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Monday, 28 July 2014 00:00

A sip of baklava?

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I could not believe what I heard. He was asking me if I wanted to have a glass of baklava. “Yes,” he said firmly. “I’ll make a baklava cocktail with whisky.”

My first reaction was quick: What? And then I could not stop asking: but how? And why? Young bartender Onurcan Gençer was practicing for the challenges of the world’s most prestigious bartender competition World Class 50 organized by Diageo; and his first challenge in Edinburgh was to prepare a whisky cocktail using JW Gold Label Reserve. I was to be his interpreter/presenter, so I was trying to capture his ideas. With this first statement he surely managed to attract my attention. He’s been to Scotland before and he truly loved the whiskies there. He wanted to create a bond with Scotland and Turkey. That’s what he came up with.

Onurcan continued to explain: “I infuse baklava in milk, and then use this milk in the cocktail. It is like cream-based whisky liquors but much lighter, and with great depth.” He opened the fridge and brought out a jug of milk with a few limp-looking baklava squares barely visible in the bottom. It just looked sad. I was not convinced. He strained the milk and pushed it right to my nose. Unwillingly I smelled the milk-baklava infusion. To my surprise it was amazing. I kind of shouted: “It is as if I just stepped into a baklava shop in Gaziantep!” He kept mixing, shaking and finally poured his creation into a coupe glass. 

I tasted it and thought at once that it deserved its glittery name: “Thousand and One Golden Layers.”

Gaziantep is a city in southeast Turkey, just north of Syria, famous for its cuisine and for having the best baklava in the world. Having written a book on Gaziantep cookery, I truly know the best baklava places there. If Scotland is about whisky, Gaziantep is about baklava, and this first sip created this incredible bond between two world-apart landscapes. Gaziantep, on the edge of the Fertile Crescent, is situated where agriculture was first born. The domestication of animals also started in the region some 13,000 years ago. The city is now known for its pistachio cultivation, the emerald green early harvest slightly unripe pistachios being the secret behind their unmatched sweets. Endless pistachio orchards surround the city. Another unusual ingredient in the cocktail was a syrup made with menengiç, wild pistachios. 

The “1001 Golden Layers” cocktail strangely evokes mind-opening connotations between two cultures: The golden flaky dough of baklava is reminiscent of the golden hue of the Gold Label and its multi-layered nuances coming from the blend 14 different single malt whiskies; the animalistic tastes of clarified goat and lamb’s milk butter in baklava is evocative of Scottish lambs and the clover tasting milks and creams of Scotland. The nutty but sweet taste of pistachios both complement and contrast with the diverse aromas of the whisky. Onurcan’s hair was up in the sky and his ideas seemed to be flying just above his head, while he constantly kept talking about the links he found between the green hills of Scotland and the golden wheat fields of Fertile Crescent. I gave up listening and focused on the taste, closed my eyes and took another sip. Suddenly I felt that the bright green of pistachios and the lovely green Scottish landscape are so much alike. 

Cocktails are telltale signs of civilization. Joseph M. Carlin, the author of the book “Cocktail” by Reaktion Books, simply puts it as: “The cocktail is a civilized drink for smart, hip and enlightened people.” 

This baklava cocktail is a clash of civilizations, in a good way; it brings out the best in both culinary cultures that get their exquisite tastes from their unmatched landscapes. 

Cheers to this: Another sip of baklava-milk whisky?


 

Bite of the week

Recipe of the Week: Our recipe for this Ramadan holiday week is the competition signature cocktail of Onurcan Gençer, “1001 Golden Layers.” Have a vanilla pod or two infused in a bottle of whisky to have ready for your cocktails. If you don’t have this on hand try adding a single droplet of vanilla extract. Infuse a few pieces of baklava in big glass of milk overnight. Quantity is not important but make sure to have enough milk for a couple of extra rounds. Mix 40 mL Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve; 40 mL baklava infused milk; 10 mL menengiç (wild pistachio) syrup; 20 mL vanilla-whisky infusion in a shaker with lots of ice and shake. Strain in a coupe glass and serve after holiday dinner with a bite of “bayram” sweets, preferably a pistachio-rich baklava.

Fork of the Week: Fork of the week is of course baklava, the most favored sweet of Ramadan holiday in Turkey. Which one is the critical question? I suggested to Onurcan that we have a selection from Gaziantep; with the great courtesy of Gaziantep Chamber of Commerce we had baklava from Mahmut Güllü; furthermore my friend Murat Özgüler, owner of Orkide Patisserie, sent me boxes of baklava from Ömer Güllüoğlu. Today a duo of baklavas will be served along with the Turkish bartender’s baklava-inspired cocktail at the Gleneagles Hotel, making an amazing journey all the way from the Fertile Crescent to the hills of Scotland. 

Book of the Week: The most palatable reading is undoubtedly the Edible series of Reaktion Books. The series also has a few books on drinks and spirits; my pick for the week is titled “Cocktails: A Global History,” which is so in line with the cocktail challenges of the World Class 50 in UK. Another good one in the series is “Whiskey” – note the spelling – which gives a true global history. It’s a good summer reading companion with an added bonus of tempting recipes! http://www.reaktionbooks.co.uk

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