Black Sea | Caroline Eden
Dispatches and Recipes Through Darkness and Light
By Caroline Eden
Intro: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book podcast with Suzy Chase, she's just a home cook in New York City, sitting at her dining room table, talking to cookbook authors.
Caroline Eden: I'm Caroline Eden and my new book is called Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes - Through Darkness and Light.
Suzy Chase: For my 150th podcast episode I wanted to celebrate this very special, very unique book. You call this a transporting, multisensory piece of travel writing, one you can read, see and eat. Your recipes and stories are drawn not only from those living on its shores today, but the ancient legends, historical events and literary works which are embedded in its unique existence. Black Sea is a tale of a journey between three great cities tied together by the sea; what are these key cities and why did you choose to write about them?
Caroline Eden: Thank you, Suzy, that was a very nice introduction, I think it sums up the book perfectly. So the three cities are Odessa, Istanbul, not on but satisfyingly close to the Black Sea, and Trabzon, and I wanted to focus on three cities, I love cities, I think you can tell so many stories through cities. And Odessa is relatively new, by European standards, 1794, Trabzon is truly ancient, seventh/eighth century BC, and Istanbul, to me the world's greatest kitchen, satisfyingly in the middle of both geographically. And my idea was to travel to those three and to stop at places in between that had particularly interesting food stories and different people I could meet and talk to and find out about the trade routes and the history surrounding the Black Sea, which really, when you start to dig into it, is an extremely multilayered sea, very ancient, looks like a lake on a map rather than a sea, when we think of the word sea.
Caroline Eden: And yeah, that was the idea behind the book.
Suzy Chase: Talk about the frontier theme that permeates this book.
Caroline Eden: There is a frontier feeling to many of the places that I stop at along the way, a sense that the places obviously belong to the countries that they're within, but they're also set apart and joined to one another through the sea as well. And this sort of group portrait started to form as I started to travel and research, so Odessa is a very good example of this. It's Southern Ukraine, it's a port city, it was Catherine the Great's port city, and it's very Ukrainian but it's also quite Russian, you hear Russian spoken on the streets and people there would probably say they were Odessan before they'd say they were a Ukrainian, and I think it's to do with being a city which is right on the sea, which looks out to sea, that has its back, in a way, to the land behind it. And a lot of the Turkish cities that I stopped at had a similar feel, very separate, quite nationalistic often, a little bit ignored, some of these cities, so very very interesting places, and quite off the tourism map as well.
Suzy Chase: So the first city you focus on in the book is Odessa; Isaac Babel, a famous chronicler of Odessa, loved scrambled eggs with tomatoes and aubergine, caviar on ice, tell me about Odessa's literary son.
Caroline Eden: Oh, Isaac Babel is one of my favorite writers and it was just by chance that a wonderful translator that I know, Boris Dralyuk, was translating Odessa Stories just as I was researching the book and he very kindly donates a great poem included in the book about Odessa. But the great son, Babel, he wasn't a food writer, obviously, he was a great literary writer, but he writes amazingly well about food. So men are thwacked over the head with colanders and that sort of thing, and he describes these fantastic feasts in courtyards. And food, it's a very good tool for talking about many different things and Babel really uses this in his stories. Also, I mean, Odessa was a great port city, so lots of wheeling and dealing, and a city with underground catacombs, so let's of exploration and Babel writes beautifully about those things, and he is remembered there so well today. The rumor goes that they raised the money within the city for a statue of Babel I think two or three times quicker than they raised one for Pushkin. I mean Pushkin is absolutely revered in Odessa, he has his own museum, but people love Babel.
Caroline Eden: I went to a literary flash mob there a few years ago to do a story for the Guardian newspaper and there were hundreds of people on the streets of Odessa reading Isaac Babel, which, to me, was just remarkable, it's a very literary city.
Suzy Chase: It's also a city built on grain and trade, and you noticed that food was the perfect lens for understanding the city's history, but you also noticed a sort of melancholy and silence that enveloped the city, talk a little bit about that.
Caroline Eden: Yeah, I mean geopolitically Ukraine is a very interesting, tricky country, but Odessa has a silence where you'd expect for it ... you know, it's a port city, you'd expect it to be quite clanging and noisy but it isn't, it's got this lovely briny, quiet, sea-whipped air and in the morning it is completely silent, you get these trams trundling around these great old pastel, peeling buildings which look like they're something straight out of a Russian novel, and it can very romantic to an outsider to experience this. It's a very, very unique city, Odessa, and yeah, a kind of melancholy.
Caroline Eden: I write in the book about how sometimes you can be sat in a café, everyone's having a nice time, and all of a sudden something seems to come in on the breeze and there's a sort of melancholic atmosphere, and that's the Black Sea, it does do this, it's a strange phenomenon.
Suzy Chase: Why do you think Odessa was a literary haven?
Caroline Eden: Odessa was a literary haven I think because it was very far South compared to the cities [inaudible 00:06:22], Moscow and St Petersburg, and a lot of writers, Pushkin, Gogol, came down, sometimes through self-exile or exile, other times to take the air and to live in kinder climates, maybe their health wasn't so good. And like attracts like, it just became a kind of magnet for literary groups. But also Mark Twain came in, it wasn't just Russian writers, he came in on a steamboat and writes about ice cream, sort of says, "When you're in the hot climates in the East, if there's ice cream you have to eat it because you're not going to find it everywhere," and that was in Odessa, which already had a fantastic café culture when he was there.
Suzy Chase: Yeah, it was interesting that Twain thought that it looked like an American city.
Caroline Eden: I can't see that but I haven't traveled extensively in America, Chicago, New York, San Francisco. Yeah, I'm not quite sure what he means by that, but he does talk about that, you're right, he said that it's got ... the street layouts are familiar to him, and back then, who knows? That was likely the case.
Suzy Chase: In Isaac Babel's short story, Di Grasso, he wrote, "Macaroni boiled in vats of foamy water in front of the shops, sending up steam that melted high in the heavens," what was the Italian connection to Odessa?
Caroline Eden: One of the things I wasn't expecting when I got to Odessa was the Italian connection, and I had a guide for the day and she just started speaking about it, saying how the early street signs were not only in Russian but they were in Italian as well, and I thought that was amazing. And the more research I did I found out the more Italian connections, so the city's first restaurateurs were Italian, Italian was taught in schools and it was the lingua franca of the harbor, as it was in Constantinople across the Black Sea.
Caroline Eden: So, to tell that story, and you said earlier about it being a multisensory book, I include a recipe for Italian street polpette, beef and pork with fennel in the sauce, very simple recipe but the kind of thing I imagine would have been served. It's said that the first dish that was served in a restaurant in Odessa was Italian meatballs. Alexander Pushkin, when he was there in Odessa in the 1820s, he says he heard Italian spoken on the street and he stayed on Italian Street in a hotel when he was there.
Caroline Eden: The other amazing Italian connection was when I was researching the newspapers here in the UK, and I'm sure in the States as well, started to report these shipwrecks that were being discovered under the Black Sea, 2000 meters below. So they found, I think it was 40 to 60, different ships, [inaudible 00:08:56] marine archeologists, revealing 2500 years of seafaring history; Genoese, Venetian, Cossack assault vessels, a Roman shipwreck. One of them apparently had clay jars with diced up fish steaks inside, and this really shows the history of trade around the Black Sea because the fishing ports were all Italian originally, the first traders were Italian. And the Black Sea is a dead sea, so the top layer has oxygen, where the fish are, and about 90% of it doesn't have oxygen, and this is what preserved those shipwrecks so perfectly.
Caroline Eden: So, amazing Italian connections, and things I never expected to find when I first set out on the journey, back in 2013 I did my initial Black Sea journey.
Suzy Chase: I was so interested to read about the oxygen deprived waters of the Black Sea, so it's almost like there are stories on the land and then there are stories way down in the sea.
Caroline Eden: That was what was so interesting, the stories were not just, as you say, on land, they started, as I started to research, to be under the sea as well, which I found almost more interesting in a way because 2500 year old ships being discovered is just amazing, and just shows how long trade and migration has been happening around that part of Europe.
Suzy Chase: In the Romania section you have Czar Nicholas II imperial gala menu at Constanta. This guy squandered the nation's wealth on celebrations and 55 people manned his kitchen. He had three levels of cuisine which kind of cracked me up; simple, holiday, and parade. Can you talk a little bit about him?
Caroline Eden: Well, royal families were doing their trips around the Black Sea and when he came into Constanta, the Czar came to Constanta, he came there to feast and to meet and to talk about business and military campaigns and that sort of thing, but they went on tour and they had this feast and they toured some cathedrals. And it's just an interesting slice of European history and shows how people would sail across the sea to meet one another and to feast. It was quite amazing to get that menu and an archivist in Bucharest found it for me. I just thought it was another side, but I became quite obsessed with this building called Casino in Constanta, which I say is the most amazing dilapidated building in the world, potentially, and it's sort of left in ruins. And we were very lucky to get permission to go in and take a couple of photos for the book and it's just amazing, it's right on the Black Sea, kind of on a bluff, the waves slapping it, and if it was anywhere else it would probably have been turned into a fabulous hotel or restaurant, but unfortunately the funding has never come to fruition in Constanta to save this great building where the Czar arrived.
Suzy Chase: That's my favorite photo in the book, of the Casino.
Caroline Eden: It's a great photo, I work with a great photographer, Theodore Kay, who's a friend of mine and lives in China, and he followed in my footsteps, taking pictures, and he's just brilliant, he's got this really cool journalistic style which I really like which I think fits the book and tells the story. I love the photography in the book, he's brilliant.
Suzy Chase: Travel writer Sacheverell Sitwell took eight days to get to Romania from London on the train, he published Roumanian Journey, which I'm going to read next week when I go to the beach, and he wrote in it, "English literature is nearly silent where that country is concerned;" do you feel the same way?
Caroline Eden: Certainly on the coast, Sitwell was a real character and I would also like to read more of his work, he comes from a family of true English eccentrics. Yeah, I mean Transylvania, a lot of Brits go to Transylvania and do the home-stay/trekking experience, and it is beautiful, I've been to Transylvania, but if you start to dig around the Black Sea coast of Romania I didn't meet another tourist when I was there in Constanta. A lot of Romanians were there on holiday because we were there in the summer, I was there with my husband, but no tourist. So if you want an unusual trip, including Constanta would be a good place to start, it's a very very curious place.
Suzy Chase: Yeah, he wrote, "Romania is still unspoiled."
Caroline Eden: Yeah, and I think it's probably true to say today to a certain extent. I might not be correct in this but as far as I understand it, the last existing true wildflower meadows are in Romania, they're very hard to find elsewhere.
Suzy Chase: Talk to me about his father, who was apparently more eccentric than he was.
Caroline Eden: I seem to recall that he published an entire book on forks.
Suzy Chase: Yes.
Caroline Eden: And he invented something called the Sitwell Egg, which was some bizarre he'd insist on having for dinner. But when I say he comes from a family of eccentrics, I think the father was even more eccentric, and Sitwell Junior was a very good writer. I haven't read his father's stuff, so I'm not sure.
Suzy Chase: You write about the kashkaval cheese he finds in the round boxes of bark; can you describe this cheese?
Caroline Eden: I talk about it in the book because he writes about it but it's a smoked cheese that's sort of smoked within bark, so I imagine it would be delicious and woody and smoky but I haven't yet tried it, I'm afraid, that must be my thing to do when I go back to Romania.
Suzy Chase: Yeah, that should be first on your list.
Caroline Eden: I think it should, it sounds delicious.
Suzy Chase: Now onto Bulgaria, tell me about Elena in the tiny fishing village.
Caroline Eden: Everyone always asks me about Elena and I love talking about her, and the story that she told was ... gosh, well it was very Black Sea, it sort of started off one way and ended in a kind of tragic tale. She was an amazing character, she claimed to be the last fisher woman in Bulgaria, and when I was talking to her she told me a documentary had been made about her and her life, so I have no reason to disbelieve this was the case. She was from a family of fishermen who all said, "You can't go out and fish, you'll never be able to pull out as much fish as the men," but of course she did and she proved them wrong and she was very good.
Caroline Eden: And we were sort of sat at this little briny, salty little café where she was just serving beer, working there on a spare day or whatever, and sat with us and had a beer and said that she has this great connection with the sea, like lots of fishermen will talk this way and get very animated and start pulling imaginary rope through their hands when they're talking to you and describing the storms. The Black Sea is infamous for being a dangerous sea because it's got very few safe harbors. So we were talking about this and then I could tell, I talk about this in the book, that the conversation starts to skirt off course and I could see she was becoming more and more melancholic, and very tragically told me that she had lost a daughter just a few weeks ago and now goes out on the sea with a stove and some bread and stays out there all night, by herself, which is incredibly dangerous, but she said that that's her way of trying to compute and deal with the pain and the grieving process in the solitude of the sea.
Caroline Eden: So I left feeling completely flattened by the conversation, she gave me a big hug at the end, and I wasn't prying, she just freely told me this, and yeah, it was very moving. But again, just sort of sums up how powerful the sea is to many people that live around it; it's work, it's emotion, it's history, it's identity. Migration is a major theme in the book, it has become a modern day migration route as well but I talk about it more from a historical point of view to make the point that it's not new that people are migrating around Europe's frontier areas.
Suzy Chase: What do the fishermen do in the winter when the Black Sea is frozen over?
Caroline Eden: I'm not sure, to be honest, it's not a question I asked any of the fishermen I met. I'm not sure if it freezes, I imagine parts of it would, certainly up towards Russia, on the Turkish coast I wouldn't have thought so, but I'm not sure, that's a tricky question.
Suzy Chase: So what's the connection between salt and Bulgaria?
Caroline Eden: Bulgaria's got a fascinating history with salt, I mean there are a few things to talk about with salt. They're very very keen on colored salts, so when I first got to Bulgaria, to a city called Varna, which is a really interesting small city right on the Black Sea coast, you often find colored flavored salts on the restaurant tables, flavored with paprika and cayenne pepper and fennel and all these different sorts of spices and herbs and things, which I really liked and I hadn't really seen that anywhere else. That was interesting, but what was more interesting is that a village not far away from Varnum was once the wealthiest town/city in Europe because of salt. So they were mining salt there and, because of the salt, became very very rich and started to create fantastic jewelry, which they had in the museum in Varna, very very very old worked gold, some say the oldest worked gold in the world, and that's all due to salt.
Caroline Eden: I write in the book, "Man can certainly live without gold but he can't live without salt; without salt our muscles seize up and we can't live," so salt is such a crucial thing to people. And there's a lovely little museum, somewhere called Pomorie, where they talk about the history of salt, and people go there and they bathe in the mudflats around this museum and you can buy packets of Bulgarian salt to bathe in in your bath at home. So it sort of continues, this history of salt, but I think that the lady I spoke to in the museum said that now countries like Israel have overtaken the trade and they don't really produce it very much, or not enough for their own country, they import the salt.
Suzy Chase: So, down to Istanbul, not on the Black Sea; you've been visiting Istanbul for many years and it's basically the center of this book. How has Istanbul retained its culture after all these years, and how is it tied to the Black Sea?
Caroline Eden: I found Istanbul, a city I absolutely love and visit a few times a year every year, was a very Black Sea city. Somebody said this to me one night, and of course it's one of those things that once you start looking for it, you see it everywhere, so I'd get in a taxi and the taxi driver would be from, say, Rize, where for some reason a lot of taxi drivers in Istanbul happen to be from this Black Sea city where they produce the tea, up in Northeastern Turkey. I met restaurateurs and chefs who were running Black Sea cafes and restaurants. Hamam owners, I met some hamam owners who were from the Black Sea, and I also met, or went to a restaurant where Russians, White Russians, had traveled across the Black Sea and were now running these ... descendants of were running these amazing White Russian restaurants, and they came in the 1920s, fleeing the Bolsheviks.
Caroline Eden: Amazing Black Sea history in Istanbul, there's a market called [inaudible 00:20:30] market where on a Sunday all the Black Sea traders travel all night to bring their Black Sea goods to sell at this market. So yeah, it's one of those things, once you start looking for it, it's everywhere.
Suzy Chase: What are White Russians?
Caroline Eden: So White Russians fled the Bolshevik powers, they were normally aristocratic or quite well to do Russians, and if they could leave when the Bolsheviks took power, they did. And a lot of them fled across the Black Sea and they came in. There were already Russian churches in Istanbul, so Russian churches existed, Orthodox churches, mainly for pilgrims who were heading for Jerusalem or Greece, and those churches were probably one of the first things that White Russians who would arrive into the docks of Istanbul would see, which must have been some sort of reassurance. And many of them stayed, so now there are two or three existing White Russian restaurants in Istanbul, one is called Rejens, which is the famous one, it's quite a fantastic place. The food is good, you eat things like chicken kiev and pelmeni and dumplings, they have an amazing vodka trolley full of different flavored vodkas, that trundles around the restaurant across the tiled floors, pushed by a man in a white tuxedo.
Suzy Chase: That's funny.
Caroline Eden: It's amazing, there's a permanent table set up for Ataturk, it's one of these incredible historical restaurants, and the air of 1920s Russia is in this restaurant, it's a wonderful place, I really love it.
Suzy Chase: Describe watching the Bosporus.
Caroline Eden: The Bosporus is the lifeblood of Istanbul; for me, if I think of Istanbul, I think of the Bosporus. It's this wonderful blue color and it's there and it's reassuring and it's a place to cool off in the summer. But to get on a ferry you get these lovely sea breezes when the city is stifling hot. But the Bosporus, I talk about in the book, watching it is like turning a newspaper, you can see geopolitics there on the Bosporus. So you can sit somewhere with a good vantage point and maybe a pair of binoculars if you're feeling brave, or a good zoom lens, and you can pick sometimes the names of some of the ships that are coming through. There are people who do this as a profession, these professional ship spotters in Istanbul.
Caroline Eden: So this is a major waterway linking Russia and the Mediterranean, and therefore on to Syria, so you often get Putin's warships coming through, right through the center of Istanbul, you often get trading ships. So when things go wrong with, say, Russia and Georgia, or things have gone wrong with Russia and Ukraine and you get these geopolitical issues, you'll see ships coming in to bring fruit, vegetables, produce if the roads have been closed, for example, and the borders aren't open, there's different ways of trying to move produce that the Black Sea is used for.
Caroline Eden: But really it's the Russian warships that get people rattled, and that's really interesting to see.
Suzy Chase: On the map it looks so narrow, can two warships get through or is it just one at a time?
Caroline Eden: I think you could probably get two through, it's actually at some points quite broad, and I mean you could write a book just on the history of the Bosporus, it's a fascinating waterway, and very much part of Istanbul, I mean the most important part in some ways, I think.
Suzy Chase: Now I'd love to chat about the dishes that I made out of this book.
Caroline Eden: Yes.
Suzy Chase: So first was the Bulgur, Grape and Walnut Salad on Page 94; can you describe this dish?
Caroline Eden: So it's a bulgur wheat salad and the idea comes from ... okay, someone has told me since publishing the book, "That's not an authentic Bulgarian salad," I have eaten it in Bulgaria and the point being that the Bulgarians were under Ottoman rule for several hundred years, there's huge Turkish influence in Bulgaria. If you go back before that, perhaps there wasn't any bulgur wheat, because bulgur wheat is really a Turkish, Middle Eastern ingredient. But the idea of this dish was to pair it with grapes, because Bulgaria has wonderful grapes and quite good wine culture, and the two go very nicely together. So it's kind of an invented dish, but I really love it, it's very light and it sort of shows ... there's a great problem about Bulgarians being the gardeners of Europe, and that was because in the early '90s Bulgaria exported more fruit and vegetables to this part of Europe, to Western Europe, than anywhere else. They produce fantastic fruit and vegetables, it's a reason to go to Bulgaria, the tomatoes are amazing, as they are in Ukraine actually, I have to say, as well. But really really fantastic fruit and veg.
Caroline Eden: So this lovely salad, which I like very much and it's so easy to make, really tells that story.
Suzy Chase: Then I made the Red Hot and Cool Strawberries on page 173, and this is something that you enjoyed in Istanbul, right?
Caroline Eden: Yeah, it was just an amazing pudding I had, I'd never thought of pairing chili with strawberries before but I had it one night in Istanbul and it was just on a very, and this is a lovely summer's thing, a very very cold yogurt and then strawberries which had been cooked with some quite got chili and sugar on the top, and I just thought that was ... it was like the perfect pudding for me. Lots of people have enjoyed that one, it's always very interesting to see which recipes people really pick up on and that's been a popular one, and I love it. And I think, again, because it's very very easy to make.
Suzy Chase: So then I made Black Sea Beans on Page 130, and this was a relatively easy recipe to prepare, but apparently there are bean masters that perfect this dish; talk about the bean masters.
Caroline Eden: Yes, this is a very, very, very popular dish in the Black Sea region, and actually in Turkey generally, but it's all to do with the butter. So it's a very very rich bean dish, it's basically beans in a tomato butter sauce, but it's sometimes cooked in these great clay pots, which helps to give it its flavor, and when it's good it's absolutely sensational and it's such a simple thing. But it's to do with the butter because the Black Sea region, the climate it quite cool compared to the rest of Turkey, so a lot of very good dairy farming happens up there in the yaylas, which are the mountain pastures, and the cows have very good milk and they make fantastic butter. And it's this butter that they tend to use for the Black Sea beans, which makes it really special.
Suzy Chase: So the last thing I made was Trabzon Kaygana with Anchovies and Herbs, talk about this salty, herbaceous cross between a fritter and an omelet.
Caroline Eden: I saw on Instagram that you'd made this dish and I thought, "Fantastic," because it's one of my favorite ones in the book. It was a great adventure, I went off by myself one morning to see what was happening with the Soumela monastery, which is a cliff face monastery about a 20 minute drive outside of Trabzon, and it's been closed for a few years for renovation. So I wanted to go and see what progress was happening and I had a driver to take me there and back, a regular taxi guy, and he said, "Oh, do you want to stop for lunch? Stop at this place, it's on a little river, it's my friend's place, it's a really good spot." So I stopped there and I had lunch and this is what they served me and it was great, I don't speak Turkish, I had a waiter who spoke English and I said to him, "Please can you ask your chef for this recipe? I've never tasted anything quite like it.
Caroline Eden: Because a lot of your listeners I'm sure will be familiar with the Turkish breakfast menemen, it reminded me of that but it was quite different because it's like a fritter. So it's an egg dish, obviously, and it has, when the season is right, which is normally the winter months, slivers of anchovy through it to give it that lovely salt hit. So that's how it comes, and I do it with a little bit of mint as well, which is quite an unusual flavor combination. Obviously I have very romantic memories of sitting on this little river by the Soumela monastery having this breakfast, but I hope I conveyed some of that feeling in the recipe, because it really is a lovely egg dish, very simple, and yeah, it's one of my favorites, it's a great breakfast dish.
Suzy Chase: Now to my segment called My Last Meal; what would you have for your last supper?
Caroline Eden: People always ask me this and I always try not to say the truth because the truth is very embarrassing. So let me-
Suzy Chase: No, I want to hear the truth.
Caroline Eden: Gosh, okay. Well I was at a dinner party just last week and a man asked me this question and he said, "What would your death row meal be?" And I said, "Well, ideally I would tell you that it would be some sort of splendid Uzbek Plov," which I love, it's a layered rice dish of carrots, onions, rice, maybe some quince, some lamb, cooked for hours, absolutely wonderful dish, the dish of Uzbekistan, my first book Samarkand was all about that. But if I'm absolutely honest, if I've been away for months, and I sometimes am away for that long, and I come back home, this is really British, the first thing I always eat is baked beans on toast with HP brown sauce."
Suzy Chase: I love it.
Caroline Eden: Yeah, I'm afraid it's kind of what I grew up eating and that is always the first thing I have and I have a feeling that might be the last thing I would eat as well.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web and social media?
Caroline Eden: Thank you, I am @edentravels on Instagram and Twitter.
Suzy Chase: You traveled 1400 miles around the Black Sea looking at this region through its food culture, and I cannot thank you enough for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Caroline Eden: Suzy, it's been a pleasure, thank you very much for having me on.
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