatmaz, perhaps Istanbul's finest maker of Turkish coffee, reporter Joanna Kakkissis wrote an interesting post for NPR's food-oriented blog, The Salt, in which she took a look at how the politics of Turkish/Greek coffee. From her post:
....Ordering Turkish coffee today doesn't go over well in some Balkan or eastern Mediterranean countries that were once part of the Ottoman Empire — even if their preparation of the coffee is remarkably similar.
In Armenia, where the Ottomans led a genocide against more than a million people between 1915 and 1923, it's Armenian coffee. In Sarajevo, Bosnia, I once ordered a "Turkish coffee" only to be corrected by the irritated waiter: "You mean a Bosanska kafa" — a Bosnian coffee. In Cyprus, which the Turks invaded in 1974, it's a kypriakos kafes — Cypriot coffee. (Except in the northern third of the island, which Turkey has occupied since 1974.)
In Greece, where I live and which has a tortured history with Turkey, you order an elliniko — a Greek coffee.
"It wasn't always this way," says Albert Arouh, a Greek food scholar who writes under a pen name, Epicurus. "When I was a kid in the 1960s, everyone in Greece called it Turkish coffee."
At this point, Turks have become accustomed to having their moralizing Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, offer them tips on how to live. Erdogan has previously urged Turkish families to each have three children and, more recently, asked his fellow citizens to change their eating habits in order to decrease the amount of food they throw away.
Now the PM is wading into an even trickier subject: what should Turks drink. Reuters provides the details:
If you are looking for one sure way to split public opinion in Turkey, just bring up the word alcohol.
That is what Turkey's often divisive prime minister did late on Friday when he pronounced that the national drink was not beer, nor the aniseed spirit raki - choice tipple of Turkey's founding father - but the non-alcoholic yoghurt drink ayran.
Given the setting of his speech - a symposium on global alcohol policy in Istanbul - Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's comments appeared far from controversial, but so sensitive is the topic that the mere mention of it by the pious leader, known for his dislike of alcohol, has Turkey's secularists up in arms.
During the single-party rule of the Turkish Republic's early years by what is now the country's main - and staunchly secularist - opposition party, state promotion of alcohol amounted to propaganda, Erdogan said.
"Beer was unfortunately presented as a national drink. However, our national drink is ayran," he said, referring to the staple lunchtime refreshment of yoghurt, water and salt, usually swilled down with a meaty kebab.