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Flavour that melts in the mouth Pismaniye
2003 / February

Pesmek, strand helva, flax helva or stretch helva. These are all names for the delicious confection known as pismaniye. Although the town of Izmit east of Istanbul is so famous for pismaniye, it apparently originated in Iran, where according to the Büyük Larousse Encyclopaedia it is known as pesmek. So how did it come to be known as pismaniye, meaning 'regretfulness'? Some say that this derives from the difficulty of getting the texture right. It is said that it used to be made at the Ottoman palace, and hence the name palace helva, the name by which the people of Mudurnu still produce it. In the city of Kastamonu on the Black Sea coast it is named çekme helva or stretch helva, and purchased by visitors as souvenirs. In Antalya the same sweet, this time called keten (flax) helva used to be a feature of get-togethers with friends, who made the helva themselves to the accompaniment of ballads.

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Flavour that melts in the mouth Pismaniye
2003 / February

Similarly in the past during Ramazan, young girls seated around a large tray kneading the helva would exchange ballads and riddles. It is said that Izmir's pismaniye was introduced from Iran and Armenia by Armenian confectioners who settled in the town. Although the first recorded pismaniye maker here was Hayri Usta of Kandirali, the first person to produce it on a commercial scale was an Armenian confectioner named Haci Agop Dolmaciyan. The young Ibrahim Ethem Efendi, who was a clerk at Izmit Accounting Office and also gave Turkish and French lessons to Dolmaciyan's children, learnt how to make the helva during his frequent visits to his employ's's shop, and when Haci Agop closed his shop and emigrated during the First World War, Ibrahim Ethem Efendi opened his own pismaniye shop in the district of Kapanön.

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Flavour that melts in the mouth Pismaniye
2003 / February
All the other pismaniye makers in the town first learnt their skills here. We went to Kastamonu in search of the secrets of pismaniye, here known as çekme helva, which is made by kneading roasted flour into boiled sugar. When we arrived at the workshop, the sugar, water and citric acid had just come to the boil in the huge pans, in which thermometers stood. After boiling for 25 minutes the sugar syrup would be ready. Meanwhile we watched the fat being heated and the flour added and stirred constantly as it roasted. In Kastamonu two types are made, one called çekme helva and the other saray or palace helva. They differ in the proportion of sugar and in the shape given to the final product. Palace helva contains 65 percent sugar and is cut into lozenges, while çekme helva contains 50 percent sugar and is cut into squares.
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Flavour that melts in the mouth Pismaniye
2003 / February

Our host, the chief confectioner, told us that Izmit's pismaniye differs in having a slightly higher proportion of sugar. By now the air was filled with a wonderful aroma from the roasting flour. After 20 minutes the roasted flour was spread in a large tray and left for 15 minutes, while the boiled sugar was poured onto a marble slab. When the sugar had cooled slightly it was gathered into the centre with a spatula, and when it had thickened it was beaten for three minutes by machine, turning white and opaque in the process. The boiled sugar was then placed in the centre of the tray containing the flour, and the five or six mechanical arms of the machine began to push and pull. It is this kneading process which produces the strands, turning the helva into a type of candy floss.

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Flavour that melts in the mouth Pismaniye
2003 / February
Then the machine was turned off and the confectioner and three or four strong helpers set to work by hand. This was a sight worth seeing. They formed the sugar into a large ring and began turning it in the flour, so that gradually the flour and sugar blended together. This is the most critical and skilled stage in the whole operation. Once in a while the sugar was formed into a figure of eight, folded into the centre, and then again again pulled towards the edges of the tray. Thus the mixture was finally transformed into pismaniye. Any remaining hard lumps of sugar were now removed from the mass of strands. After being left to rest in another tray for 15 minutes, it was placed in the fluffing machine, reducing the mixture to powder. As it fell through to the tray below it was mixed by hand so that the temperature was even throughout.
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Flavour that melts in the mouth Pismaniye
2003 / February
Now some of the mixture was sprinkled with ground pistachio nuts, smoothed down, weighed and pressed. Each square or lozenge shaped piece weighed 20 g. Now it was time for the packaging machine to fill the gift boxes that stand so invitingly in the shop windows. This helva has been a favourite of everyone for centuries, made in the palace for the sultan, and in villages on long winter nights, when the women would gather around their helva trays and chat and sing as they worked. 'There is flour, butter and sugar. What are you waiting for, make some helva!' were the traditional words spoken before beginning. It is said that making helva at the palace was a traditional forfeit when betting in the 19th century, and the losers would set off to make helva for the sultan.

* Renan Yildirim is a journalist.
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