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One is made from grapes, the other from sesame seeds. One is very sweet, the other slightly bitter. Both involve a long distillation process, and both grace the table on cold winter days.
A METHOD OF PRESERVATION
Although nothing is known for certain about how it came into being, in Anatolia pekmez (grape molasses) is a valuable source of nutrition still consumed in large quantities. At the same time it is an important method of preservation that makes use of uneaten spring and summer fruit. Another similar method is 'pestil', pressed sheets of dried fruit and the forerunner of Turkish delight. Our ancestors who centuries ago tried to consume as much as possible of every product offered by nature for their sheer survival succeeded in weathering the harsh winter season by using preservation methods such as pestil and pekmez.
Both are as outstandingly tasty as they are high in nutritional value. Prized in general gastronomically speaking, pestil and pekmez for some reason don't enjoy the status they deserve in works on gastronomy and the history of food. In a time like ours with a constant emphasis on healthy eating, I believe this is due to researchers failing to take a proper interest in the traditional production techniques. There is a clever saying about pekmez in Anatolia, “If you have molasses, flies will rush in from as far as Antalya”, which goes to show the local people's fondness for this sweetener and its high value in their estimation.
THE VARIETIES OF PEKMEZ
One of Turkey's traditional foodstuffs, most pekmez is made from grapes. But there are also varieties made from mulberries, carob, watermelon, plums and elecampana. Even the tart and viscous juices of the pomegranate and sumac can be regarded as forms of pekmez. Pekmez is produced wherever grapes are grown in Turkey, but production is most intensive in the cities of Tokat (Zile), Kahramanmaraş, Gaziantep, Afyon, Amasya, Balıkesir, Kırşehir, Kayseri and Malatya and in the Hatay region. Among them that of Zile, made by the 'çalma' method, is the only hard, white pekmez. The varieties of pekmez have regional names depending on how they are made. Liquid pekmez is known as 'nardenk', solid pekmez as 'ravenda', and pekmez that thickens in direct sunlight as 'gün balı' or day honey.
THE LOVE OF TAHİN AND PEKMEZ
Pekmez today is usually consumed mixed with tahin and the two are therefore sold in twin packets in most shops. Indeed, one immediately comes to mind at the mention of the other. At breakfast, bread is spread with this two-tone mixture of very sweet and slightly bitter tastes. Tahin production continues in Turkey today concentrated mainly in the Bozkır township of Konya province and employing the age-old techniques. It is obtained by grinding up sesame seeds. Experts in the field claim that the best sesame is grown at Manavgat in Antalya. Years ago the people of Bozkır took grapes to Manavgat and brought back sesame so their camels would not return empty. Whether the story is true or not, once processed the two met again at the table as 'tahin pekmez'. With the most advanced milling techniques in Turkey, the Bozkır region produces some of the best tahin. And a large part of the production is used to make 'helva', of which there are, again, many varieties all over Turkey from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, from the Marmara to the Southeast. Besides being used in helva, tahin is also a component of several dishes from sweets to savories in Southeast Anatolia.
The love of tahin and pekmez continues undiminished today. Before turning to the tahin-pekmez recipes, let us leave you now with some lines by Hakkı Yurtlu from Akmağdeni in Yozgat province: “We used to bring grapes to the village by oxcart / Pressing the grapes beneath the saddles / To purify them we brought special soil from the quarry / The molasses would boil till morning / In basins and big cauldrons with handles / And our mothers and grandmothers would wait up all night in the tandoor oven.”